Etty Hillesum was a vibrant young Jewish woman who lived in Nazi occupied Amsterdam in the early 1940s and died ad Auschwitz in 1943. In the months before she was arrested she underwent a profound transformation through psychotherapy. She refused to give into hate and in this way overcame the evil of the Holocaust. The author, Patrick Woodhouse, tries to show what Etty’s diary and letters can teach us today about the roots of violence and the nature of evil.
160 pp. Continuum. To purchase this book online, go to www.continuumbooks.com
Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury
Who Was Etty Hillesum? A brief summary of her life
Some Significant Dates
WHO WAS ETTY HILLESUM?
A BRIEF SUMMARY OF HER LIFE
Etty Hillesum was born on 15th January 1914 in the town of Middelburg in Holland where her father, Dr Louis Hillesum, taught classical languages. After moves to Hilversum, Tiel and Winschoten, in 1924 the family moved to Deventer, a medium-sized city in the east of Holland where Louis was appointed assistant headmaster, and then in 1928 headmaster of the local Gymnasium. Here Etty grew up. Her father came from a Dutch Jewish family, while her mother Riva (Rebecca Bernstein) was Russian by birth and had fled to the Netherlands after a pogrom in Russia. Etty had two younger brothers, Jacob (Jaap) born in 1916, and Michael (Mischa) born in 1920. They were both brilliant in their different fields – Jaap in medicine and Mischa in music – but both suffered from serious mental illness and spent time in psychiatric institutions.
In 1932, Etty left her father’s school and went to Amsterdam to study law. She went on to study Slavic languages at Amsterdam and Leiden, and continued to study Russian during the period of her diaries, and had a number of private pupils. During her university years she was involved in ‘left-wing antifascist student circles and was politically and socially aware without belonging to a political party’ (1).
In March 1937 she took a room at 6 Gabriel Metsustraat in south Amsterdam in the house of an accountant Hendrik (Han) Wegerif, a widower aged 62 who hired her as a housekeeper. He also began an affair with her. She lived in this house until her final departure for Westerbork in 1943, and it was in her room there that much of her diary was written. The small community of people who shared the house with her were important to her. In addition to Han Wegerif there was his 21-year-old son Hans, a German cook named Kathe, a student Bernard Meylink, and a nurse, Maria Tuinzing, who became one of Etty’s close friends.
The most important relationship of the diary is with the psychochirologist, Julius Spier. Born in 1887 in Germany, he had come to Amsterdam in 1939. Spier had worked in Zurich with Jung, who had encouraged him to develop his skill in chirology, the practice of psychoanalysis through the reading of people’s palms. He was a gifted and charismatic figure and gathered around him a group of students, particularly women. Etty became part of this group and went into therapy with Spier, developing a close relationship with him and becoming his secretary.
The diary began – probably at Spier’s suggestion – in March 1941 when Etty was just 27 years old. At the time Holland, which had capitulated to the Germans in May 1940, was increasingly under the Nazi reign of terror, and the Dutch Jews were beginning to be savagely persecuted.
The persecution gradually increased in severity through 1941 and 1942, and on 14th July 1942, at the instigation of her brother Jaap, Etty applied for a job at the Jewish Council and was appointed to do secretarial work. The Council was set up under the Nazis to deal with Jewish affairs. It believed that by negotiation it could mitigate the worst of the persecution. Etty disliked the work and on 30th July she was transferred at her own request to the department of ‘Social Welfare for People in Transit’ at Camp Westerbork.
Westerbork was a transit camp in the east of the Netherlands where the Nazis wanted to concentrate all the Dutch Jews, and from there over 100,000 went to their deaths in the extermination camps in the east. Working in the camp as a member of the Jewish Council, Etty was able to travel to Amsterdam and back on several occasions. Her first stay was to last – with the exception of one week – from the end of July 1942 to mid-September, a period of about six weeks. Other than two weeks back at Westerbork in the late autumn, she spent the winter of 1942 and the spring of 1943 in Amsterdam because of illness. Eventually she was well enough to return to the camp, and on 6th June 1943 she left Amsterdam for Westerbork for the last time.
Her letters vividly describe the conditions of the camp at Westerbork: desperately overcrowded wooden barracks, labyrinths of barbed wire, watchtowers, mud and misery – in a patch of heath half a kilometre square. It was a community living in dread of the weekly transport which left each Tuesday with its freight wagons crammed full of men, women, children and infants bound for the east. In this hell she spent the last three months of her life caring for the vulnerable, visiting the sick in the hospital barracks, and writing letters to friends. By the person she was – by her vitality and warmth, her humanity and compassionate care – she became a source of life and inspiration to others. It was from this place that, despite everything that was happening around her, she wrote, ‘life is glorious and magnificent’.
The last we know of her was the day she too, together with her parents and her brother Mischa, were deported on a train bound for Poland. The journey was to last three days. Before they finally left the Netherlands, Etty threw a postcard addressed to a friend out of the train. It was found and sent on by some farmers. It read: ‘We left the camp singing.’ They reached Auschwitz on 10th September. She died there on 30th November.
AN EMERGING SELF
My ‘centre’ is growing firmer by the day … in the past I was nothing but a fluttering insecure little bird.
Etty Hillesurn did not emerge from adolescence as a balanced young person already well on the way to becoming a saintly figure. The early pages of the diary reveal an insecure, emotionally disturbed and sexually chaotic young woman struggling with a turbulent inner life which she cannot understand and which from time to time pitches her into deep depression.
On 8th March 1941, the day before the first entry in the diary, she wrote a letter to Julius Spier with whom she had only just begun to meet. The letter indicates how clearly she understands her own need. After telling him ‘I experienced strong erotic feelings for you … and at the same time a strong aversion, and writing of her ‘utter loneliness’, and her ‘uncertainty’ and her ‘fear’, she writes:
… a small slice of chaos was suddenly staring at me from deep down inside my soul. And when I had left you and was going back home, I wanted a car to run me over, and I thought, ah, well, I must be out of my mind, like the rest of my family … But I know again now that I am not mad, I simply need to do a lot of work on myself before I develop into an adult and a complete human being.’ (my italics)
This is where the remarkable story of Etty Hillesum must begin, the story of a vulnerable and insecure young woman who knew she badly needed help.
In her first diary entry dated the next day, she writes:
All my life I have had the feeling that, for all my apparent self-reliance, if someone came along, took me by the hand and bothered about me, I would be only too willing and eager to deliver myself up to his care. And there he was now, this complete stranger, this S. with his complicated face (2).
Her tone is simple and childlike but apposite, for anyone who goes into therapy and is prepared to be open to what may be revealed will rapidly find themself getting in touch with their inner child, with the story of their origins, with what their childhood has meant to them – and with what it has done to them.
A disturbed family
It is clear that Etty Hillesum came from a deeply disturbed family. At various points in the diary she uses different words to describe her home –’degenerate, ‘tainted, a ‘madhouse’– but the word most frequently used to sum up the confusion and shapelessness of it all, is ‘chaos’. The roots of this chaos may be traced back to the problems and difficulties of her parents, to the stark incompatibility of their characters and the sharp contrast of their backgrounds, and what she later describes as their psychological and emotional inadequacy. They were simply, she writes, ‘out of their depth’.’
Her father Louis was a quiet, shy and scholarly man who found it difficult to cope in the world. His shyness was made worse by the fact that he suffered from impaired vision, and deafness in one ear. Indeed, so poor was his vision that it is said that when he was headmaster in Deventer, the school caretaker used to bring him to and from the school every day. Born in Amsterdam in 1880, he was the fourth child of a Jewish merchant and the grandson of a Rabbi who had been Chief Rabbi in the north of the Netherlands, and so his background and upbringing were very much as a Dutch Jew.
His great strength was his intellect. He studied classics at Amsterdam University where he gained a bachelor and a master’s degree, both cum laude, and in 1911 he began his career teaching classics in Middleburg. However, though an excellent teacher, he had great difficulty keeping order in the classroom, particularly among younger pupils, and he would react to their unruly behaviour by becoming very strict. But he was a warm and cordial man and, though he found life beyond the world of books difficult, he had a wry sense of humour. As one of Deventer’s leading citizens, he was widely appreciated for his cultural interests.
Etty’s mother, Riva (Rebecca) Bernstein, could not have been more different. Chaotic, extravert and noisy, she was given to sudden emotional outbursts. With her curly red hair and strange Dutch accent she would have stood out in the streets of the small provincial city of Deventer. She had come to Holland in 1907, the first of her family to flee from the town of Surash in Tjernigol in Russia as a result of Jewish persecution. Dressed in the uniform of a soldier with her head shaved, she had arrived in Amsterdam in February 1907 and had begun to make her way in this new and very different country by teaching Russian. Her family soon followed her, first her brother Jacob and then her parents, but they stayed in Amsterdam for only a few years. After Riva and Louis were married in December 1912, the whole Bernstein family – her parents and her brother Jacob and his new wife and young child – emigrated illegally to the United States, leaving Riva behind to cope as best she could alongside her withdrawn and scholarly Dutch husband.
Being the first child of this unusual union, Etty may well have borne the brunt of their stormy marriage and the emotional confusion of a home life which her parents somehow simply did not know how to create. But her two brilliant younger brothers – Jaap who went on to study medicine, and Mischa who was exceptionally gifted in music – suffered too. Jaap was admitted to psychiatric hospitals on several occasions; and Mischa who became psychotic at the age of 16 was treated for schizophrenia, and right up to the end of his short life he was an insecure and psychologically fragile young man. Though he was a remarkably gifted young pianist, and in demand to perform across the country, Etty records how he ‘simply refuses to play if they (his parents) are not there … In the past they used to visit mental hospitals and doctors, now they attend his concerts’ (4).
The mental illness of her brothers had a profound effect on Etty. Several diary entries indicate that the fear of mental illness lurked at the back of her mind. She saw her ‘tainted family’ as ‘riddled with hereditary disease’ and, at one of the darkest moments of the diary, she uses this to justify to herself her decision personally to abort her own child. She recalls a time in her home ‘when Mischa got so confused and had to be carried off to an institution by force and I was witness to the whole horror of it, I swore to myself then that no such unhappy human being would ever spring from my womb’ (5).
The family home
We gain a glimpse into the actual experience of her life as a child in the family home at Deventer when, in August 1941, just five months after she had begun her therapy with Julius Spier, she goes back and spends a week there.
On her second morning she finds herself remembering how it used to be: ‘I always used to go to pieces in this madhouse. Nowadays I keep everything inwardly at arm’s length and try to escape unscathed … it is as if every bit of energy were being sucked out of me.”
On Sunday morning two days later, writing to Spier, she despairs over her home: ‘Sometimes one feels so sad and heavy-hearted because of it all. In the past my picturesque family would cost me a bucket of desperate tears every night.Aware of the depth of the disturbance both within her and all around her in this house, she adds:
‘I can’t explain these tears as yet; they come from somewhere in the dark collective unconscious’ (7).
A few days later, she continues:
I don’t know what is the matter with this place, but one simply can’t live here. For a week I managed to battle through splendidly, but suddenly I noticed that I was completely exhausted and incredibly unhappy. It feels as if my joie de vivre were constantly being whittled down in these surroundings, I no longer know how to defend myself here, it is as if great big stones were hanging from every part of my body, from my arms, from my legs, from my brain and from my heart, trying to drag me down into some kind of morass (8).
Probably referring to outbursts from her mother, she tells him: ‘In my dreams it is like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I never remember anything definite when I wake up, all I know is that there has been a lot of heavy sighing and piteous sobbing.’ After more complaints of her exhaustion and constant bad headaches, she relates how,
A few days ago, very early one morning when everyone was still asleep my younger brother ran away. He left a fairly pathetic but perfectly logical letter in which he wrote that he could no longer bear the atmosphere at home, that he refused to be sucked dry and that from now on he would live his own life. After a few days of searching … we discovered that he was with acquaintances in the country who had been kind enough to take him in. He doesn’t want to come back home.
She finishes this little story with an emphatic flourish: ‘How right he is, that young man!’
It is a bleak picture made all the more so because she is not blind to the potential riches that her parents, through their backgrounds, learning and cultural inheritance, have to offer:
Our house is a remarkable mixture of barbarism and culture. Spiritual riches lie within grasp but they are left unused and unguarded, carelessly scattered about. It is depressing, it is tragicomic. I don’t know what kind of madhouse this really is, but I know that no human being can flourish here.”
I don’t know what kind of madhouse this really is…’ As she writes this in August 1941, she does not understand it. However, over the months of her work with Spier, understanding does slowly begin to dawn. Towards the end of a long entry of 29th December, after nine months of working with him, she writes: ‘I am beginning to understand something about my youth, about those recurring headaches and lethargic spells lasting for weeks on end, succumbing to the chaos within’ (10).
Before we look briefly at how this ‘chaos’ manifested itself in her, and how with Spier and others she began to deal with it, it is worth asking more precisely – what exactly was it? Where did it come from? And how, initially, did she try to comprehend it?
Of her two parents it is her mother whom she finds the most difficult. Throughout the diary, and even to the very end (by which time her relationship with them both has undergone radical change and she is able to care for them in the transit camp with great tenderness and affection), one senses that she is always closer to her father. Despite the anguish of these early diary entries, and later her embarrassment and confusion at his presence when he turns up in Amsterdam, her fondness for him – ‘my little Papa’ (11) – is never far below the surface. This preference is not surprising, for though she inherits from him his love of literature and intellectual giftedness, she is in fact very different from him. Temperamentally she takes after her hot-blooded Russian mother. It was doubtless because of her mother that she developed a passion for all things Russian – its language, literature and landscapes – but she found her mother’s emotional turbulence very difficult to cope with, for in it she saw a reflection of her own budding confusion. So she felt a profound ‘unresolved antipathy’ (12) for her. In one entry she writes with great emphasis: ‘Mother is a model of what I must never become’ (13).
The picture she paints of her is of an excitable but empty person whose moods vacillate wildly between ‘forced vitality’ and complaining exhaustion. She does not seem able to contain her mental disorganization and misery which spreads through her household like a contagion ‘spoiling the atmosphere’, draining the place of life, and no doubt producing a great deal of conflict. As Etty writes her August diary upstairs in her bedroom, she pauses at one point to add, ‘Downstairs they are screaming blue murder with Father yelling, “Go then!” and slamming the door’ (14).
She also sees her mother as a profoundly needy person. She remembers how she once watched her eating at some function:
She revolted me, sitting there, and at the same time I was filled with incredible pity for her. I really can’t explain it. Her gluttony gave her the air of being terrified of missing out on anything. There was something terribly pathetic about her as well as something bestially repulsive … If I could only fathom what I really felt deep down, why I observed her so closely, then I would understand a great deal about my mother (15).
In her father, she comes to see a lovable, but also a ‘pathetic’ figure, who has ‘traded all his uncertainties, doubts, and probably also his physical inferiority complex, his insurmountable marriage problems, for philosophical ideas that … are totally vague. Those ideas help him to gloss over everything ….’
Hidden behind his books, he surrenders to a kind of uncomprehending despair about life which he sees as ‘chaos’. Etty finds this very threatening:
Beneath the surface, his resigned philosophy simply means: Oh well, which of us knows anything, all is chaos within and without. And it is that very chaos that also threatens me, that I must make my life’s task to shake off instead of reverting to it time and again (16).
At the heart of this family created by these two people there appears to be a void, a kind of muddled chaotic emptiness. Her parents are consumed with different kinds of anxiety, or in the case of her father, simply avoid life. There appears to be no strength or sense of presence. And so there can be no meeting of persons. All are left alienated and alone and somehow survive in their own isolation, confusion and anger. The family portrait taken in 1931 speaks volumes. It is cold and emotionally frozen. Nobody smiles. To one side – on the edge – is father withdrawn in his chair. At the back stands the distant figure of the older brother Jaap whom at several points in the diary Etty reports as being aggressive towards her. In the centre sits the large and rather strange-looking figure of the mother, with the gifted younger son Mischa beside her, his arm around her neck. He was perhaps the most disturbed of them all. To the right is Etty, her face utterly dead and devoid of any expression. Other than the arm of the younger son around the neck of his mother, there is no trace anywhere of any warmth. No sense of the personal – of human beings relating to one another.
In a diary entry of 24th April 1942, Etty remembers sitting ‘at about the age of fifteen’ in her father’s small study, which she describes as ‘untidy and impersonal as were all the rooms in all the different houses in which we lived…’ (17). ‘Impersonal.’ Perhaps this word gives the clearest clue to this family’s confusion. It suggests that the houses in which they lived were never places with a sense of personal belonging which enabled them to meet and share together. In other words, her parents had not been able to create a ‘home’.
Etty came to realize – with a sense of compassion – that, though gifted, her parents were emotionally inadequate people who simply could not cope with life. The profound differences in their cultural backgrounds, their incompatible temperaments, their personality problems and their resulting marital conflicts must all have played a part. They were not equipped for the challenging task of bringing up such gifted children. She writes:
I think my parents always felt out of their depth and as life became more and more difficult they were gradually so overwhelmed that they became quite incapable of making up their minds about anything. They gave us children too much freedom of action, and offered us nothing to cling to. That was because they never established a foothold for themselves. And the reason why they did so little to guard our steps was that they themselves had lost the way (18).
A very troubled young woman
When she arrived for her first meeting with Julius Spier, this chaos of her dysfunctional family was part of the baggage that Etty carried within her. And she was a very troubled young woman. In the period after she had left home and come to live in Amsterdam as a student, she had moved restlessly from one set of lodgings to another until she settled in the house of Han Wegerif.
During this time her tempestuous needs and insecurity drove her into turbulent sexual relationships. Etty was very aware of herself as a highly erotic young woman with a vivid sexual imagination. ‘If someone makes an impression on me,’ she writes, ‘I can revel in erotic fantasies for days and nights on end.”‘ And she saw herself as an ‘accomplished’ lover. In her first entry in the diary – 9 March 1941 – she had written, ‘I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough … to be counted among the better lovers . . .’ (20)
But though ‘accomplished’, she also knew that much of her youthful sexual activity was born out of a kind of desperate need and had about it a feverish and destructive quality. In a diary entry of 12th March 1942, a full year after she had begun meeting with Spier, she writes of meeting up again with one of her former lovers, a man named Max. He tells her that something in her has changed, ‘. . . you have turned into a real woman … your features, your gestures, they’re as lively and expressive as ever, but now there’s so much more wisdom . . .’ She reflects later: `. . . it was the body of this man, who now walked beside me like a brother, to which I had once clung in terrible despair. That, somehow, was the most gladdening thing: something had survived … the revival of memories that no longer haunted us, who once had lived so destructively off each other’ (21) (my italics).
How did this transformation, noticed by her former lover — this growth into ‘a real woman’ with the emergence in her of ‘wisdom’ (which in the Hebrew tradition represents the feminine aspect of the Divine) — how did it begin?
Julius Spier — and a new home
It began through her meeting with Julius Spier. But Spier was not the only one who played a significant part. When, in 1937, Etty moved into the house of the 62-year-old widower Han Wegerif, she became part of a new home, very different from the one she had left, and through her friendships with those who shared the house she became part of a warm human community.
It is easy to underestimate the part that Han Wegerif played in her story. He is a gentle, tolerant and undemanding figure in the background of the diary, and with him Etty felt deeply ‘at home’. He did not attempt to comprehend her difficulties, or respond to her powerful intellectual needs, but he gave her affection and sexual intimacy. But while she belonged to him, rather like a comfortable married couple, it was Spier who excited her and held out to her the possibility of life — and freedom from her confusions.
Spier’s charismatic personality attracted round him many admirers, many of them young women. Etty’s relationship with him developed in the context of this wider circle. Among those who were especially important to her were Henny Tideman whose simple faith played a part in her spiritual search, Dicky de Jonge the youngest of the Spier circle, Adri Holm, and the Zionist couple Werner and Liesl Levie. All these belonged to the group which gathered round Spier for intellectual discussion and musical evenings.
So as the barbarism of Nazi race hatred grew ever uglier around them, there grew up in Amsterdam this small community of intellectual life and spiritual nourishment — and Etty was at the heart of it. All these people played a part in her story, including too those who came to her for lessons in Russian. But it was the very personal relationship that developed between her and Spier — with all its shades of light and dark — that was the key to unlocking her future.
A strange therapeutic relationship
As a therapeutic relationship it was highly unusual — a long way from any conventional idea of therapy such as we might expect today with clear understandings of professional boundaries and roles. And it went a great deal further. Indeed, the terms ‘therapist’ and ‘patient’ do not begin to describe the rich, complex and intimate friendship she made with this charismatic older man to whom she was attracted, and with whom she spiritually and literally struggled.
Julius Spier was a ‘psycho-chirologist’. Born in Frankfurt in 1887, he had left a successful career in business to develop his interest in chirology — the reading of people’s personalities through the study of their hands. In this he was encouraged by the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung with whom Spier spent two years in apprentice analysis. Jung wrote the introduction to Spier’s book The Hands of Children, which explains the basic principles of chirology, and the influence of Jung can be seen in Spier’s thinking and approach. It was at Jung’s recommendation that Spier opened a practice as a psychochirologist in Berlin in 1929, which was highly successful.
However, in his domestic life things were not so straightforward. In 1934 Spier divorced his wife Hedl Rocco, and after several affairs he became engaged to one of his students, Hertha Levi, who became his secretary. She emigrated to London around 1938, but right up to his death from cancer in 1942, Spier was in touch with her. They corresponded regularly and he was concerned to try to remain faithful to her. He died with her name on his lips.
In 1939 Spier received permission to emigrate to the Netherlands after payment of a large amount of money to the Nazis, and he arrived in Amsterdam in January of that year and stayed with his sister for the first few months until he found lodgings in south Amsterdam, not far from where Etty was living.
Spier began his teaching and therapeutic relationships with the many young women who came to him, by reading their palms. This was how Etty first met him. She was invited to his rooms in Amsterdam as a ‘model’ at one of his courses where he taught palm-reading. But the focus did not stay for long simply on the hands. In one of her very early sessions with him he encouraged her to wrestle with him, and it would seem that wrestling became an occasional part of their early relationship. Spier was a big man and one can only imagine his surprise and consternation when, on the first occasion they wrestled, this small young woman whom he hardly knew, threw him. Etty comments: ‘All my inner tensions, the bottled-up forces, broke free, and there he lay, physically and also mentally, as he told me later, thrown. No one had ever been able to do that to him before, and he could not conceive how I had managed it’ (22). To the modern ear this all sounds highly questionable and, to say the least, irregular. However, in the climate of the interwar years – a period of bizarre psychoanalytical experimentation – it may not have been so unusual. Interestingly, there was at this time ‘a popular movement in psychoanalysis, which proposed that a therapeutic relationship could only arise from a physical bond’ (23). Spier used to justify the wrestling by saying, ‘body and soul are one’ (24).
Unusual or not, from the beginning Etty ‘fell under the spell of the inner freedom that seemed to emanate from him’; she was excited by the possibilities of working with him, and was ready to yield herself to him ‘unreservedly’.” It was to be a risky and dangerous surrender.
Etty Hillesum was an intensely alive and sexual young woman, yet she felt herself plagued by what she called her ‘confounded eroticism”‘ This she saw clearly mirrored in Spier. Alarmingly, her first meetings with him vividly awakened in her all the energies and appetites that in the past had betrayed her so deeply and torn her apart and which needed now not to be indulged but disciplined and directed towards the finding of a deeper and fuller humanity. So he seemed to offer her both hope, as a therapist, but disaster, as a man.
A growing and deepening bond
However, because Etty trusted Spier and valued his evident gifts of insight and analytical wisdom, and because she was ruthlessly determined ‘to come to grips with myself’ (27), over a long period she was, despite her worst self, able to accomplish this disciplining and redirecting of her energies. Their increasingly intimate friendship, which was carried on at every level – intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical – spelt hope for her. First she was his pupil, then his secretary, and eventually from time to time, his lover. Entry after entry in her diary speaks of a growing and deepening bond, though it was not all plain sailing.
For the first few months her feelings for him and about him are tempestuous and frequently contradictory. Often she is consumed by desire and longs for an affair with him; just now and then she longs to be free of him; occasionally she feels used by him; often she finds herself jealous of his relationship with others; just occasionally she declares she is sick of him; and frequently she says how much she loves and adores him. As the relationship develops, sometimes she finds herself longing ‘more for the human being than for the man’.'” It was an emotional roller-coaster, but despite the ups and downs and the violent pulls of her passionate nature, overall hugely positive. Spier gave her the emotional security, the intellectual stimulus and the psychological insight which she so badly needed. ‘What I am looking for’, she writes in one entry, ‘is my own truth.’ Spier helped her find it.