Etty Hillesum left us an impressive literary oeuvre, which consists of Diaries and Letters. Already during the War an illegal edition was published. On Hillesum’s request, the Diaries were given to her friend and housemate Maria Tuinzing (1906-1978) who gave them to an earlier friend of Etty, the writer Klaas Smelik (1897-1986) – with the task that he would take care of the publication. This wish, however, Smelik could not fulfil, because of the lack of interest in the fifties and sixties of the last century among publishers in Hillesum’s philosophical views on the War and on the persecution of the Jews. When in 1979 his son Klaas A.D. Smelik tried again to bring Hillesum’s wish into fulfilment, times had changed. In 1981 “Het verstoorde leven: Dagboek van Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943” (An Interrupted life) was published by J.G. Gaarlandt. This beautiful anthology, taken from Hillesum’s Letters and Diaries and translated in many languages, was immediately a great success worldwide. In 1986, under the editorial supervision of Klaas A.D. Smelik the complete and unabridged edition of her Works were published with the title: “Etty: de nagelaten geschriften van Etty Hillesum 1941-1943.” In 2002 the official English edition came out with the title: “Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943.“
Etty Hillesum’s Diaries reveal the inner change of a young Jewish woman during World War Two. Striking is the contrast between her growing spirituality and the consequences of the ever increasing persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. The Diaries show how Etty rapidly developed, through her meeting with Spier and other friends and the reading of existential literature, into a grown up woman, with a mature personality and her own life’s vision.
She learned to accept herself and the fate of her people, without any bitterness. The Diaries have become a monument of spirituality and spiritual resistance against persecution and hatred. It is this quality that brings them up to date.
Her work has evoked a mixed reaction ever since her writings were published. Two points that stand out: A different perception on why Hillesum chose not to go into hiding and the insecurity of the Jewishness of her vision. A careful reading, however, of the complete texts show that much of these discussions go back to an incorrect understanding of the Letters and Diaries, partly caused by the one-sided selection of “Het verstoorde leven” (An Interrupted Life). The attempts to make Hillesum a Christian Saint or the efforts to question and confuse her Jewish identity are completely out of tune with her own personal desire to be an independent spirit, not to be bound by faith or any political conviction, but it also goes against her firm wish to be a Jewish woman in solidarity with her people.
In 1993, fifty years after her death, the Etty Hillesum Foundation gave the original diaries cahiers and letters to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where they are kept. In Deventer, the Netherlands, there is the Etty Hillesum Centre and at Ghent University we find the Etty Hillesum Research Centre (EHOC). Various schools have been named after her: in Deventer and in Den Helder. Worldwide the interest for Etty Hillesum is growing and bringing forth new initiatives. The most important is, however, the influence her work has on the personal lives of those who read her.
Klaas A.D. Smelik
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