Letters from Westerbork (Het Denkende Hart Van De Barak: Brieven Van Etty Hillesum)

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LETTERS FROM WESTERBORK (Het denkende hart van de barak: Brieven van Etty Hillesum)

Correspondence of Etty Hillesum, 1982

Because of her contacts as a special assistant to the Jewish Council, Etty Hillesum received several offers to go into hiding before she herself became an inmate at Westerbork and Auschwitz, but she refused those offers. She did not want to be saved when thousands of Dutch Jews just like herself were being sent to the concentration camps. In the summer of 1942 she accompanied the first transport of Jews to Westerbork not as an inmate but as an employee of the Jewish Council and was permitted to come and go at will. She did everything she could to alleviate the suffering around her, and she developed from being an introspective intellectual to being a heroic and altruistic activist on behalf of her Jewish coreligionists.

Later in 1942 she briefly returned to Amsterdam while her boyfriend Julius Spier was dying. In November 1942 she returned to Westerbork. The book Letters from Westerbork, published in 1982 and in English translation in 1986, contains correspondence and some diaries from this time frame that document her impressions of Westerbork. She comments on the death of Spier: "My friend has died; I heard the news a few hours ago. Ever since I saw him last week, I have prayed that he might be released from his suffering while I was still here on leave. And now that it has really happened, I am grateful. And on the whole, gratitude that he was part of my life will always be greater than my grief at his no longer being here, physically here." The letter demonstrates Hillesum's deep reserves of inner strength during a time of immense personal sorrow and grieving and points to those characteristics that led her to heroically assume august communal responsibilities as a social worker for the Jewish Council in Westerbork during a time of grave societal pandemic.

Hillesum bears witness to the bleak social circumstances with which she is confronted in the concentration camp: "The whole of Europe is gradually being turned into one great prison camp. The whole of Europe will undergo this same bitter experience. To simply record the bare facts of families torn apart, of possessions plundered and liberties forfeited, would soon become monotonous. Nor is it possible to pen picturesque accounts of barbed wire and vegetable swill to show outsiders what it's like. Besides, I wonder how many outsiders will be left if history continues along the paths it has taken." The passage reveals both Hillesum's determination to be a witness for the suffering caused by the Holocaust and personal frustrations with this role as she encountered indescribable depravity and barbarism. There is considerable food for thought in her statement that society outside the concentration camps of European countries under the totalitarian heel of Nazi Germany was beginning to resemble society inside the concentration camps.

She reflects on the barbed wire that is an important synecdoche of concentration camp life: "If the barbed wire just encircled the camp, then at least you would know where you were. But these twentieth-century wires meander about inside the camp too, around the barracks and in between, in a labyrinthine and unfathomable network. Now and then you come across people with scratches on their faces and hands. There are watchtowers at the four corners of our wooden village, each a windswept platform on four tall posts. A man with a helmet and a gun stands outlined against the changing skies. In the evening one sometimes hears a shot echo across the heath, as it did once when the blind man stumbled too close to the barbed wire."

Hillesum does not shy away from documenting the random terror of the concentration camps as characterized by the arbitrary shooting of inmates by the guards. These frequent occurrences have also been critiqued in our popular culture, particularly in Steven Spielberg's majestic film Schindler's List.

She also describes the fear and agony experienced by the inmates who were being transported from Westerbork to concentration camps in Eastern Europe: "Anyway, it is terribly crowded in Westerbork, as when too many drowning people cling to the last bit of flotsam after a ship has sunk. People would rather spend the winter behind barbed wire in Holland's poorest province than be dragged off to unknown parts and unknown destinies deep within Europe, from where only a few indistinct sounds have come back to the rest of us. But the quota must be filled; so must the train, which comes to fetch its load with mathematical regularity. You cannot keep everyone back as being indispensable to the camp, or too sick for transport, although you try it with a great many. You sometimes think it would be simpler to put yourself on transport than have to witness the fear and despair of the thousands of men, women, children, infants, invalids, the feebleminded, the sick, and the aged, who pass through our helping hands in an almost uninterrupted flow."

Hillesum's poignant and evocative words convey the excruciating sorrow she felt as a benefactor to the Jewish community and as an eyewitness to the malefaction of the Nazis when she saw how people were horrified by the unbearable conditions of their transport to the East. She reflects on the inmates and their dehumanization through the wretched circumstances in which they found themselves: "These figures wrenched from their context still carry with them the restless atmosphere of a society more complicated than the one we have here. They walk along the thin barbed-wire fence. Their silhouettes move, life-sized and exposed, across the great stretch of sky. You cannot imagine it … Their armor of position, esteem, and property has collapsed, and now they stand in the last stretch of their humanity. They exist in an empty space, bounded by earth and sky, which they must fill with whatever they can find within them—there is nothing else."

Hillesum also reflects on the fact that deep reserves of inner strength can to some extent counteract the dehumanization caused by extreme situations like the Nazi concentration camps and the horror they evoked.

—Peter R. Erspamer

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Letters from Westerbork (Het Denkende Hart Van De Barak: Brieven Van Etty Hillesum)

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