About the Center
|Etty Hillesum, life and identity|
By: FRITS GRIMMELIKHUIZEN
Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman, who lived in Deventer from the age of ten. She was born on January 15th, 1914 in Middelburg, where her father was a teacher of Latin and Greek. Etty’s mother, Riva Bernstein, had fled from a persecution in Russia in 1907, when she was 26, and married Levie (Louis) Hillesum in 1912. Etty also had two brothers: Jacob (Jaap), born January 1916 in Hilversum, and Misja (Michael) born september 1920 in Winschoten.In 1924 the whole family moved to Deventer, when Etty’s father became a teacher at the Municipal Highschool (Stedelijk Gymnasium). Four years later he became Principal of this school. The family lived in a house at the Duymaer van Twiststraat. Etty’s schooling in Deventer began at the Graaf van Buurenschool, in the 5th and 6th forms, where she became good friends with Betty Deeg, who also lived in the same street. There exists a photograph of Etty and Betty in their classroom. In september 1926 Etty began her highschool education and, although she was very intelligent, she was not regarded as an attentive student. She was very fond of books, from Rilke and Dostojewsky to the Decamerone, which she discovered in her fathers library. And she liked being ‘around the boys’. When she was 15, she made her first long trip by train to Paris. Her passport of that period is now in the municipal Museum of Deventer. In august 1941 she wrote about this trip in her diaries. In 1932 she finished Highschool and went to Amsterdam University to study Law, as she wanted to became a Judge. But in the summer she enjoyed a very strong and intimate relationship with Klaas Smelik, who later saved her diaries. His son now has control of these. It was also Klaas Smelik the elder, who unsuccesfully tried to hide her from the concentrationcamp in 1942. AMSTERDAM In Amsterdam Etty lived an unfettered student life, with many friends and relationships. She occasionally changed residence in Amsterdam or sometimes moved back to Deventer to be with her family in their new and bigger home at the Geert Grootestraat, to where they had moved in 1932. However her staying in Deventer was never lasting and her relationship with her parents was difficult. This betters only In her diaries she writes on several occasions about life in Deventer: Our house is a remarkable mixture of barbarism and culture....I don’t know what kind of madhouse this really is, but I know that no human being can flourish here... Etty’s family could be described as far from normal and their house was fairly disorganised. Her father was always studying and the house was full of his books. Her mother was always cooking and, usually unsuccesfully, trying to organise the family, but everything still appeared to be in a mess. Her brother Misja was a musical genius, but also at the bordering on the insane, and studied piano day and night. (Poor neighbours!!) My mother wears you out with all her unsolved problems and her quick changing moods; she is in an chaotic and pitiful state, which is reflected all about her in the utterly disorganised household. And yet she is convinced that she is an excellent housewife, driving everyone crazy with her perpetual fussing over the housekeeping.... Downstairs they are screaming blue murder, with Father yelling, ‘Go then!’and slamming the doors.... Darling Mamynka, who translates all her love into chicken-legs and hard-boiled eggs... In 1937 Etty moved in Amsterdam to the house of a much older man, Han Wegerif, a widower. Initially this was simply as a companion, but their relationship soon developped and appeared to be that of a long standing husband and wife. And Han is taking an increasing, almost organic, place in my emotional life. I see and feel the difference between what was and what is more and more clearly and appreciate the important role he has played.....Yet here I am lying by his side, streched beside him in real affection.... At University Etty was not an outstanding student, but she managed to obtain her Law degree in 1939. She then decided to continue to study Slavonic Languages, because, through her mother, she had an enormous interest in Russian Literature. Anti-Jewish orders, however, during the german occupation of Holland, prevented Etty from completing these studies and she was forced to leave University in 1942. JEWISH IDENTITY Although not religious, Etty and her family were Jewish. Because of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, Etty’s mother had been forced to flee in disguise as a soldier with her hair cut off, and, on her fathers side, Etty’s great grandfather had been Chief Rabby in Northern Holland. The family had resigned from membership of the religious Jewish Community in 1937 and lived in a free and liberal manner as most other middle-class Dutch/Jewish citizens. And Etty was given Hebrew lessons by her father. Most of her friends, lovers and acquaintances were also Jewish, and by order of the German measures this number increased after 1940. OCCUPATION and PROSECUTION German occupation in Holland started may 1940 and, from november of that year, anti-Jewish restrictions began. Jews were not allowed to work as teachers, postmen, doctors or for the government. This resulted in Etty’s father losing his job at the Highschool. The anti-Jewish measures increased rapidly and became more restrictive and inhuman. It became forbidden to go shopping, ride a bike, drive a car, sit in a tram, listen to a radio, go to te library, visit a non-Jewish doctor, visit a concerthall, or a museum, swim or walk in a park. The threat grows even greater, and terror increases from day to day.... What is at stake, is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about it. They are out to destroy us completely.... Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well... And now Jew may no longer visit groceryshops, they will soon have to hand their bicycles, they may no longer travel by tram and they must be off the streets by 8 o’clock at night. When I feel depressed about this measures..... And everywhere signs barring Jews from the paths and the open country.... In april 1942 all Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star on their clothing and gradually, from june 1942 they were all brought together in ghettos in the larger cities and from there to the concentration- and transitcamp Westerbork in Holland, preparing their deportation and murder in eastern Europe. Because of this Etty’s parents and brother were forced to leave Deventer in Januar 1943 and to live in a small room in the Amsterdam Retiefstraat. In june 20, 1943 they were send to Westerbork. SPIER and the DIARIES As Han Wegerif was not Jewish, Etty was long time able to remain in his house and led a quite peacefull life.. But as time went on, she felt less harmonious with her lifea and the world around her. So she contacted Julius Spier, a Jew, fled from Germany, student of Jung and a hand-reading specialist in the field of Therapeutic Research. Spier had in his small rooms ,Courbetstraat in Amsterdam, a practise, mainly visited by women, with whom he did talkings and discussions, hand-readings and wrestling. Part of his therapy was to keep a diary. Spier had a very good understanding of people and was often able to resolve their most hidden problems. In fact he was a good psychologist and had only one failing: he became sometimes too emotionally involved with his female patients. In her diary Etty writes about this , but nevertheless she is overwhelmed by his charms, his words and his thoughts, and, at the end of 1941, fell in love with him. Spier could not resist her feeling for him and they develloped an intimate relationship, in spite of the fact that Spier had a fiancee in London, whom he had promised to marry. The last evening of a year that has been my richest and most fruitful and yes, the happiest of all. And if I had to put in a nutshell what this year has meant- from 3 february, when I shyly pulled the bell at 27 Courbetstraat and a weird -looking character wearing some sort of antenna on his head examined my palms- then I would say: greater awareness and hence easier acces to my inner sources.... In her diaries Etty describes her strong and passionate feelings for Spier. She describes also the difficulty of loving two men at the same time (Spier and Wegerif) and having feelings of love and passion for others, including female friends. Through Spier Etty once again becomes engrossed with the German Poet Rilke (1875-1926) From his poems and letters, she learns step by step to handle her feelings of love, to change this feelings to compassion and to have patience in realising her goals. She describes how her readings of Rilke ( The Book of Hours and Letters to a young poet) help her to overcome uncertainty and anguish and she writes that he is even more of a teacher to her than Spier. With Rilke she begins a new love-affair, but this time from her soul. She learns to get a certainty in herself , a state of equilibrium within, something that never can be taken from her. Sometimes she names that ‘god’. Sometimes she feels that this makes her untouchable. She feels more and more that she is in the heart of a tornade, all quiet, but with terror raging around her. In the midst of Westerbork transit camp, crowded with thousants of people and filled with sorrow and anguish, with uncertainty and constant struggle for food and an bed, she is able to survive and to help others, day and night, to love and help her parents and bear the fact that all have to depart to an unknown destiny. At the same time, she is aware, more than others that this destiny will be total destruction. Very well then, this new certainty, that what they are after is our total destruction.... .....the misery here is quite terrible and yet, I often walk along with a spring in my step along the barbed wire and then time and again it soars straight from my heart...the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a new world.... WESTERBORK In july 1942 Etty took a job as secretary at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, because she was urged to do so by friends in order to prevent her from deportation. As if I had done something underhand. Like crowding on to a small piece of wood adrift on an endless ocean after a shipwreck and then saving oneself by pushing others into the water... Once there she realises that this is totaly unsuitable for her, for she helped in fact there to deport others. Nothing can ever attone for the fact, of course, that one section of the Jewish population is helping to transport the majority out of the country. History will pass judgement in due course.... She then decides to go herself to the camp and become a social worker. She starts in the camp on july 30, 1942. By that time she is aware that Spier is dying of cancer and in the camp she realises how poor her own health is. As social worker however she has permission to go in and out the camp, she brings letters out, small packets in, and comforts the lower-class Jewish people in the camp, her folks, as she names them. Oh god, times are too hard for frail people like myself.... God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me.... Spier dies on september 15, 1942 and that causes Etty to remain in Amsterdam, trying to get a better health, finishing her life with Han Wegerif and others and preparing for the worst. End of november she is for another 14 days in Westerbork. In december 1942 she writes her ‘first’letter from Westerbork, but meanwhile she has written several more letters, f.e. to Osias Kormann, a German refugee , with whom she became friendly in Westerbork. She wrote him over 30 letters, full of love and sorrow. In october 1942 she writes a last entry in her diarie, although she kept a diary also in Westerbork,but that is destroyed in Auschwitz. .. we should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.... The END On june 5, 1943 Etty has to return to Westerbork, not as a ‘free’social worker, but as the other Jews, preparing for deportation. From Westerbork once a week a train departed to the unknown east. 1000 - 1200 Jews in 98 trains, babies, children, young and old. 102.000 people only from the Netherlands. Deported and murdered. Ettys parents join her in the camp on june 20/21. The jam-packed freight train drew into the camp this morning. I stood beside it in the rain...Through one of the openings I suddenly spotted Mother’s hat and father’s glasses and Mischa’s peaky face. I started to shout and they saw me... Untill september Etty is able to postpone deportation but, following an unfortunate letter from her mother to one of the highest Nazi-leaders in Holland in favour of Misja, the family is at once ordered to be deported. A few days earlier Etty wrote her ‘second’letter from Westerbork. On september 7th the train with Etty, her parents and her brother Misha is deported to Poland, together with more than 900 other Jews. ...I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning, on sudden special orders from the Hague. We left the camp singing.... Etty’s parents either die on the way or are murdered directly on arrival. Etty survived another three months in the camp and died on november 30th, possibly from hard labour or medical experiments by camp-doctors. In her diarie she once wrote: in a labour camp you’d break down inside three days, and all the intellectual power in the world will not be able to save you if a companionable walk lasting less than two hours..... Etty’s two letters from Westerbork were clandestinely published in october 1943, to help Jews in hiding and later on reprinted in the sixties. The first collection of diary-pages and letters was published in 1981. The collected writings are published in 1986. ETTY She had brown and wavy hair, here eyes were green-grey, she was round and firm with a full-figure, here voice was high-pitched and sharp. She wasn’t tall. She enjoyed laughing, sometimes wore glasses, smoked a little, liked sweets and chocolates and was a little vain. She liked nice clothes and wearing make-up. In her diaries she describes her future-life as a ‘Yiddish mamme’. She felt a little embarrased by her full bust, looking like a Tahitian girl, as Spier once said, and she loved dancing, specially Tango, what she did in a way Spier described as ‘obscene’ . Like all other members of her family,Etty could be described as a little neurotic, sometimes happy and in heaven and sometimes very depressed. Her emotions in the camp made her faint, and her health was at times poor. She suffered from migraine attacks, chronic cystitis, problems with her colon and various other ailments. As was said earlier Etty was sexually very active, fell easily in love, mostly with older men and sometimes with women. Even in Westerbork, as she herself describes. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I shoulkd think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection... Her frustration is that she is willing to make love with Spier ‘to the end’, but that Spier is teasing her and preventing that moment. Only at the end, on july 27 Etty writes: The ring of our relationship was closed, so simply and manifestly. As if nothing more ever covered me at night than a flowered blanket.... Etty was, even in her days, Bohemian, special, attractive, interesting, eager, vegetarian, leftish, emancipated and most unconventional. A very unusual woman in many ways. Yes, we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell and earth and Life and Death and all of history. The externals are simply so many props; everything we need is within us. And we have to take everything that comes: the bad with the good, which does not mean we cannot devote our life to curing the bad. But we must know what motives inspire our struggle and we must begin with ourselves, every day anew... Life is hard, but that is no bad thing. If one starts by taking one’s own importance seriously, the rest follws. It is not morbid individualism to work on oneself. True peace will come only When every individual finds peace within himself; when we have vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow humaan beings of whatever race-even into love one day, although perhaps that is asking too much. It is however to only solution... I wish I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short. And that is way I must try to live a good and faithfull life to my last breath: so that those who come after me do not have to start all opver again, need not faace the same difficulties. Isn’t that doing something for future generations?... Note The above text is related to a lecture in Dutch written by the autor for the Etty Hillesum Centre in Deventer under the title: ‘Een mens kan hier niet gedijen’/‘No human being can flourish here’ over the real life of Etty and her small family in Deventer, Amsterdam and Westerbork, based on the diaries of Etty, Philip Mechanicus and written or oral information from others. Some more ideas are written in a booklet about the influence of Rilke on the ‘spiritual’ development of Etty by the same author. I regret that as in the dutch version as in the English version of ‘The interrupted life’ the name of Rilke and many of the quotations that Etty made out of his works and as many of her thoughts about Rilke and what it means to her mostly are neglected as are most of the descriptions and thoughts over/of ‘her everyday life’. So the quotations out of Ettys diaries in this English version of my script about Etty are poor in comparison with the original version in Dutch, based on ALL the writings of Etty Hillesum (The collected writings). 2002 With many thanks to Mr Frank Miller, who made some necessary corrections in my English language.