In Search of Etty Hillesum

The work of a young Jewish diarist, writing in Amsterdam around the time Anne Frank began her famous diary, shows the transformation of pain into radical altruism.

Elizabeth Svoboda| April 2020 | 16 minutes (4,136 words)

It’s the eve of the summer solstice, a time when evening feels like high noon and people buzz with unearned adrenaline. I’ve spent all day on the streets of Amsterdam, but I still need to make one last pilgrimage — to the home of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish diarist and radical altruist whose finest hour came as she approached her death at the hands of the Nazis.

While in Amsterdam years ago, I visited the hiding place of Etty’s young counterpart Anne Frank. Nowadays, you can’t just show up to see the Anne Frank House: You have to reserve your ticket in advance, and the lines snake around the block. Etty’s home, by contrast, is easy to miss, tucked into a row of humble red-brick flats on the first block of Gabriel Metsustraat. There are no lines, no advance reservations, and you can’t go inside, because it’s a private residence. All that distinguishes the building from its neighbors is a plaque by the front door: In this house, Etty Hillesum wrote her diary, 1941–1942.

On the second floor of Etty’s home, a generously paneled bay window opens onto the city. From this window, Etty would have had a sweeping view of the Museumplein, a rolling expanse of green that now hosts an ongoing parade of festivals and sporting events. As Etty’s world narrowed under an onslaught of Nazi decrees, she was able to drink in this view almost to the last, marred though it was by park benches on which no Jews were permitted to sit. Though most of today’s park visitors have gone home, the strains of a global summer anthem float across the open space: 

… All the bad things disappear

And you’re making me feel like maybe I am somebody…

Here, in the space of about a year, Etty would move “from a narrow, individualistic moral worldview,” as Fairfield University’s Francis Hannafey writes, “to an intensely other-directed ethic.” Once prone to self-focus, despair, and spirals of panic, she used her own suffering as motivation to lay down her life for her community as chaos crept up all around. “Whatever I may have to give to others,” Etty would write, “I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp.”

As the near-identical brick flats rise up behind me, it seems fitting that millions of people have walked past without knowing who lived here or what alchemy took place within. In her final years, Etty cultivated a bone-deep peace that radiated into other lives without drawing attention to itself. 

It was a peace that was hard-won. What drew me to Etty, at least at first, was that she seemed to be trying to master a set of mental hardware similar to my own. Dogged by obsessions, worst-case assumptions, and bursts of insecurity, I was an untethered pendulum, swinging in whatever direction my thoughts propelled me. That someone so bright and incisive claimed to feel the same way seemed to me, in my early 20s, like a kind of deliverance — even as I understood how profoundly Etty had ultimately been hung out to dry. 

* * *

From the outside, chaos and conflict appear to be the bookends of Etty Hillesum’s short life. She was born in 1914, the year World War I broke out, and she died in Auschwitz before World War II ground to a halt. The years in between were scarcely a respite. The only daughter of Riva and Louis Hillesum, a homemaker and a professor of languages, Etty described her early home life as chaotic. Her parents wielded their intellects at each other like swords, and when her mother lapsed into angry outbursts, her father would withdraw into his study, prompting her mother to escalate. “They could not offer us any foothold,” Etty would later reflect, “because they never established a foothold for themselves.”

The family atmosphere of unrest would come to pervade its members’ inner experience. Etty’s older brother, Jaap Hillesum, spent several stints in psychiatric hospitals, and her younger brother Mischa — a gifted pianist — developed schizophrenia in his teens.

Etty, too, felt at the mercy of her own mind, which she saw as churlish, careening, and unpredictable. In her 20s, she enjoyed wide-ranging sexual adventures with her housemate Han Wegerif and others, but even these could not banish a gnawing internal emptiness. “I still lack a basic tune; a steady undercurrent; the inner source that feeds me keeps drying up,” she wrote. “Worse still, I think much too much. My ideas hang on me like outsize clothes into which I still have to grow.” 

As the near-identical brick flats rise up behind me, it seems fitting that millions of people have walked past without knowing who lived here or what alchemy took place within.

Etty’s introduction to the Dutch Jewish psychoanalyst Julius Spier helped set her unlikely transformation into motion. At Spier’s behest, Etty began keeping a diary in 1941, probably to maintain some critical distance from the dark thoughts that plagued her. 

In the diary’s earliest pages, though, it’s clear that this distancing has not yet occurred. Over and over, Etty describes being tortured by bouts of depression and desperate yearnings for applause and recognition. “Deep down,” she wrote, “something like a tightly wound ball of twine binds me relentlessly.” Her focus on her own mental machinations — how to pause them or redirect them or blot them out — was so unrelenting that she often felt utterly alone.

* * *

As the world of Dutch Jews narrowed under Nazi occupation with mounting regulations, Etty’s inner world expanded in equal measure. She began meditating each morning and considered, with growing intensity, who she wanted to become as the Nazi juggernaut loomed.

Spier helped to encourage Etty’s new meditation habit, but just as influential was the German writer Rainer Maria Rilke, whom Etty inhaled like oxygen. In the poem “Es winkt zu Fühlung,” Rilke spoke glowingly of his Weltinnenraum — an inner world that could not be breached or destroyed: “It stands in me, that house I look for still / in me that shelter I have not possessed.” 

Etty’s hunger for such a shelter inspired a degree of discipline she had never before mustered. Every day, for half an hour, she sat down on a coconut mat spread on her bathroom floor, referring to herself in her diary as “the girl who learned to kneel.” She used the German word hineinhorchen to describe her meditation sessions. “Hearkening to myself, to others, to the world,” she wrote. “I listen very intently, with my whole being, and try to fathom the meaning of things.”

It’s easy to dismiss Etty’s search for a Weltinnenraum as escapism, a way to retreat as the Nazi noose tightened. But as researcher Eva Hoffman points out, Etty seems to have considered this possibility and rejected it. For Etty, a Weltinnenraum was not a place to hide from the world. It was a place where she could come to terms with what was unfolding around her — and where she could formulate an adequate response to it. She resolved to take her own measure and that of others, and to let in the world in order to understand it fully. This heightened understanding, she wrote, could only come “after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.” 

This proved a fraught exercise. She felt, she reflected, “like a small battlefield in which the problems of our times are being fought out.” Yet she had begun to believe this battle was shaping her into a better and finer version of herself. “If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon,” she wrote, “to attain a greater humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will all have been for nothing.”

Etty, too, felt at the mercy of her own mind, which she saw as churlish, careening, and unpredictable. In her 20s, she enjoyed wide-ranging sexual adventures with her housemate Han Wegerif, and others, but even these could not banish a gnawing internal emptiness.

As the months progressed, Etty looked back on her evolution with something close to disbelief. “Have I really made so much progress that I can say with complete honesty, I hope they will send me to a labor camp so that I can do something for the sixteen-year-old girls who will also be going? And to reassure the distracted parents who are kept behind, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after your children.’”

* * *

By the summer of 1942, Etty’s driving mission was to become what she called “the thinking heart of the barracks” in whichever camp she ended up. She reported for work duty as a typist at Amsterdam’s Jewish Council, but when a social worker position opened up at the Dutch Jewish transit camp of Westerbork, she volunteered, eager to put her ideals into practice.

Etty’s unfolding inner journey turned concrete and external when she arrived at Westerbork. Set in eastern Holland’s boggy, desolate marsh country, Westerbork was a temporary way station for tens of thousands of Dutch Jews — essentially an anteroom for the gas chambers of Poland. The bunk beds in Westerbork’s barracks, stacked three high, held the detritus of lives torn apart: a powder compact, a well-thumbed book, a few shirts hanging on a clothesline. 

For Etty, life at Westerbork was an unending serpentine of needs to be fulfilled. She squeezed tomato juice for babies scheduled to go on transport to “the East.” She rounded the hospital barracks to look after patients, many of whom were terrified of being sent on the next train to Poland. She had heart-to-heart conversations with young mothers in hysterics. “Sometimes I might sit down beside someone, put an arm around a shoulder, say very little and just look into their eyes,” she wrote. “I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes.”

There is even fresh evidence, uncovered by Dutch scholar Bettine Siertsema, that Etty may have helped get Jewish children out of Westerbork. The memoirs of Ies Spetter, a colleague of Etty’s who also worked with the Jewish Council, contain this tantalizing line: “Together with a friend, Hillesum, I managed to smuggle some children out of the camp. My wife went to get them there and delivered them further.”

During her time at Westerbork, Etty found deep satisfaction in her inner solidity and in radiating that hard-won calm toward others. “Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed,” she wrote. “Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.” 

* * *

What Etty’s life illustrates so well is the way mayhem can forge us as if by fire. The psychologist Ervin Staub — himself a Holocaust survivor — has called this phenomenon “altruism born of suffering.” In the best-case scenario, Staub argues, large-scale crises can mold us into the most generous versions of ourselves, in part because pain spurs us to help others navigate their own crises.

Having noted this transformation in others, Staub set about proving it scientifically. He rounded up a group of study subjects, some of whom had endured significant trauma — natural disasters, discrimination, abuse — and some of whom had not. Then he asked all of them what they wanted to do in response to a recent South Asian tsunami. People who’d been through their own trauma, it turned out, were more likely to show empathy for the tsunami survivors and to raise money to help them. 

There’s a catch, though. Clearly, not everyone in dire straits opens up and serves others. We can easily go the opposite way: clam up, bolt, turn bitter, and aim that bitterness outward. When I pressed Staub about this decision point a few years ago, he noted that those who choose the altruistic path, as Etty did, have generally done the inner work needed to come to terms with their own suffering and to heal from it to some degree. Having established this mental distance, they make a deliberate choice to help others so that they won’t endure the same pain they themselves have known.

Staub’s insights don’t amount to a clarion call to seek out suffering. Instead, they supply a framework we can use to interpret pain as we face it in our lives. It’s basically a redemptive framework: If we must suffer, how can we use that as motivation to ease the pain of others? “As people engage with their experiences,” Staub and his colleague Johanna Vollhardt write, “they can come to believe that they themselves should not have been victimized and that other human beings should not be victimized either.”

This is the approach Etty took long before there was scientific support for it. “Through suffering, I have learned that we must share our love with the whole of creation. Only thus can we gain admittance to it,” she wrote. “The price is high: much blood and tears. But all the suffering is worth it.” 

Throughout, Etty’s beloved Rilke served as a role model — a supreme advocate for looking suffering in the eyes and transmuting it into human potential. “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression,” Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?” It was the tragic interruptions in Etty’s own life that spurred her to serve as comforter to the doomed, knowing full well that in the process she would likely end up among their number. 

* * *

The most important thing to understand about Etty is that everything she did was voluntary. The lexicon of the Holocaust is full of images of flight: families concealed behind false walls, fugitives led away by force. Etty, by contrast, never attempted to flee from the Nazis. When Klaas Smelik, Etty’s good friend and former lover, tried to talk her into going into hiding, “Etty didn’t want to,” says Smelik’s son, Klaas A.D. Smelik. “That was very problematic for my father.”

“The price is high: much blood and tears. But all the suffering is worth it.”

The elder Smelik — who knew about the genocide being prepared for the Jews — wanted to rescue Etty so badly that he actually tried to kidnap her when she was in Amsterdam on leave from Westerbork. As the younger Smelik tells it, Smelik Sr. and his daughter Johanna planned to spirit Etty away to their private villa in the town of Hilversum. During an afternoon get-together at Wegerif’s home, the Smeliks pounced. “Father and daughter made their move,” Smelik Jr. writes. “Etty was lifted by Klaas from behind, while Johanna held her legs as they descended the steep stairs to the front door of the house.”

But the caper was doomed. Etty softly admonishing her captors, “You should not do this” was enough for the Smeliks to reluctantly set her free. Later, when Klaas Smelik tried to reopen the discussion, Etty rebuffed him in no uncertain terms. “She looked at me very strangely and said, ‘You don’t understand me,’” Smelik Sr. once recalled. “I replied: ‘No, I don’t understand what on earth you are up to. Why don’t you stay here, you fool!’ Then she said: ‘I want to share the destiny of my people.’ When she said that, I knew there was no hope. She would never come to us.”

To the elder Smelik, Etty’s choice not to hide was borderline immoral, a kind of ill-conceived martyrdom, and in some respects, his view aligns with that of the Polish rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum. During the Holocaust, Nissenbaum argued that the traditional Jewish virtue of Kiddush Hashem — willingness to sacrifice one’s own life to honor God — was no longer paramount in an age of mass murder. The greatest virtue, Nissenbaum declared, had become Kiddush Hachaim: the preservation of life itself. “Now that it is our bodies they are after,” Nissenbaum wrote, “the time of the sanctification of life begins.”


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Still, the concept of Kiddush Hachaim is itself subject to interpretation. Etty seemed to regard her choice to stay at Westerbork as its own kind of Kiddush Hachaim. “One ought not to waste a single moment of one’s life, because so much, so overwhelmingly much remains to be done for others,” she wrote in her diary. “I have broken my body like bread and shared it out among men. And why not, they were hungry and had gone without for so long.” To Etty, the sanctification of life meant pouring every drop of energy into the community.

* * *

Just as Klaas Smelik Sr. had feared, the aperture through which Etty accessed the world began to close — almost imperceptibly at first, then all at once. In the summer of 1943, Nazi authorities announced that Jewish Council members would no longer be able to travel between Amsterdam and Westerbork. After the edict came down, some council members chose to stay in Amsterdam, but Etty remained in Westerbork to fulfill what she had come to see as her calling. 

During an afternoon get-together at Wegerif’s home, the Smeliks pounced. “Father and daughter made their move,” Smelik Jr. writes. “Etty was lifted by Klaas from behind, while Johanna held her legs as they descended the steep stairs to the front door of the house.”

Etty gave her diaries to her housemate Maria Tuinzing before leaving Amsterdam for good, instructing Tuinzing to pass them on to Smelik if she did not come back. “I am in a strange state of mournful contentment. It’s true you can suffer, but that need not make you desperate,” she wrote to her friends from Westerbork. “What matters is not whether we preserve our lives at any cost, but how we preserve them. History has indeed laid a heavy destiny on our shoulders, and … we must try and attain the grandeur we need to bear it.”

Within weeks, it was Etty’s turn to set off for the unknown destination where tens of thousands of others had gone. Etty’s Westerbork friends tried to get her name crossed off the transport list, but to no avail. The Hillesum family’s departure came on “sudden special orders from the Hague,” as Etty wrote on her last postcard. Etty’s swift exit may have been related to a change in her brother Mischa’s special status. Due to his musical talent, Mischa was eligible for the Barneveld camp for protected artists. But after Mischa turned Barneveld down to stay with his parents, the entire Hillesum family was called up for deportation to Poland.

A detailed report of Etty’s departure from Westerbork has survived, written by Jopie Vleeschhouwer, a fellow Jewish inmate. “After her departure,” Vleeschhouwer wrote, “I spoke to a little Russian woman and various other proteges of hers. And the way they felt about her leaving speaks volumes for the love and devotion she had given to them all.”

* * *

The last record we have of Etty is the postcard she threw from the train to Auschwitz death camp, which a nameless passerby tucked into a mailbox. We know from this card, addressed to her friend Christine van Nooten, that she kept writing in the middle of a full freight car, and that she and her comrades left Westerbork singing.

The Hillesums set out for Auschwitz at the beginning of September. Louis and Riva Hillesum’s official date of death is September 10, 1943, meaning that they — like most of the train’s passengers — probably headed for the gas chambers soon after arrival. The Dutch Red Cross, however, reports that Etty survived until November 30th. If this is accurate, it means Etty would have had time to get to know the camp intimately, a fate she had foretold for herself in her diary, and indeed one she claimed to welcome.

We can only guess at how, in a place writer Wiesław Kielar has called the anus mundi — the asshole of the world — Etty’s altruistic identity shape-shifted. It may be that in the inhuman surroundings of Auschwitz, she curled back onto herself, unable to reflect her inner reserves outward any longer. Equally, it may be that the finest moments of her life went unwitnessed, save by those who followed her into oblivion. 

* * *

For years after Etty’s death at age 29, her old lover Klaas Smelik attempted to publish her diaries and letters. But in the immediate postwar years, readers were clamoring for graphic first-person accounts of life in the camps or in hiding. There was no space in the market for a relative unknown recording her interior evolution. “The way Etty tries to find a solution for herself in difficult circumstances — that was something people were not interested in in the fifties,” says Klaas Smelik Jr.

It took more than three decades for Etty’s forgotten account to bob to the surface. In 1979, Smelik Jr. finally got a nibble of interest from Dutch publisher J.G. Gaarlandt, and by the mid-1980s, editions of Etty’s writings appeared in both Dutch and English under the title An Interrupted Life. The Holocaust had revealed aspects of human nature people hadn’t wanted to believe existed. More than 30 years on, the public was ready to grapple more squarely with how to face this universal dark side, and Etty’s account was the ideal companion. It gained a cult following for its direct, and counterintuitive, guidance about how to respond to totalitarianism — and more broadly to human hatred, and global chaos, in all its variations. 

Etty “had some connection to that which is able to be engaged in and transcended at the same time. She had a capacity to see that history goes back and forth constantly,” says Hillesum scholar Barbara Morrill. “Look, there is always Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible. It takes a lot of inner work to be able to hold, and not become paralyzed by these things. She said, ‘I’m not going to let them take away my soul.’”

* * *

As fascism, separatism, and antisemitism seep into our common spaces like nerve gas, as populations gird for battle and retrench into familiar camps, new barracks are going up all around us. In some of them, captured refugees huddle together, wrapped in metallic blankets to ward off the chill. In others, vulnerable populations succumb to a savage new virus while a handful of observing elites, worried about stock holdings, clamor for a swift return to business as usual.

Today’s suffering is as thick as the clouds of flies that once buzzed around Westerbork. Yet as Etty understood so well, the temptation to shut it all out, to anesthetize, is ever-present. The clarity of outlook and purpose Etty reached in her final years still feels maddeningly elusive. What will it take to come out of hiding? How close to the abyss do we have to dangle in order to act? 

It doesn’t take a mind like Etty’s to recognize that we’re already well over the edge. What’s needed, as she would have counseled, is the courage to look straight into the maw of death and destruction, to see and chronicle it for exactly what it is. The sharper your eye, the keener your pain — and, as Ervin Staub has shown, the keener your desire to ease that pain in others. You can cocoon yourself against a dystopian world, “the chaos outside muffled by Disney and Netflix,” writes Soraya Roberts. “Or you can face the cataclysm, you can bathe in discomfort and unrest, you can engage with it in your work and your life.” 

Every solitary study of the Holocaust is freighted with an implicit question: What would I have done in the face of this? I saw Schindler’s List for the first time at 12. After that, consciously or unconsciously, I pictured myself as Spielberg’s waif in the red dress: darting behind buildings, ducking under beds, melting from view at every turn. In dreams, I had only to flap my arms a certain way to soar out of the captors’ reach. Though these dreams seemed childish when I awakened, they also felt harmless. It wasn’t until I read Etty that they began to seem less like spasms of survival instinct and more like evasions of a duty I hadn’t fathomed.

What Etty embodies is an immersion into chaos, bathing in discomfort and unrest, without flinching. Her willingness to admit the full measure of human suffering fed the groundswell of her compassion — an inner store that sustained those she met as she, and they, hurtled toward extinction. “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty,” she wrote, “to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others.” 

While not religious in a traditional sense, Etty believed that she had a higher calling to alleviate the pain she had come to know so intimately. “We could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live,” she wrote. Her example, so radical and kinetic after all these years, braces us to meet the challenge she raised in the final sentence of her diary: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” 

***

Elizabeth Svoboda is a writer in San Jose, CA. She is the author of What Makes a Hero? and The Life Heroic.

Longreads Editor: Carolyn Wells