Etty Hillesum

Onderzoeks centrum


Esther (Etty) Hillesum, Middelburg January 15, 1914 – Auschwitz November 30, 1943
Etty Hillesum was born in her parent’s house in Middelburg on January 15, 1914. Her father dr. Louis Hillesum (1880-1943) was a teacher in Classical languages. After his appointment in Hilversum, Tiel and Winschoten he became rector in 1928 of the “Stedelijk Gymnasium” in Deventer, where he worked from 1924 onwards. Her mother, Rebecca Hillesum-Bernstein (1881-1943), came originally from Russia. In 1907 she moved to Amsterdam, where she married Louis Hillesum in 1912. Etty had two younger brothers, Jaap en Mischa. Jaap (1916-1945) became a doctor and Mischa (1920-1943) was a talented pianist.
In 1932, after having successfully matriculated in her “gymnasium alfa” studies, Etty Hillesum moved to Amsterdam where she enrolled into the University to study Law. She finished her Law studies in 1939 and moved on to study Slavic Languages in Amsterdam and Leiden. During her student years in Amsterdam Etty Hillesum spend her time among left wing circles without committing herself to any particular party. She had many friends, with whom she kept a lively contact. Because of Nazi persecutions in Germany there were German Jews who moved to Amsterdam, bringing their own culture and customs. For Etty Hillesum this was a very interesting World. Among these refugees there was a chiro-psychologist Julius Spier (1887-1942), whom she had met in 1941. Spier, whom she addressed as “S.” in the Diaries, became her great teacher, but also her big love. Because of his unusual and warm personality he had a strong influence on her. He advised Etty to keep a diary to write down the inner movements and growth in her. Together with their mutual friend Henny Tideman (1907-1989) Spier opened the way to God for Etty Hillesum. He died of lungcancer on September 15, 1942. At that time Etty Hillesum’s life had already drastically changed which made it possible for her to accept and deal with her loss.
On July 15, 1942, Etty Hillesum got a job at the department “cultural affairs” of the Jewish Council in Amsterdam. She only worked there for two weeks and didn’t like it at all. On July 30, 1942 she was, on her own request, transferred to Camp Westerbork in order to work for thedepartment “Sociale Verzorging Doortrekkenden.” As a member of the Jewish Council she had a special travel-visa, which made it possible for her to return to Amsterdam on several occasions. It was there that she became ill in the winter of 1942-43. When she had recovered, she refused the offers of her friends to go into hiding. She chose to stay with her people and returned to Westerbork, where she wanted to undergo the fate of her fellow human beings, she explained. On September 7, 1943, on a special order of Rauter, the Hillesum family was transported to Poland (except Jaap Hillesum, who was taken at a later stage). On November 30, 1943, Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz.

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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