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Elizabeth Svoboda

In Search of Etty Hillesum

WikiCommons / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

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…

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