“We left the camp singing” – the interrupted life of Etty Hillesum
These words, written on a postcard thrown from a cattle transport on its way out of Holland to Poland and its ultimate destination, Auschwitz, were some of the very last words written by Dr Etty (Esther) Hillesum. The postcard had been found on the 7th of September 1943 and posted by the farmers who found it a few days later. Dr Hillesum died on the 30th of November 1943. She was 29 years of age. Between 1941 and 1943, she kept a diary of her life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, detailing the privations, the fears, the joys, the hopes and her extraordinary inner life.
I’ve been reading it in chunks, often during those frequent occasions when insomnia and pain and worry have driven me from my bed to read downstairs on the sofa. It’s been a true companion to me. Her voice, silenced for many, many years, rings out, true and clear and full of life. Her love of life, her resilience have been an inspiration and not a reproach to me in my own troubles (and believe me, virtually every self-help book I have come across, every nugget of a meme from some guru or other, has left me with nothing but guilt and self-reproach for my own lack of strength and guts) and I finally read the last section of the book today. It’s a collection of the letters she wrote from Westerbork, the camp Dutch Jews were held at before being loaded onto cattle trucks and sent off to Auschwitz. The voice in these letters differs only very little from that of the diaries; her integrity and pure honesty shine out, unmistakably amid the events of those terrible days. Humour, love, gentleness and a lack of bitterness that is almost shocking.
I’d put off reading this book, because the core of the book is something I cannot look at square in the face without feeling the abyss opening. Yet the abyss IS indeed opening. Concentration camps exist again in the so-called civilised world, and the fact that many dispute the use of the word is proof that they have become inured to the concept. But the book brought me some comfort that a voice of sense, reason, justice and love can still ring out across the years since its owner died. It reminded me that we have lessons from the past that can and should be learned from.