Friday, February 15, 2013

The Most Profound Thing That Etty Hillesum Ever Wrote

This is the most profound thing that Etty Hillesum ever wrote:

"I see no alternative, each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable."

(The above was embedded in a long entry dated September 23, 1942.)

Jesus' once asked why we look at the splinter in our brother's eye when we don't notice the log in our own eye. That saying of Jesus hasn't gotten enough emphasis.

I know too many people that express slander and hatred freely and without conscience. It springs from original sin and ignorance of course, and some people are simply delusional. And sadly, quite a number of people like this are devoutly religious. Just as numerous are people who blindly believe and then repeat every slanderous allegation they hear. People like this are too numerous to deal with. 

The only thing that we have any hope of having real control over in our lives is ourselves. The only hope we can ever have of changing others, is that our own lives be a witness to the truth. 

I am not comfortable with Etty's choice of the word destroy. (though critics say that the translation is horrendous.) God does not want us to be self-destructive. Reform would have been a better choice of a word. We have to reform our own lives--our own hearts, minds, and souls, before we can ever have any chance of changing others. If we don't, then we are hypocrites, and simple observation of people shows that there is nothing like hypocrisy to dissuade people from something. If you want change, as Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Otherwise, we are nothing more than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.


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.

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