Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Few Thoughts After Reading Etty Hillesum

I have finally finished reading Etty's diary and letters, and it has been a profound experience. I was as moved as I ever have been. I know that some people refrain from indulging in the holocaust genre because it is too depressing. I understand that. I do not dwell on the horror; there is no point in that.

Yet, Etty herself was never depressed. Spiritually and psychologically, she rose above her circumstances. In the weeks over which I was reading the book, it impacted my mind significantly. I looked at life differently, saw the meaning of life more profoundly.

I read every footnote avidly, particularly the footnotes about individuals. Each character mentioned was vivid and vibrant to me--after all each was a friend of Etty.  She has made the Dutch people--Jews and non-Jews very attractive to me. I do not wish to diminish the tragedy of anyone's death, but the persecution and impending deaths of so many deeply talented intellectuals, artists, musicians, doctors, teachers, rabbis, is...well I don't know what words to use.

In the midst of the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews, Etty chose to embrace life and deal with her circumstances as best she could. She chose to live the highest of virtues of religion and humanity in every  moment of her life, even in the transit concentration camp at Westerbork.

Every moment of her time in the camp was spent working to alleviate the sufferings and difficulties of the other inmates. A letter from Jopie Vleeschhouwer, a fellow Westerbork inmate, described Etty on the platform before boarding the unpainted freight train bound for Poland: "Talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way, full of sparkling humor, perhaps just a touch of sadness, but every inch the Etty you all know so well."  And later in the same letter Jopie says: "After her departure I spoke to a little Russian woman and various other proteges of hers. And the way they felt about her leaving speaks volumes for the love and devotion she had given to them all."

Do you recall the 1997 film, Life is Beautiful?  The scriptwriter must have read Etty.  In the latter part of Etty's writings--as the illnesses, the hunger, the suicides, the numerous suffering and dying children, and all the despair and horror of the Nazi program continued, and as more and more Jews were packed into freight trains bound for the gas chambers in Poland--amid all this, every day Etty insisted that the gift of life was beautiful. Her life is the most powerful witness to truth that I have ever read.

Here in America, we live in the most politically free and economically prosperous society in human history. It is the opposite of a Nazi concentration camp. And yet everyday, we fail to live the values that we have been taught to live by. If Etty could think, feel, and live the way she did in the concentration camp, then what excuses could we Americans possibly have for not doing so?
On September 7, 1943, Etty and her family boarded the train for Auschwitz where died, on November 30 of the same year.

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