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Hillesum, Etty


Nationality: Dutch. Born: Middelburg, 15 January 1914. Education: Studied law, psychology, and Slavic languages and literature, University of Amsterdam, Ph.D. Career: Volunteer special assistant, Jewish Council, Westerbork concentration camp, 1942; prisoner, Westerbork and Auschwitz. Died: Murdered, Auschwitz, November 1943.



Het vestoorde leven: Dagboek van Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943, edited by J.G. Gaarlandt. 1981; as An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, 1983; as Etty: A Diary, 1941-1943, 1983.


Het denkende hart van de barak: Brieven van Etty Hillesum (letters). 1982; as Letters from Westerbork, 1986.


Critical Studies:

"Etty Hillesum: A Story of Spiritual Growth" by Irving Halperin, in Reflections of the Holocaust in Art and Literature, edited by Randolph L. Braham, 1990; Dark Night Spirituality: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Etty Hillesum: Contemplation and the New Paradigm by Peter King, 1995; Writing As Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum by Rachel Feldhay Brenner, 1997; Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum: Inscribing Spirituality and Sexuality by Denise de Costa, translated by Mischa F. C. Hoynick and Robert E. Chesal, 1998; "Holocaust Chronicle, Spiritual Autobiography, Portrait of an Artist, Novel in the Making: Reading the Abridged Diary of Etty Hillesum" by Anna Makkonen, in Biography, 22(2), Spring 1999, pp. 237-61; The Uses of Darkness: Women's Underworld Journeys, Ancient and Modern by Laurie Brands Gagné, 2000.

* * *

Etty Hillesum studied law, psychology, and Slavic languages and literature at the University of Amsterdam, where she received her doctorate. She was interned in the concentration camps of Westerbork and Auschwitz, and she died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29.

One of the most important analyses of the work of Etty Hillesum has been that of Rachel Feldhay Brenner in her book Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust (1997). Brenner makes reference to how Hillesum defied the terror of the Holocaust and exhibited spiritual resistance in her determination to survive the dehumanization of the concentration camps.

Brenner examines the impact of the Holocaust on Hillesum's religio-moral outlook. Although she was a committed member of the Jewish community, Hillesum did not feel a need to establish close ties with Judaism in a religious sense. Nonetheless she was aware that her Jewish identity made her a target of the Final Solution. She acknowledged her Jewishness and openly empathized with the suffering that befell the Jewish people. Her discourse with God draws on ecumenical theology, stressing the universalist values of the Enlightenment era, and is accordingly a mixture of Judaism and Christianity.

Hillesum saw Gentile society as her natural environment with her faith in the brotherhood of all human beings. Her diary and her correspondence reveal a persistent faith in the ethics of the humanistic ideal.

Brenner views Hillesum's voluntary service as a special assistant to the Jewish Council in the concentration camp of Westerbork as being reminiscent of Bernard Rieux's voluntary service in Albert Camus's novel The Plague. (Camus had in fact meant for his novel about bubonic plague to be an allegory for Nazism.) Hillesum's writing of diaries and correspondence that bear witness to important historical events vis-á-vis the Holocaust was motivated by a desire to maintain dignity and self-respect in an age of crisis.

Before the Holocaust Hillesum had been preoccupied with an intellectual, spiritual, and personal development that Brenner describes as "ethical self-actualization." In the end it meant serving humanity with a total disregard for the self, when Hillesum voluntarily chose to go to Westerbork as a social worker.

—Peter R. Erspamer

See the essays on An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43 and Letters from Westerbork.

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