Esther “Etty” Hillesum was the author of confessional letters and diaries which describe both her religious awakening and the persecutions of Jewish people in Amsterdam during the German occupation. In 1943 she was deported and killed in Auschwitz concentration camp.
While in Amsterdam, Hillesum developed an ideology of showing others the way to their own interior in a time of great adversity –the Nazi terror. Her time at Westerbork -as reflected in her diaries- portray the redemption of her spirit, while her body was captured and eventually murdered. She neither denies the horror of the Nazi terror, nor identifies with her victimhood. In the midst of extreme conditions, Hillesum develops an awareness of the indestructible beauty of this world.
Russian authors and Christian mystics likely contributed to Hillesum’s understanding of spirituality. She did not strive for ecstasy, but longed to meet the depth of her own interior and life itself. Her spirituality was not confined to her intellectual understanding of a greater power and is reflected in her diaries. In the concentration camp of Westerbork, she had unusual experiences of spiritual awakenings and insight: “Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed. I have learnt to love Westerbork”.
Before she left for Westerbork, Etty Hillesum gave her diaries to Maria Tuinzing, with the instruction they be passed to Klaas Smelik for publication, should she not survive. Attempts to have them published proved fruitless until an abridged edition of her diaries appeared in 1981 under the title Het verstoorde leven [An Interrupted Life], followed by a collection of her letters from Westerbork. A complete edition of her letters and diaries was published in Dutch in 1986 and translated into English in 2002. Her diaries were translated into 67 languages. Her letters were sent to friends and Hillesum’s final postcard was thrown from the train in Westerbork, where it was discovered by Dutch farmers after her death. (Book featured on our book list. Link in bio to download to keep track)