Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve done this column, but now seems as a good a time as any to resurrect it. Here’s how I came to discover this jewel of a woman. I admit it…after finishing a Jane Austen novel last week, I relapsed into Holocaust literature. But really, it is not depressing me! I find this particular work unbelievably inspirational, and in fact, a pretty good spiritual read for the end of Lent. I am reading Etty Hillesum’s diary and collection of letters of a concentration camp in Westerbork. I introduced Etty earlier this week as a young Jewish woman who died in the concentration camps. She reminds me, in many ways, of my own namesake, Edith Stein, who, as you know is a Jewish convert to Catholicism and one of the patron saints of Europe.
Etty Hillesum began her diary in 1941 at age 27….an age I am creeping perilously close to – ugh! She was a fascinating, shocking, and brilliant woman – single, living in the city of Amsterdam and working as a teacher of Russian and as a secretary. I am drawn to her writing, but I must warn any potential readers, however – she is extremely sexual at the beginning of her diary especially. She was secretary for a Jungian ‘psychologist’ named Julian Spier (we would call him a filthy womanizer) whose ‘specialty’ was ‘helping’ women to combat their problems by wrestling with them and touching them inappropriately. She might also be considered his patient and student. This is the atmosphere in which Etty opens up her explosive diary. I think it shows the spiritual sickness of the time – a time not unlike our own in many, many ways. (In fact, reading her writings about this, I could not help but again be grateful for John Paul II’s profound meditation on the theology of the body, but that would take me to an entirely new post).
But the beauty of it is that she changes so profoundly through her suffering and her heart opens up to God and His will for her. You can see throughout that in her heart she knows that what she is doing with her psychologist is wrong, but she falls in love with him anyway – drawn to him almost inexplicably. She often chastises herself for it, but continues to struggle with this and is ultimately transformed. The reader realizes that God’s goodness really does shine forth and conquer sin. She writes about her experience as a woman, and when I read this passage, I found myself both nodding in agreement and shaking my head at her:
I am an ordinary twenty-seven-year-old girl, and I too am filled with the love for all mankind, but for all I know I shall always continue to be in search of my one man. And I wonder to what extent that is a handicap, a woman’s handicap. Whether it is an ancient tradition from which she must liberate herself, or whether it is so much a part of her very essence that she would be doing violence to herself if she bestowed her love on all mankind instead of on a single man. (I can’t see yet how the two can be combined). . . . It’s typical that I always do end up wanting to be desired by man, but in fact it is only primitive instinct. Feelings of friendship, respect, love, for us as human beings, these are all very well, but don’t we ultimately want men to desire us as women? Pp. 33-34
It was my meditation this week on this passage about femininity and love that inspired my last post. She is a paradox, and she reveals the human paradoxes of living in the world with her experiences. She tries to reconcile her feelings of love towards one man with how she should love others. In the end, Etty feels herself drawn to love all mankind – she volunteers to go to the concentration camp, knowing it would be her fate soon enough. She writes:
I don’t think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding, because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp. And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses. P. 177As each privilege gets revoked from the Jews, such as shopping in the grocery stores, walking in public places, riding bicycles, Etty still manages to find joy, beauty, God in every day life. With a mix of both fear and courage, Etty writes the last words of her diary: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” Her witness to act as a sacrifice of love for others is precisely the way we are called to live. She is a woman warrior to whom I simply cannot do enough credit here. I’d certainly recommend reading her diary and letters, but if you do so, keep in mind the caveat I mentioned above – she will indeed shock you, but she will also challenge and inspire you to the core.