Etty Hillesum

Etty HillesumEtty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman in Amsterdam who was going into higher states of consciousness when Hitler was closing in. Her diary, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, was published posthumously.

I am not easily frightened. Not because I am brave but because I know that I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. And that was the real import of this morning, not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion and I would have liked to ask” Did you have a very unhappy childhood? has your girlfriend let you down? ” ……Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen, and weak. I should have liked to start treating him then and therefore I know that pitiful men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind. But all the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.

Something else about this morning: the perception, very strongly borne in, that despite all the suffering and injustice, I cannot hate others. All the appalling things that happen are no mysterious threats from afar but arise from fellow beings very close to us. That makes these happenings more familiar then, and not so frightening The terrifying thing is that systems grow too big for men and hold them in a satanic grip, the builders no less than the victims of the system, much as large edifices and spires, created by men’s hands, tower high above us, dominate us, yet may collapse over our heads and bury us. (pp. 71-72)

Does that mean I am never sad, that I never rebel, always acquiesce, and love life no matter what the circumstances? No, far from it. I believe that I know, and I share the many sorrows and sad circumstances that a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them; I do not prolong such moments of agony. They pass through me like life itself, as a broad eternal stream, they become part of that stream, and life continues. And as a result, all my strength is preserved, does not become tagged on to futile sorrow or rebelliousness.

And finally, ought we not from time to time open ourselves up to cosmic sadness?…. And you must be able to bear your sorrow, even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again for human beings are so strong and your sorrow will become an integral part of yourself, a part of your body and your soul; you mustn’t run away from it but bear it like an adult. Do not relieve your feelings through hatred, do not seek to be avenged on all German mothers, for they too sorrow at this very moment for their slain and murdered sons. Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge-from which new sorrows will be born for others-then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply! And if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say “Life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God. (pp 81-82)

One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters; that we safeguard that little piece of You God in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem much that You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. …You are sure to go thru lean times with me now and then when my faith weakens a little but believe me I shall always labour for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence. (p 152)

“It is the only thing we can do…I see no alternative…each of us must turn inwards and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate that we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable” (p. 180)