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Lessons from Etty Hillseum

Ultimately what matters most is to bear the pain, to cope with it and to keep a small corner of one’s soul unsullied, come what may. Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. – Etty Hillseum

There is a lot to be learnt from reading the dairies and letters of Etty Hillseum, a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam around the time of the second World War.  She lived not very far from Anne Frank, but became known to the world much later as her writings were published, at the persistence of her friends – only very recently.

Her writings cover her life in Westerbork – the transit concentration camp – before Jews were sent to Auschwitz, a journey of no return.

A writer gifted with words, a strong woman who loved living worldly life, a bohemian who  had a string of affairs with mainly older men, one of whom Julius Spier – a psychoanalyst trained under Jung, who in fact introduced her to the Bible, the writings of St. Augustine, Fjodor, Dostoevsky, Rainer Maria Rilke and a voracious reader.  The two years of life that she has chronicled in her writings before her death at Auschwitz unveil a fantastic transformation in a woman who found  a personal relationship God in the midst of suffering.

Today she is regarded as a mystic, a great soul who has been referred to by Pope Benedict in his last ever Ash Wednesday address as follows: “I am also thinking of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch girl of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. At first far from God, she discovered him looking deep within her and she wrote: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again” (Diaries, 97).

In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the great tragedy of the 20th century: the Shoah. This frail and dissatisfied young woman, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace who was able to declare: “I live in constant intimacy with God”.

What can we learn from reading Etty Hillseum’s life?  I think we can learn what it means to develop intimacy with God and how our life could change with this knowledge of him.  Her relationship with God was so intimate that she refers to God as You.  The desire to communicate with God came to her life along with a desire to kneel in prayer.  In her own words: “A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body has been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Sometimes, in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face.”

Etty was very honest in chronicling her feelings and her journey in life as she moved towards God.  That is why her life makes for compelling reading.  And she was not without worries.  But she dealt with them like this. ““I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.”

The last ever postcard she wrote on 7 September 1943 , which was thrown out of a train leading her and family to death at Auschwitz reads: “Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower’. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning…We left the camp singing…Thank you for all your kindness and care.”

There are many stunning words in her writings on her relationship with God.  It is wonderful to read them.  I end with the prayers she penned:

You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share out Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your Heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.  At night, too, when I lie in bed and rest in You,  oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face and that is my prayer.

RIP Etty Hillseum (15 January 1914-30 November 1943) You have made the world a better place for us by your writings, by showing us how you discovered Him in  your life. It would be wonderful to have a faith that is so personal with God as Etty had.

I strongly recommend a detailed reading of Etty’s wriitings in – Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted  Life and Writings from Westerbork – to know more about this most remarkable woman who found Him.

By Tom Thomas Maliekel

Tom is an Indian entrepreneur with interests in technology, manufacturing, reading, scribbling, running, faith and family (not necessarily in that order) He was greatly inspired on his journey of fitness by the amazing transformation that the Snehagram Community – www.snehagram.org – has made in the lives of HIV infected youngsters, by shaping them up into some of the most outstanding amateur runners in India.


(Picture Courtesy: My Jewish Learning)

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