'Become who you are', was the lesson received by Etty Hillesum from her spiritual teacher, the palmist Julius Spier. And during the extreme conditions of the Second World War, that is what she strived to do. She remained true to herself, and through her example she has become a guiding light for many to this day. Her diary and letters bear witness to her spiritual awakening. She gradually learned to recognise a certainty in herself, a specific something that could never be taken away from her, a something that in a way made her invulnerable. In that part of her soul she recognised God.
The writing of her diary had a meditative effect upon her spirit. She ventured ever deeper into herself, eventually to discover God in the depths of her soul: "..and here is perhaps the most perfect expression of my life's feeling: I rest in myself. And that 'myself', that deepest and richest part of me in which I rest, I call 'God'."
On the day that Julius Spier died, on the very day that the Gestapo would come to take him away, Etty wrote: "You have allowed me to speak the name of God. You have been the intermediary between God and myself, and now you, my teacher, are gone, and with you my direct path to God. It is good that this happens, that is what I feel."
Etty believed that many people do not handle suffering in the way in which they perhaps need to. "People draw back from feeling suffering, and therefore become further entangled in fear and self-pity: suffering is not beneath human dignity. One can suffer either with or without dignity. What I mean is: most Westerners don't understand the art of suffering, and in its place put a thousand fears. This is no longer living, what most people do: fear, resignation, bitterness, hate, despair. My God, it is all so easily understood. But when this life is taken from them, then not so much is taken away from them? One accepts death as a part of life, including the worst form of death. And do we not live a whole life each day, and does it really make a difference if we live one day shorter or longer? I am with the hungry, with the mistreated, with the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmin and with the piece of heaven outside my window. There is a place for everything in life. For a belief in God and for a terrible destruction."
Etty Hillesum wrote her diary during a time of a great explosion of hatred and aggression, and in just such a time, as her only weapon, she chose love: "All catastrophes emanate from ourselves. In our inner selves we must free ourselves from everything, from every immutable possibility. From every cliché, from every tie that binds, we must have the courage to let everything go, every norm and every foothold. We must dare to make the great spring into the cosmos, dare to risk, and then, then, is life so endlessly rich and overflowing, even in its deepest suffering."
Survivors from the Westerbork camp confirm that for many in those dark days Etty was both a support and a mental shield, a shining example through the light of her personality.
On 7 September 1943 Etty Hillesum, together with her entire family, was set upon a train to Poland. A Red Cross notice reported that she had died on 30 November of that same year in Auschwitz, age 29.
You are welcome to read my second post about Etty Hillesum's life and insights here:
God will Nevertheless be Safe with Us