Why the diary and letters of this inspirational young woman who died in the Holocaust are of such significance and speak beyond her own time and context
Who was Etty Hillesum?
brief biographical outline, and the background and chronology of her life
Chapter 1: An Emerging Self
Explores the process of profound personal change that occurred in Etty. Within her intimate relationship with her therapist Julius Spier she grappled with the chaotic complexity of her intense personality against the background of her disturbed family and fearful times, and moved from an insecure and depressive past towards an integrated self. It examines her relationship with Spier and his crucial importance in enabling her to change.
Chapter 2: Discovering God
This chapter explores the beginnings of Etty's spirituality, looking at how understandings of prayer and God slowly took root and grew in her, her formation as the child of a liberal Jewish background, her secular student days and the gradual development of her contemplative life. It touches on her surprise and embarrassment at her strongly emerging religious consciousness -- a deep sense of the intimate life of God within. As she faced up to her own end and the destruction of her people, the realisation dawned upon her that God was unable to help them and so, she says, 'they must help Him' and, if they are to retain their integrity as human beings 'guard his Presence within them at all costs'. This chapter explores how this insight, with its profound theological significance, connects with understandings of God in the Christian and other traditions.
Chapter 3: Refusing to hate
Etty wrote a lot about hatred. This chapter looks at her refusal to hate and goes on to explore the phenomenon of hatred and its function in the collective mind of a persecuted people -- how it galvanises and unites, helping people to cope with their fear, but is ultimately an avoidance and displacement mechanism which Etty believed was profoundly destructive. Determined to hate "only the evil that is within me", Etty wrote of what it meant to bear fear and suffering, absorbing and accepting it rather than turning it back on those causing it. This understanding produced some of her most profound writing and makes her a universal figure, able to identify with all who suffer, including 'German mothers for they too sorrow for their slain and murdered sons'.
Chapter 4: Losing her life
As the persecutions intensified, many Jews clung to life and struggled to avoid their destruction. Along with her refusal to hate, Etty refused to hide or to evade what she saw coming. Her clear-eyed acceptance of the end and her refusal to clutch at illusions grew out of her commitment to truth and to living in the present rather than in fear of the future. "It sounds paradoxical," she wrote, "but by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life... and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it." This chapter reflects on this paradox and its place in other religious traditions.
Chapter 5: Seeing Differently
Etty's greatest fear was that she would sleep-walk into death, that numbness would overcome her. Her triumph was to show that the reality of the Holocaust -- the power of a terrible hatred against the Jews -- was not the only or final reality. She saw and lived from other realities in the midst of the hell around her and in the end was neither captive to, nor overwhelmed by the darkness. This chapter goes to the heart of the paradox that enabled her -- surrounded by death -- to be a source of care and compassion for others and to continue to insist that life was meaningful and beautiful and, as she set out on her final journey to Auschwitz, to "leave the camp singing".
Chapter 6: A woman for our time At a time of decline in institutional religion, Etty is a curiously modern person. Her route into spirituality is initially through psychotherapy and the exploration of the self. She sees the world through the prism of the person: systems of thought claiming 'the truth' inevitably contain falsehood and divide people. Suspicious of religious or political ideology, she sees the struggle for peace and a new world rooted in personal change. She is ecumenical in the widest sense, bridging the differences between religions. She was a Jew who drew inspiration from the New Testament, from St Augustine, from Russian writers, from Jung and above all from Rilke. She forged a spirituality that connects and resonates with aspects from all the great religious traditions -- not only Judaism and Christianity, but also Buddhism and Hinduism. She lived and died at a time of mass violence. Her diaries and letters are an extended reflection on what it means to be fully human in the midst of violence and the temptations of violence, and she looks beyond the violence of her time to a new world. At a time of fear of terrorism, and mass violence in response to that fear, her writing is very contemporary.