Monday, January 21, 2013

Under Nazi Persecution, the Jewish Etty Hillesum Prays for a German Solder

The Nazis have occupied Holland, are vigorously persecuting the Jews and forcing them into Westerbork, a transient concentration camp in Holland, from which they were packed onto trains bound for Auschwitz (Oswiecim). Early in her diary, Etty notes that among the citizens of Holland, every discussion of the situation is one of shouting and enraged cursing of the Germans.  In contrast to the situation, I found the following quote to be utterly astonishing:

July 3, 1942
And if this day has brought me nothing else--not yet that fine and final confrontation with death and extinction--then I am nevertheless grateful for that kosher German Soldier at the kiosk with his bag of carrots and cauliflowers. First he pushed that note into Liesl's hand on the tram, and then came the letter that I had to read and reread: she reminded him so much of the late rabbi's daughter whom he had nursed on her deathbed for days and nights on end. And tonight he is paying a visit. 
And when Liesl told me all this, I knew at once: I shall have to pray for this German soldier. Out of all these uniforms one has been given a face now. There will be other faces, too, in which we shall be able to read something we understand: that German soldiers suffer as well. There are no frontiers between suffering people, and we must pray for them all.
 -  A quote from the book, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, by Etty Hillesum, p.156.  

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 Aushwitz concentration camp. It was found by a farmer.

Liesl is Liesl Levie, Etty's best friend. She survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel.

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