Spring 1988, Vol.40 No. 1, pp. 18-35.

Michael Downey:
      A Balm for All Wounds:
           The Spiritual Legacy of Etty Hillesum

By reconciling in her own life of service the contradictions of persecution, suffering, and death, a young Dutch Jew discovers the vulnerability of God and her own truest self.

Dr. Michael Downey is assistant professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, where he teaches sacramental theology and spirituality. He is author of A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and l'Arche (Harper and Row, 1986) and Clothed in Christ: The Sacraments and Christian Living (Crossroad, 1987).

ALAS, there doesn't seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last."(1)

These words closely written in a small, hard-to-cipher hand express the fullness of the spirit of Etty Hillesum. In a review of Hillesum's diaries, Elizabeth O'Connor claims that this work is "the most spiritually significant document of our age."(2) A bold but accurate assessment. It is quite curious, then, that the writings of this sober mystic have found their way into the hands of so few interested in spirituality. This may be due to the fact that her writings are unconventional, as is her nature. One ordinarily accustomed to reading "spiritual writers" would not be immediately inclined to relish the journals of one who makes frequent references to her lovers and to a possible abortion.(3) My intention in alluding to these sexual issues at the outset is not to shock. It is simply to nod in the direction of an explanation for the lack of attention given to Hillesum's writings by those interested in spirituality.(4)

Etty Hillesum's diaries and her recently published letters(5) provide an account of human transformation, the maturation in spirit of a Jewish woman. Her writings recount one person's reception of the message of the divine indwelling during one of modern history's darkest hours: the extermination of six million Jews and millions of others at the hands of the Nazis.

Care needs to be taken in the face of inclinations to liken her to Edith Stein or to view her as an adult Anna Frank. And caution should be exercised against the tendency toward Christian appropriationism.(6) No matter how open she may have been to truth wherever it might be found, Etty Hillesum lived and died a Jew. But religious convention was alien to her, and Hillesum's religiosity, if it can be called that, was decidedly unconventional. There are no hints of conventional forms of worship or methods of prayer. She was a Jew who chose her own way.

Overall, Etty Hillesum's spiritual legacy can be viewed in terms of a search for integration. But a word of caution is in order. Hillesum was a woman of her age. This poses problems as well as possibilities. It is problematic, for instance, whether she took up the task of spiritual integration in an explicit or conscious way. We do not discern in her writings the longing to negotiate what appear to be opposing poles within herself: body and soul, intimacy and solitude, acceptance and resistance. She struggles, rather, with justice and mercy, transcendence and immanence, hate and forgiveness, the claims of solitude and care for her people. The core of Etty Hillesum's spirituality lies in the attempt to negotiate these apparently contradictory and competing poles. The greatness of her soul lies in her struggle to live with the resulting ambiguity and even contradiction, moving toward a personal integration wherein duality is integral to unity and the integrity of this duality is accepted and affirmed.


"What a strange story it really is, my story: the girl who could not kneel. Or its variation: the girl who learned to pray" (Diaries, 194). Our knowledge of "the girl who could not kneel"(7) is based primarily upon eight exercise books in which she kept her diaries between 9 March 1941 and 13 October 1942. The first entry focuses upon her accomplishments in bed (Diaries, 196). The last contains the bold affirmation, "We should be willing to act as balm for all wounds" (Diaries, 196). In addition to the diaries, we now have access to several letters written from her sickbed in Amsterdam while she was on leave from Westerbork, a transit camp from which the bulk of the published letters were written. These letters describe daily life in a camp which was the last stop for Dutch Jews en route to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.

The Hillesum corpus is as yet incomplete. Selected entries from the 400 page diary have been published. One can only hope that the remainder will soon be released. Publisher Jan G. Gaarlandt notes in the introduction to the Letters from Westerbork the possibility that still more letters will come to light. He estimates the Hillesum wrote over a hundred during the last months of her interrupted life. But there will be no more diaries. Etty Hillesum took her last notebook with her on the train to Auschwitz.

There is one additional source of written information however. On 7 September 1943, Etty Hillesum, her father, mother, and brother, Mischa, were placed on "transport" from Westerbork to Auschwitz. Out of that train she threw a postcard, which was found and sent by farmers. On it she wrote: "We left the camp singing" (Letters, 146). A Red Cross report states that Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz on 30 November 1943. Her parents and Mischa died there too. And with them, we can assume burnt or buried, went the last of Etty Hillesum's diaries.

In the pages of her diaries and letters we find a Jewess in her late twenties living in Amsterdam. Her room overlooked Amsterdam's Museum Square. At the desk she described as the most beloved place on earth, she recorded everything frankly, clearly, and passionately. In April of 1942, Dutch Jews were forced to wear the Star of David. Deportations began that spring. But the restrictions and interruptions of Jewish life had begun much earlier, and it is in the face of these that Hillesum wrote. The personal scenario is one of liberation, while the public scenario being played out all over Europe was one of extermination.

Her diary journeys through her inner world. But this inner journey rests upon crystal-clear honesty and attention to the facts of history. In the face of the disintegration and destruction of her race, Hillesum's attitude toward life is one of radical altruism. Her diaries spell out her response to racism, injustice and innocent suffering. Her descriptions of persons, personal encounters, and historical events illustrate her astonishing familiarity with divinity. But it is not possible to envision Hillesum as one who "turned inward" at the expense of "turning outward." Rather, historical events and persons disclosed a God she understood primarily as the divinity dwelling within.


Esther Hillesum was born on 15 January 1914 in Middleburg, the Netherlands, where her father, Dr. Louis Hillesum, taught classical languages. Her mother, née Rebecca Bernstein, was a Russian Jewess. Theirs was a tempestuous marriage. Dr. Hillesum was an excellent, disciplined scholar; his wife was passionate and chaotic.

In 1924, the family moved to Deventer, where Dr. Hillesum assumed the post of headmaster of the Municipal Gymnasium. Esther, or Etty, was the middle child. Mischa, the eldest, was a brilliant musician. Jaap, the youngest, became a doctor. He survived the camps, but died on the way back to Holland. About her siblings, little more is known. What is certain is that Etty and her brothers were very intelligent and gifted.

Etty left her father's school in 1932. She took her first degree in law from the University of Amsterdam and then enrolled in the faculty of Slavonic languages. By the time she embarked on the study of psychology, World War II had begun.

While in Amsterdam, Etty lived in the home of Han Wegerif, a 62-year-old widower with whom she developed an intimate relationship. She earned her keep as a quasi-housekeeper and as a language tutor. Also living in the Wegerif home were the owner's 21 year old son, Hans, who was studying economics, and Kathe, the German cook. Bernard,(8) described by Etty as a reasonable social democrat, and Maria Tuinzing, a nurse and close personal friend of Etty's, rented rooms in the Wegerif house. The diaries recount the various reactions of this diverse group to the restriction and extermination being played out in their midst, as well as Etty's conflicting feelings about her relationship to the 62-year-old Wegerif, to whom she refers as Father Han. It is to this group that the letter dated 6-7 September 1943 was written containing the news that Etty had been put on transport from Westerbork to Auschwitz where she would meet her death.


Far more important is the group which gathered around Julius Spier, the "S." of the diaries: Adri Holm, Henny Tideman (referred to in the diaries as Tide), Dicky de Jonge, and Liesl Levie, Etty's best friend, now living in Israel. Spier studied under Jung and is credited with being the founder of psychochirology -- the study and classification of palm prints. He was the father of two, divorced from his gentle wife. Spier possessed a magical personality. He read palms, and interpreted the results with extraordinary clarity. Etty's diary tells of the occasions when members of the Spier circle would gather around him. He read their palms and became a therapist to each. Etty became his assistant, intellectual partner, and lover.

Hillesum began the relationship with Spier in January or February of 1941. Through this encounter with she undertook a lasting quest for the essential, the fully human, in marked contrast to the dehumanization and disintegration around her. Her "affair" with "S.; " alongside her intimate relationship with Han Wegerif, helped her develop an enormous religious sensibility which gives her writings an all-pervasive spiritual, indeed, mystical character. The term "God" had appeared in some of the early diaries, but in much the same way as the colloquial "O my God!" or "God knows" used in contemporary parlance. It was "S." who taught her to speak the name of God without embarrassment and it was he who invited her to the depths of human intimacy and solitude within which the presence of God is awakened. Gradually, Etty moved toward an ever more consistent and intense conversation with the divine. She wrote from the transit camp at Westerbork on 18 August 1943: "My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue" (Letters, 116).

Even so, Etty's history was filled with interruptions which should not be given short shrift. The regulations and restrictions on the Jews were viewed as minor interruptions in the lives of the Spier circle. Separated from him by three streets, a canal, and a little bridge, Etty continued to make the journey to "S."'s quarters. There the circle would gather around their mentor, savoring the luscious aroma of freshly perked coffee, which was in everdiminishing supply, at least for the Jews.

When the others were gone, Spier's room became the forum for Hillesum's therapy, their admittedly bizarre wrestling matches, and eventually their amorous exchanges. Some of the most breathtaking of her insights and meditations occured as she journeyed back to the Wegerif home, night after night on her bicycle, the sweet smell of jasmine still filling her senses.

Everything was interrupted however, when Etty assumed a post as a typist for the Jewish Council, a group of twenty important Jews with a staff of several hundred. The job of the Jewish Council was to mediate between the Nazis and the Jews. Established by the Nazis, the Council was under the illusion that by negotiation it could spare some Jews from the worst of their fate. It soon became a weapon in the hands of the Nazis.


Etty walked to and from her job at the Council headquarters, describing it as "hell." Her work there exempted her from internment at Westerbork, a transit camp near Assen in the northeastern Netherlands. After just fourteen days at the Council, however, Etty voluntarily decided to go to the camp as a social worker: an interruption in her life which she herself chose. Her diaries indicate that she was convinced that she could be true to herself only if she did not abandon those in danger, and if she used her energy to bring life into the lives of others; to be balm for their wounds. She would not be exempt from the fate of her people.

She arrived just as the relentless deportations to Auschwitz were beginning. For more than one hundred thousand Dutch Jews, Westerbork was the last stop before Auschwitz. Between August, 1942 and September, 1943 Etty Hillesum spent her time keeping her diary, writing letters and nursing the sick in the hospital barracks. During this period, she traveled by permit to Amsterdam approximately a dozen times, carrying letters, securing medicines, and bringing messages. Most of her time there was spent in bed, ill and suffering. The last part of her diary was written in Amsterdam after her first month in Westerbork, and tells of the sudden illness and death of "S." She went back to Westerbork but returned to Amsterdam again to be hospitalized. Finally, early in June 1943 she left Amsterdam for Westerbork for the last time. Her lover had died, and she parted with her dear friends, one of whom was Han Wegerif, whose relationship with Etty seems to have reached no formal resolution. It was to these friends that most of her letters from Westerbork were written.

Whether she writes from Amsterdam or from the camp, Westerbork is the consuming subject of Etty's letters. In her diaries we see the inner journey of a Jewess in love with someone who allows her to stand on her own two feet, and to speak God's name without embarrassment. That speaking developed into an uninterrupted dialogue which grew more passionate and enveloping in the life of Etty Hillesum, who became the "thinking heart of these barracks... the thinking heart of a whole concentration camp" (Diaries, 191). In Westerbork, "a plaything that had slipped from God's preoccupied hand" (Diaries, 180), Etty Hillesum's soul found its deepest expression. She gave herself without reserve to the service of her people. "I have broken my body like bread and shared it ... And why not, they were hungry and had gone without for so long" (Diaries, 195).

It is the nobility of her soul in the face of the final interruption of her life which leaves one awe-struck She faced her deportation from Westerbork and from those who served there, as well as her anticipated extermination at the hands of the Nazis, with honesty and acceptance. On 30 November 1943 the balm which was the life of Etty Hillesum was poured out in the ovens of Auschwitz, in solidarity with her own people, and with millions of others. And it was given willingly for all wounds, even those of her persecutors.


Etty wrote that the soul has a different age from that recorded in the register of births and deaths. "One can... be born with a thousand-year-old soul" (Diaries, 194). She possessed such a soul herself, and in it lies wisdom "forged out of fire and rock crystal" (Diaries, 195). Hers is a wisdom arising from honesty and the capacity to see the truth in all its nakedness, to bear it and find consolation in it. This thousand- year-old soul is like a vast inner space where there is room for everything. By looking to the gradual transformation of her soul and her astonishing realization of the divine indwelling, we are not turning our backs on the facts of history which were forced upon her and to which she responded. The "inner world/outer world" dichotomy seems foreign to this woman: "Yes, we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell and Earth and Life and Death and all of history" [emphasis mine] (Diaries, 131).


Curiously, attention given to Hillesum's life has focused on the hope she inspired in others and upon her service to them with little or no regard for the singular importance of the relationship which, at least in the diaries, was her abiding passion. The "other" of Etty Hillesum's life was the person who served as catalyst for her radical spiritual liberation in the midst of excruciating restrictions and confinement. Etty's affective depth was tapped by the relationship with "S." He was her lover and mystagogue. Through him she came to see that suffering, when accepted, does not diminish but enhances life. Theirs was a love both erotic and contemplative. Spier set her on the search for the essential with an urgency brought on by their awareness of the fate which awaited the Jews. It was he who taught her to speak of God without shame, and to speak to God without interruption.

Spier urged her toward integration, and impressed upon her the necessity of getting head and heart in balance. According to her, he knew how to put everything together properly. At first she found him "charming,"' but later grew to see how naturally they understood one another and complemented one another. Their union grew more passionate and consuming. She describes kissing his mouth as sipping his breath. She expresses her "desire to breathe one moment through a single mouth. So that a single breath passes through both" (Diaries, 95). In this lies the fullest description of their union at once erotic and spiritual. She sees no contradiction between the two. Nor does she give evidence of undue inner conflict in the face of her strong desire for marital union with him while at the same time being quite convinced that she had to remain alone, without him by her side, standing on her own two feet (Diaries, 165-66).

It was "S." who pointed to the territory where life's real battle takes place. In the face of the certainty that what the Nazis wanted was the total destruction of the Jews, Etty saw that the demons within were the real forces with which to contend. But she does not turn her back on the hell whose fires were ravaging the face of Europe, and European Jewry.

Spier himself did not descend into the depth of that fire. He grew ill and died before he could be deported. By the time of his death, Etty's mysticism had taken full form. It emerged not by denying reality, the facts of history, but by entering into reality's heights and depths, and transforming both.

She met Spier's death with acceptance. Death was for Etty life's great mystery to be anticipated, received, reverenced (Diaries, 168). Her journal entry at the time of his death is like a great doxology: "I love people so terribly, because in every human being I live something of You" (Diaries, 168). In loving "S." passionately, spontaneously, honestly, she was loving God, or what and who she knew to be God. It is also the case that in loving this "You," eros was not exclusive but became an inclusive love without ceasing to be particular and singular. In the aftermath of his death she wrote of Spier, "You were the mediator between God and me, and now you, the mediator, have gone and my path leads straight to God... And I shall be the mediator for any soul I can reach" (Diaries, 169).


As the life of Etty Hillesum unfolds, we witness the gradual shedding of the inclination to accept solace in illusion, fantasy, ideals, or eternal truths. She gives herself over and over again to the real, to fact, to what actually is: particular persons, encounters, events. She gradually accepts her very limited situation in life, and in so doing transforms it. This gradual self-acceptance occurs to the degree that she realizes and accepts the divinity dwelling within. She looks life in the face and recognizes that one must accept things as they are (Diaries, 130).

Etty Hillesum refused to countenance deception in herself and others. Her eyes look to those who will the destruction of herself and her race, and with sharp wit describes their cowardice and temerity masquerading as bravery and power. She cuts through the illusion, and sees right through the self-deception by which they have been blinded. It is the Nazis themselves who are pinned in by barbed wire -- not their captives.

There is in Hillesum the complete absence of posturing and embellishment. Her view might seem like unmitigated romanticism but for the fact that it develops in the midst of the most grotesque and dehumanizing of circumstances. In light of the fact that they were planning the systematic extermination of her race, Etty maintains that' if there could be found "one decent German" (Diaries, 8) there would be reason enough not to hate the whole lot: "despite all the suffering and injustice I cannot hate others" (Diaries, 72).

Her view of human nature can be properly described as radically altruistic. In light of the darkness and disintegration around her, she believed that there could always be found meaning and beauty: "if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can" (Diaries, 130). If one accepts one's own nature, and things as they really are, one gains confidence in the reliability of life and of death on their own terms.

It was said of Etty: "You never expect anything and that's why you never go away empty-handed" (Diaries, 117). As she grew in the deeper acceptance of facts her expectations were fewer and fewer. Good things in life were unexpected gifts, accepted with gratitude. But "one must face up to everything that happens," and accept all (Diaries, 136). Whatever her attempts to effect change, they were part of her acceptance of the things which could not change. It is this sober realism which forms the core of Etty Hillesum's view of human nature. In her we find the movement of a souls inclined to live in fantasy and illusion (the original sin pretending to be what one is not: God) toward the gradual acceptance of the truth of what is:

... one must keep in touch with the real world and know one's place in it; it is wrong to live only with the eternal truths, for then one is apt to end up behaving like an ostrich. To live fully, outwardly and inwardly, not to ignore external reality for the sake of the inner life, or the reverse -- that's quite a task (Diaries, 20).
Hillesum's view of human nature recognizes that the longest journey is the journey inward, but that one can never turn one's back on fact. Human life is a project of integrating the internal and external worlds without compromising either. And this enormous task is the destiny of everyone. Etty poured out her life in service and sacrifice for others and in willingness to die in solidarity with the victims, cognizant that those around her, victim as well as oppressor, did not accept the facts of their existence, denied their destiny, and betrayed life's beauty and meaning. It is not God she blamed for the disintegration and destruction of her people, but human beings. Staring this reality in the face, and knowing what awaited her and her family, she nonetheless insisted relentlessly that meaning and beauty could still be found.

Central to Hillesum's vision of the human person is suffering, which she learned to embrace in embracing "S.": "Through suffering... we must share our love with the whole of creation" (Diaries, 125). Suffering is an art (Diaries, 128). We can suffer with dignity or without. But suffering, like death, is part of life. In her own life, Etty learned the art of suffering which gave rise to compassion; born of a quivering, trembling, but thinking heart in the face of the enormity of the suffering of her people.

In the light of the mud and the endless deportations from Westerbork to Auschwitz she writes: "I am in a strange state of mournful contentment" (Letters, 70). She eschewed romanticism, idealism, uninformed optimism. She affirmed that life is large and long, and the human soul wide enough and strong enough to bear everything it carries within it: God, heaven, hell, earth, life, death, and all of history: "there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end... It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain" (Diaries, 129).


Hillesum saw her own soul as a battlefield on which history's great dramas were played out. "I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out. All one can hope to do is to keep oneself humbly available, to allow oneself to be a battlefield" (Diaries, 25). The great task of her life, living fully in the inner and outer worlds, would not allow her the luxury of self-indulgence. She did not turn her back on the history which was being enacted in her midst.

In the face of what was going on around her, Etty was often accused of indifference and resignation. Indeed many of her entries lend credence to this position: "everything is accidental" (Diaries, 23). Etty's deeper insight is discerned from what she says about the nature of acceptance vis-a-vis resignation. Resignation means to give up deliberately. She insists that she is not resigned to the history of horror unfolding around her. But she does accept. Acceptance here may be understood as a positive, active response. It is the most mature and responsible action in the face of events and circumstances over which one is quite powerless. Thus, in the midst of the horror from which so many tried in vain to save themselves, Etty possessed a peace and calm born of mature acceptance of the fact of what was taking place around her.

The notion of destiny is fundamental to Etty's view of history. We do not shape our destiny. We determine our inner responses (Diaries, 71). The events of one's life, one's own personal history, as well as the events of human history, are not of one's own doing. Yet destiny is not fate or pure chance.. Events are strung significantly together. Maturity resides in assuming one's destiny, "to cease living an accidental life" (Diaries, 112) to come to terms with life and death on their own terms.

Etty understood this primarily in light of the one thing she was compelled to do: write. She states repeatedly that writing was the thing she wanted and needed to do most. Her journal entries often give evidence of her struggle to accept her destiny as a writer: to be faithful to the daily round of taking up the pen to record the shape of history in the making in her inner and outer worlds. She was profoundly aware that circumstances were simply beyond her control, and that her only responsibility was to attempt to determine her responses. Response, often understood as a passive thing, is for Etty Hillesum a positive action. Her response was to write with unmitigated honesty, absence of posturing, and lack of embellishment.

Etty accepted her destiny only gradually. She came to know the small part she would play in human history -- to shape it by writing everything down with a clarity springing from a mystical apprehension of truth and beauty in the midst of one of history's darkest hours: "I shall wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer and my words will have to be so many hammer-strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate and of a piece of history as it is and never was before" (Diaries, 146).


Etty's God is the God within. She addresses God as she does herself. With good reason, one could ask if her God is her selfprojection. She writes: "When I pray... I hold a silly, naive or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God" (Diaries, 155). That probably best expresses her feeling for life: she reposed in herself. And that part of herself, that deepest and richest part in which she reposed, is what she called God. It may be said that her God resides in her own capacity to see the truth, to bear it, and find consolation in it. Etty recognized a deep well inside herself, and in it the divine indwelling. God is found in the soul, in what might be envisioned as its apex, or heart. And this God is discovered to the measure that she discovered her own self and her own destiny.

Hillesum suggests that there are people who pray with eyes gazing heavenward, and those who pray with heads bowed, their faces in their hands, seeking God within. She is undoubtedly one of the latter. Her desire: "to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise" (Diaries, 52). Her prayer is dialogue. It is a conversation recorded in the pages of her diary. She also freely admits that there are moments when she honestly cannot pray. She does not pretend otherwise.

She reads the Bible and "worries" about its meaning (Diaries, 22). The psalms were familiar to her, and so was the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of Matthew 6:34. She also read Jung, Dostoevsky, and especially Rilke. She found delight in Augustine. It is no wonder. In one who prayed for knowledge of God through knowledge of self she recognized an early echo of the awakening to God in the deep well of her own self:

Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other. God to God (Diaries, 173).
She tells little of who this God is. And never does she claim that this God tells her anything. This God does not speak. And she calls this God "God."(9)

Here Etty Hillesum, unconventional though she may be in the way she views her relationship with this God, understands God to be the God of her people: "I am who am!" "I will be who I will be." This provides her with her great confidence in the face of all that is going on around her. God is at the heart of all that is, active in history and present to creation. This is the One whose name is above any name, in whom all beauty and holiness dwell. Her diary reveals the progressive awakening of this God within herself until God is understood as the ground of her being. and of all that is: "I am who am." She reaches out to embrace this God, she hearkens to God, to find only that it is God in her self hearkening to God. Is this an unconventional view of a conventional God? Or is God, like herself, also unconventional?


Two focal points help us understand Etty's relationship with God: kneeling, and the content of her most intriguing prayers. She herself says that her story is about a "girl" learning to kneel, learning to pray. Far more important than her reading, e.g., Matthew's gospel, or Augustine, or Rilke, learning to kneel, not a familiar posture for prayer in Jewish tradition, bespeaks the nature of her relationship with God. Her diary recounts many occasions of her gradual adoption of kneeling for prayer: in the bathroom on a coconut rug, among other places. She suggests that the act of kneeling is more intimate than the intimacies of her love-life (Diaries, 89).

Most instructive is her growing awareness that one can pray anywhere, behind barbed wire or in a room in Amsterdam. As she grows in the awareness of her ability to pray anywhere and always, she writes of her desire to kneel inside, a kind of interior posture which she assumes regularly and with increasing frequency. She kneels before the God who is the Holy One, a strong God to be revered. It is a wordless, imageless, interior kneeling in the depths of her soul before the One who is therein discerned, thanked, and praised.

This God to whom Etty Hillesum kneels is not the God of conventional theology. In some of the most inspired and inspiring of her prayers, Etty promises to take care of God, to guard that place in her where God dwells. God is seen as one who can do nothing about her circumstances, or about the fate of the Jews. God cannot help her, so she will help God: "I shall merely try to help as best I can and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well" (Diaries, 148).

God is not accountable to us for the events of history. We are accountable to God for the ways in which we betray the divine gift and presence within. Etty lived with an undeniable sense of God's nearness. The great and Holy One present at the heart of all creation and active in history is to be protected and cared for in the depths of the soul. Etty's most significant insight pertains to the vulnerability of the divine life and this is the linchpin which holds together the various ambiguities and paradoxes of her interrupted life.


There is a gradual unfolding and progression in Etty's awareness of the divine indwelling. Likewise, her developing perception of the vulnerability of the divine life is slow and gradual. As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how she arrives at certain insights about the divine. It should be noted, however, that she begins to speak about helping God and defending God very shortly after writing "somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me again" (Diaries, 130). From this point, what she had described as her "schizoid tendencies" fade (Diaries, 46). Apparent contradictions and conflicts, the opposing poles of her personality, seem to have reached a point of reconciliation correlative to her astonishing leap into familiarity with the divine vulnerability within.

Spiritual integration is a process of negotiating apparently opposite and conflicting realities. It requires an ability to live with ambiguity and even glaring contradiction, not to resolve opposition and conflict. In the life of Etty Hillesum we can discern the ongoing struggle to reconcile a wide range of factors which are often deemed immediately incompatible. She speaks of the various dimensions of heaven, hell, earth, life, God, and all history existing within one soul. She writes of her inability to be comfortable with her body, inclusive of the sexual, and with God on the same day. We witness the apparent conflict of her maintaining simultaneous, intimate relationships with two older men, all the while growing in self-reliance and independence so that she could stand on her own two feet without either of them. There are the competing claims of solitude and care for others, whose needs and urgent demands required her to be willing to be balm for their wounds. And there is a myriad of other conflicting factors which she holds together in her "thousand-year-old soul."

But in Etty Hillesum's interrupted life we also see a gradual movement toward integration. I submit that she attained spiritual integration by recognizing and accepting duality as integral to unity and affirming the integrity of this duality. Maturity and wholeness come through such recognition, acceptance, and affirmation, as does simplicity. She achieved this by unrelenting attention to the awakening of the God within, and by accepting that the Holy One who is reverenced and adored is a presence both strong and vulnerable. That divine vulnerability is the ground in which her soul found rest.

On 21 July, 1942, during the same month she voluntarily decided to go to live and work among her people at Westerbork, Etty Hillesum wrote: "I believe I have gradually managed to attain the simplicity for which I have always longed" (Diaries, 158). A little over a week previously, she had written a Sunday morning prayer:

I shall promise you one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help ourselves. And that it is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn't seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last .... You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence (Diaries, 151).
In these words indeed lies the fullness of her spirit -- a noble integrity gained through the recognition of ambiguity and contradiction and through an acceptance of God, destiny, and death. Etty Hillesum poured out her care for all creation, but first and foremost she cared for her own people at Westerbork, most of whom, like herself, were on their way to death. She became a balm for all wounds. For in her the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

  1. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum,1941-43 (trans. by Arnold Pomerans, New York: Pantheon, 1983), p.151. This work will be referred to as Diaries. Page references are included in the text.
  2. Elizabeth O'Connor, "The Thinking Heart," Sojourners (October, 1985), pp. 40-42.
  3. Hillesum makes references to her ability as a lover in the first page of her diaries. There are allusions to an abortion on pp. 52ff; especially pp. 58 and 60.
  4. O'Connor, op. cit., provides this as a possible explanation for the lack of attention given to Hillesum's writings in Christian circles.
  5. Etty Hillesum, Letters from Westerbork (translated by Arnold Pomerans, New York: Pantheon, 1986). Referred to hereafter as Letters. Page references are included in the text.
  6. In his otherwise perceptive review of the Diaries, Robert Imbelli lies open to such criticism by making claims such as "Hillesum's transforming journey more and more assumes the quality of a eucharistic celebration." See National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 1984, pp. 11-12.
  7. From a contemporary perspective it seems odd to refer to a woman in her twenties as a girl. This, however, is how Hillesum refers to herself. Diaries, 194.
  8. Bernard's surname is not provided in the diaries or letters.
  9. There area few exceptions to this. For example, she uses the term "Lord" on pp. 46 and 189 of the Diaries.