Etty Hillesum: The New Anne Frank

While immersed in Anne Frank’s Diary, a friend drew my attention to Etty (Esther) Hillesum, often tagged the “adult counterpart” to Anne Frank. Born fifteen years before the latter, Hillesum also lived in Amsterdam during the Holocaust, keeping a journal and writing letters that would be published posthumously in 1981 as An Interrupted Life & Letters from Westerbork. But beyond Holocaust scholars and some literary connoisseurs, few have read Hillesum’s work or even know of her.

Why is Etty Hillesum obscure while Anne Frank is a global icon? Hillesum’s journals and letters are just as gorgeously composed and profound—perhaps more so in an absolute-value sense, because of her advanced age—but they are also a more challenging read, certainly not suitable for a middle-school curriculum. An industrious literary worker who translated Dostoyevsky’s works from Russian, Hillesum’s journals are relentlessly incisive and self-reflective, analyzing her motives and her practice of radical tolerance:

This morning a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask, “Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?” Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him there and then, for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind. But all the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.

Hillesum uses her journal to discuss her daily life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, but also to explore religion and spirituality, ideal love versus sexual attraction, mental and physical illness, even existence itself: “The soul has a different age from that recorded in the register of births and deaths. At your birth, the soul already has an age that never changes,” she wrote in 1942.

Another reason for Etty Hillesum’s obscurity is that she lived much of her life outside of the mainstream: she shunned traditional relationships, for example, and took at least two controversial lovers, including the charismatic chiromancer Julius Spier. She also isn’t as photogenic as Anne Frank.

A deeper reason for her obscurity may be that Hillesum’s exceptionally altruistic choices during the Holocaust are difficult to comprehend. Though she might have used her connections in the Jewish Council to successfully flee Nazism, she repeatedly refused to do so, believing that the more important work was to help others struggling to bear the horrors. Later, Hillesum tended to the ragged inmates of the dreadful Dutch transit camp of Westerbork for as long as she could—“There was a little old woman who had left her spectacles and her medicine bottle at home on the mantel: could she go and get them now, and where exactly was she, and where would she be going?”—and then boarded a train to Auschwitz in September 1943. Her final missive, a postcard thrown from that train, tells that she left Westerbork singing.

Mostly, perhaps, Etty Hillesum remains largely uncelebrated because her journal is a weighty, serious work, with deep philosophical and psychological penetration on every page. It’s worthwhile to describe Etty Hillesum as the “adult counterpart” of Anne Frank if it leads more readers to the treasure chest of An Interrupted Life & Letters from Westerbork. I have yet to hear, though, anyone call Anne Frank the “child counterpart” of Etty Hillesum. Not since reading the journals of May Sarton, especially her Journal of a Solitude, have I been so enchanted and affected by such writings.

Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published short fiction in literary magazines such as The Head & Hand (chapbook), Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Pindeldyboz, The Bucks County Writer, Spork, The Legendary, and Forge. He currently lives in New Orleans.

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