Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Etty Hillesum

I recently finished reading An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43. I probably would not have sought out this Persephone book had I not come across a copy at a book sale. There I picked it up for its signature grey jacket, barely glancing at the title. Upon further research, I saw the book described as a young adult's answer to Anne Frank. This is a simplification, but apt in the sense that it's a work that should be taught alongside the works of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel.

Born in 1914, Etty was twenty-seven and living in Amsterdam in 1941, during a time when its Jewish population was beginning to be deported by the Nazis. Etty lived in a house with several bohemian housemates, gave Russian lessons, and worked for the Jewish Council. She began studying with Julius Spier, a psycho-chirologist who combined Jungian analysis with palm reading. They developed a close friendship that at times veered into a love affair, and Etty grew to view herself as a disciple of his teachings. With Spier, Etty undertook the study of Biblical, religious, and philosophical works, and found her own spiritual development as a result. This is the basis of most of the diary entries in the first half of the book. The second half is made up of letters Etty wrote to her friends in Amsterdam after she was sent to the Westerbork camp in 1942. Through these, she paints a picture of life in a camp where Jews waited to be deported to other concentration camps farther East. Etty and her family were themselves deported to Auschwitz, where they died in 1943.

This is a difficult book to write about, or make any attempt to review. I can't honestly say that I enjoyed it, although I found many parts to be very inspiring. This is especially true of the Etty's diary entries, which show how she relied on her inner spirituality to find happiness and a sense of peace even as the conditions for Jews in Amsterdam were growing more dire. At the same time, though, the diary entries  feel somewhat repetitive as Etty continually revisits her relationship with the much older Spier, which can seem questionable at best from a modern perspective. I found the letters in the second half of the book to be more engaging and was fascinated by Etty's descriptions of her year at Westerbork. Her portrayal of the camp is that of a microcosm of the outside world.  Its residents somehow find a modicum of normalcy even in the face of the atrocities that occur on a daily basis. Friendships are made, cliques are formed, and Etty's resilient attitude shines through it all.

Etty's writing is interesting and inspiring, yet also very difficult to encounter at times. The strength she exhibits in the face of horrific events is truly heartbreaking and I found myself reluctant to pick up the book at times. What kept me going was a certain sense of duty to reading her story. As far as I can tell, Etty is not as well known as she should be--at least not here in the U.S. She deserves a more prominent place in the canon of WWII and Holocaust literature and I'd encourage anyone to seek this book out.


  1. I have been reading for many, many years and NO book has affected me as much as this one has. Reading it was agony ... I kept having to put it down, then wandered about the house waving my arms in the air 'save yourself! save yourself!' ... a power punch of a book ... I have bought it for two friends.

    1. I'm so glad to hear that you've read it and have been passing it on to others.



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