Category Archives: Etty Hillesum

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43

I have to admit that I was glad that I ended up putting The Persephone Project on hold for a month as I have to admit I struggled with the fifth title. One of the downsides of reading them in order and with a deadline is that you might not be in the right space for a book and also you feel the need to simply get it read. This was what I was experiencing with ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’ and I didn’t want to let that affect the book, so when I knew I was having trouble keeping up with blogging I popped this down for a while before I picked it up again, and I am glad I did because when I came back to it I suddenly found I was reading it in a much better frame of mind.

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**** Persephone Books, paperback, 1941-43 (1999 edition), non fiction, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, 430 pages, from my own personal TBR

I have to admit something that really worried me about the book when I started it was that I didn’t really like Etty very much. As we meet her she is clearly going through a rather traumatic time where she is having major self doubt and bouts of depression. She is seeking help from an older man, a psychoanalyst who she simply calls ‘S’, who she also seems to be having a rather erotic and worrying connection with – they spend a lot of the time wrestling and him telling her he can’t love her, yet clearly getting aroused and passionate with her. In the background we also have the start of people being moved into concentration camps and Etty’s observations, initially minor ones, on this.

As I was reading on I was finding myself getting more and more frustrated with Etty not getting/realizing/understanding the bigger picture and simply being rather self absorbed and unhappy. This of course, knowing that Etty ended up in Auschwitz where she died, made me feel really guilty that I didn’t really like this woman and her thoughts. I felt very conflicted about all of this and started to over think what it meant about me and so I put the book down to end the self analysis, in hindsight I can see that weirdly  this was just what Etty was prone to.

A few weeks ago I finally picked the book up again and strangely found that my attitude, as I read a long, had undergone a slight turnaround. As I read her thoughts I started to find her rather grimly fascinating. Born in 1914 Etty went on to study law, psychology and Russian at the University of Amsterdam. She was also very much a modern woman, she herself didn’t believe she was ‘meant for one man’ and as we see with ‘S’ and even her landlord she could be very free, she was also in some way full of issues, she seemed confident but lacked it. In fact Eva Hoffman, who wrote the preface for the book, describes Hillesum as “an intellectual young woman”, a private person, who was “impassioned, erotically volatile, restless”, while her journey was “idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern” and you couldn’t really put it better than that. She was no angel and whilst initially was something I struggled with (why should we assume all Holocasut victims were perfect people after all?) I became intrigued by her.

“I half wanted to read some philosophy, or perhaps that essay on War and Peace, then felt Alfred Adler suited my mood better, and ended up with a light novel. But all my efforts were just tilting against the natural lassitude to which I wisely yielded in the end. And this morning everything seemed fine again. But when I began cycling down Apollolaan, there it was back, all the questioning, the discontent, the feeling that everything was empty of meaning, the sense that life was unfilled, all the pointless brooding. And right now I am sunk in the mire. And even the certain knowledge that this too will pass brought me no peace this time.”

As the diaries continue, and then turn into letters, Etty’s story changes because of the fact she herself gets taken to Westerbork, a transit camp, with many other Dutch Jews. The writing here naturally changes, the horrors that Etty sees and the terror she feels come straight off the page. To have the contrast of her personality from earlier on is part of what makes this such a hard hitting, and indeed (cliched as it sounds) important book tfor people to read, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it gets. I must admit when I finished the book, and the last postcard Etty wrote which amazingly she threw from the train from Westerbork to Auschwitz and some farmers posted, I thought that just a collection of the letters would have been a better volume by itself. My opinion has changed as I think having both the diaries and letters creates a haunting picture with its depth and layers and so hits you harder.

With ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’ we have a distinct and very different voice from a part of history that we need not to forget and to learn from. I may have found her hard to work with at the start, yet strangely after finishing the book I felt that this is what makes the book so different and so powerful. Etty’s is a voice I will never forget.

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