Thursday, January 10, 2013

It Is Possible to Suffer with Dignity and Without

From the diary of Etty Hillesum:

July 1, 1942
It is possible to suffer with dignity and without. I mean: most of us in the West don't understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead. We cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred, and despair. God knows it's only too easy to understand why. But when we are deprived of our lives, are we really deprived of very much? We have to accept death as part of life, even the most horrible of deaths. And don't we live an entire life each one of our days, and does it really matter if we live a few more days or less? I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that's what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life. For a belief in God and for a miserable end. When I say, I have come to terms with life, I don't mean I have lost hope. What I feel is not hopelessness, far from it. I have lived this life a thousand time over already, and I have died a thousand deaths. Am I blase then? No. It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain. And it is certainly no small bargain these days. But does it matter if it is the Inquisition that causes people to suffer in one century, and war and pogroms in another? To suffer senselessly, as the victims would put it? Suffering has always been with us, does it really matter in what form it comes? All that matters is how we bear it and how we fit it into our lives. Am I merely an armchair theorist safely ensconced behind my desk, with my familiar books around me and the jasmine outside? Is it all theory, never tested in practice? I don't think so. All our conversations are now interlarded with sentences such as, "I hope he'll still be there to enjoy these strawberries with us." I know that Mischa, with his delicate physique, has been ordered to report at Central Station, and I think of Miriam's and Renate's pale little faces, and many, many worried people, and I know it all, everything, every moment, and I sometimes bow my head under the great burden that weighs down on me, but even as I bow my head I also feel the need , almost mechanically to fold my hands. And so I can sit for hours and know everything and bear everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it, and at the same time, feel sure that life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful. Despite everything. But that does not mean that I am always filled with joy an exaltation. I am often dog-tired after standing about in queues, but I know that this too is part of life, and somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me again.

The above quote is from the book, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, by Etty Hillesum, p.150.

Etty Hillesum was a secular, assimilated Jew living in Amsterdam who died in Auswitch in 1943. The diary was written after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, while the Nazis were persecuting the Jews and shipping them off to concentration camps. Etty had a degree in law and then studied Russian language and literature. On her own, she read philosophy, psychology, especially, Carl Jung, and poetry, especially Rilke. She was a patient,  personal secretary, and physical intimate of the psychoanalyst Julius Spier, also a Jew. He introduced her to the gospels and the writings of St. Augustine. Etty had several opportunities to escape the Nazi persecution, Instead she insisted on serving her fellow Jews to the very end and chose to suffer the same fate as they. Her last letter was a postcard tossed from the window of the train as it left for the concentration camp.

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