Etty Hillesum: an uninterrupted inspiration

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 10, 2004

The other day Cochrane coffee companion Cornelis "Cor" van de Panne contacted me excitedly. A professor emeritus of economics at the University of Calgary, Cor had just finished reading a book he believed was "unique in the portrayal of a growth towards a universal love that was maintained in the hell of the Holocaust," and he wanted to talk.

Since I too have been deeply affected by the same book, he got my attention immediately and we were soon comparing our well-marked copies of Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.

Etty Hillesum was a Dutch diarist who died in Auschwitz at the age of 29.

At the time of her writing, Cor was a boy of 11 living in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. Spared from the horrors endured by Dutch Jews, Cor has made a point of reading extensively on that period in his homeland. Hillesum's book is the best he's found, he said. "She's a modern saint."

Hillesum aspired to be a serious writer. She only got as far as two years of entries in her diary and some letters from prison camp. But what words!

Cor pointed me to an entry she made at a time when many rights of the Jewish community were being taken away– access to the green grocers, use of public transportation, even the right to own a bicycle:

"Life is so odd and so surprising and so infinitely varied," she wrote, "and at every twist of the road the whole vista changes all of a sudden. Most people carry stereotyped ideas about life in their heads. We have to rid ourselves of all preconceptions, of all slogans, of all sense of security, find the courage to let go of everything, every standard, every conventional bulwark. Only then will life become infinitely rich and overflowing, even in the suffering it deals out to us."

As more and more of her neighbours were disappearing to places unimaginable, never to return, Hillesum added:

"Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other. God to God."

But what really caught Cor's attention was a letter she wrote from Westerbork, a transitional prison camp from which boxcars full of her fellow Jews were shipped out every week to Auschwitz and other despicable places:

"The misery here is quite terrible," she wrote. "Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb. And if we should survive unhurt in body and soul, but above all soul, without bitterness and without hatred, then we shall have a right to a say after the war."

As Cor turned to the end of the book, I was not surprised to find that both he and I treasure a diary entry Hillesum made just days before her own departure for Auschwitz. It's in the form of a prayer:

"You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share out Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude... I may never become the great artist I would really like to be, but I am already secure in You, God. Sometimes I try my hand at turning out small profundities and uncertain short stories, but I always end up with just one single word: God. And that says everything, and there is no need for anything more."

As part of Cor's post-retirement activities, he is the Web master for the University of Calgary's Emeritus Association. He closed its most recent Web page with this:

"'We have to accept death as a part of life, even the most horrible of deaths. And don't we live an entire life each one of our days, and does it really matter if we live a few days more or less?' —Etty Hillesum"

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page