Day 29 30th March Etty Hillesum
Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz concentration camp at the age of 29. Little was known of her until the publication of her diaries and letters in 1981. The diaries reveal a remarkable young woman who had a profound faith in, and relationship with, God; also an immense love for her suffering compatriots, and a determination to serve them as best she could. She was born in Middelburg, Holland, in January 1914; and lived in Amsterdam in the early 1940’s during the German occupation. In a very short time life became intolerable for its Jewish residents and the deportation began. Etty took on an administrative role that led her to be a go between to the occupying forces and the Jewish council, doing her best to support and care for those who were most threatened. She ignored advice to try and flee to safety, as she felt her place was with her own people. Eventually the inevitable consequences of that decision came to be realised; in July 1943 Etty’s personal status was revoked and she became a camp internee at Westerbork transit camp, and two months later she was deported to Auschwitz where she died on 30th November 1943.
What we know of her is mainly from her diaries and letters and they reveal an extraordinary woman who, though having no particular affiliation to any religious group, had a deep relationship with God. Etty understood God to be a part of her deepest self, a divine energy that needs to be nurtured and trusted. She did not deny the horror or evil of the Nazi terror or the concentration camps, but refused to be a victim, and held on tightly to the small windows of light and love. In one prayer she wrote in her diary she says to God: “I do not hold you responsible for this, You cannot help us but we must help You, and defend Your dwelling place inside us.” Her attitude was not one of self-preservation, but standing side by side with her people, sharing their fate.
Two particular things that I have learned from Etty Hillesum is that any suffering and pain that I may go through is not merely an individual thing, but a shared experience with others. I, like Christ, can allow God to use it to give strength to others. Secondly, nothing can separate us from God’s love – as St Paul said: “neither death, nor life, things present, nor things to come , nor anything in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Etty tells us that nothing can extinguish that light.
From The Letters and Diaries of Hetty Hillesum 1941-1943
The surface of the earth is gradually turning into one great prison camp, and soon there will be nobody left outside. I don’t fool myself about the real state of affairs, and I’ve even dropped the pretence that I’m out to help others. I shall merely try to help God as best I can, and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well. But I mustn’t have and heroic illusions about that either.
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.
I am ready for everything, for anywhere on this earth, wherever God may send me, and I am ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death that life is beautiful and meaningful and that it is not God’s fault that things are as they are at present, but our own.
Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.
Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.
Become simple and live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world.