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Hillesum, Etty


HILLESUM, ETTY (1914–1943), writer, religious thinker, and victim of Nazi genocide. Hillesum was born in Middleburg, Netherlands, the eldest of three children of Louis Hillesum, a teacher of classical languages, and Rebecca (Bernstein) Hillesum. Her Russian-born mother suffered from psychological disorders, as did her two gifted brothers, and Hillesum also struggled with depression and mood swings. No one in her middle-class, assimilated family survived the war.

Hillesum studied law, Slavic languages, and psychology at the University of Amsterdam, earning a law degree in 1939. The German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 terminated her studies. She was strongly influenced by Julius Spier (b. 1887), a Jungian psychoanalyst émigré from Berlin, who became her lover, mentor, and spiritual guide. At his urging, Hillesum began keeping a journal, beginning March 9, 1941 and continuing until her deportation to Auschwitz in September 1943. When the Nazis began rounding up Dutch Jews, the Hillesum family was taken to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork. Here Hillesum worked for the Jewish Council, the organization charged with implementing Nazi orders in the Jewish community; for a time, her position accorded her some measure of privilege and freedom of movement between Westerbork and Amsterdam. She also worked in Westerbork's hospital, refusing offers of a safe haven outside the camp. Deported to Auschwitz with her family in September 1943, Hillesum was murdered on November 30.

Writing was the emotional center of Hillesum's life. Initially, the journal was less a memoir of the time and more an exploration of her inner life, focusing on philosophical, psychological, and spiritual issues. Eventually, the Nazi genocide cast a shadow over the writing and both the journals and her massive correspondence contain detailed descriptions of the Jews imprisoned at Westerbork, the atrocious conditions in which they were kept, and the brutality of the guards. The writing also speaks of her commitment to give succor to the interned Jews; accepting that she could not alter what awaited Westerbork's inhabitants, Hillesum was determined to be the "thinking heart" of the camp. She struggled to find a way to understand and accept the horrors of the world in which she found herself, and to maintain a sense of meaningfulness even as death became inevitable.

Hillesum entrusted the eight or so notebooks of her journal to her friend Maira Tuinzing, who passed them along to writer Klaas Smelik. In 1981, a selection of her journals was published, receiving great popular and critical acclaim, as Het verstoorde leen ("An Interrupted Life"); an English version followed in 1982. Her collected letters appeared in 1982 as Het dendende hart van de barak ("The Thinking Heart of the Camp"); they were later published in English as Letters from Westerbork (1986). A critical edition of her writing appeared in the Netherlands under the title Etty: De nagelaten geschriften van Etty Hillesum: 19411943 ("Etty: The Posthumous Writings of Etty Hillesum: 1941–1943") in 1986.

[Sara R. Horowitz (2nd ed.)]

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