Etty Hillesum

Onderzoeks centrum


Etty Hillesum’s Posthumous Works: Perspectives of Research

By Klaas A.D. Smelik

Translation: Gerrit van Oord

The publication of Etty Hillesum’s posthumous writings, first as a selection of texts and later in the form of a critical edition, has captured a worldwide audience. Translations of the first anthology ‘Het Verstoorde Leven’ [An Interrupted Life] have been published in countries as different as Brazil and Japan. Very soon scholars took to investigate Hillesum’s work. One may find it remarkable that in the beginning doctoral theses and Ph. D.’s have been written; seemingly there was more attention for Etty Hillesum among students than among established academics. Not less remarkable is the fact that the first international seminar The publication of Etty Hillesum’s posthumous writings, first as a selection of texts and later was not held in the Netherlands but in Rome, in December 1988. Sometimes I have the feeling that the academic world abroad tends to take Etty Hillesum’s work more serious than Dutch academics.

Doubtlessly it is not very easy to investigate Hillesum’s Work, because it is many sided, and exactly for that reason we see a great many angles from which research is being done. I would like to present you summary-wise the most important approaches.

I would like to speak first of all about the Critical Edition of the Works, of which the first edition came out in 1986, and the fourth revised edition will be published in the summer of this year. A lot of work had to be undertaken to realise the Critical Edition. The group of people I had the honour to guide was composed of young, recently graduated researchers. Gideon Lodders and Rob Tempelaars, both Neerlandists, have thrown themselves into Hillesum’s text and de facto prepared the critical edition, which also led to important revisions of earlier published selections. They found an enthusiastic support in Beate Giebner, Germanist, who took care of the many pages of text written in German, and Duke Meijman, a slavist, who took the responsibility for the text fragments in Russian.

But not only the text was object of critical and linguistic investigations; the Complete Edition contains also a hundred pages of annotations. In the first place we had to find the bibliographical references of the quotations in the Dairies. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the whole team most quotations could be located. But also the historical circumstances had to be set forth clearly, in particular the measures the German Occupant Forces took against the Dutch Jewry. This work was done by Wally de Lang. But by far the most important thing was to arrive at knowing more about Etty Hillesum herself and the many people she mentioned in her dairies. In the end we were able to identify almost anyone. All this would have been practically impossible without the cooperation of all those people who were interviewed, and who were often willing to open up their emotion-loaded memories to the historian Jan-Willem Regenhardt, one of the members of our team. Many important documents and photographs have been found this way.

The work for the Critical Edition was thus undertaken from three different angles of research: historical, biographical and bibliographical. No other type of research fitted went well into the original plan for this edition. It was our aim to offer an edition that could function as a solid basis for further research. And for the same reason it is of extraordinary importance that an English Edition of the Complete Works, including the annotations, will be published in May this year in the U.S.A French and an Italian edition of the Complete Works will follow, although it is not yet clear when.

Mrs. Els Lagrou has undertaken for her M.A. thesis (University of Louvain) the study of the cultural and historical context in which Etty Hillesum lived during the first years of the War. Dr. Lagrou has also contributed to the work for the Critical Edition.

Inspiring research has been done in the context of Women Studies. Interesting research topics turned out to be Etty’s independent social position, her spiritual development, and her writing. A Ph. D. thesis was defended by Denise de Costa in 1996 at the University of Utrecht, with the title Anne Frank en Etty Hillesum: Spiritualiteit, schrijverschap, seksualiteit, later published in the US with the title: Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum: Inscribing Spirituality and Sexuality.

From the point of view of method De Costa’s thesis is a comparative study, often used in Etty Hillesum studies. As an example may serve the essay by the Leiden professor in classical languages Piet Schrijvers; his text deals with the similarities between Seneca and Etty Hillesum. This is not just a casual choice, not at all, it is more than that because it results clearly from Etty’s dairies and letters that she underwent many-sided influences which she has interpreted in her own characteristic manner. Each of these influences may become fruitful object of scholarly research. For this reason it is rather surprising to notice that the relationship between the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Etty Hillesum has not yet been object of any academic study.

The literary angle has generated research into the genre Etty Hillesum has made use of: dairies and letters. This was in a certain sense a forced choice. As a matter of fact she intended to become a writer the life she saw before her after the war, and I presume that she wanted to use her dairies and her letters as the raw material for later literary creations. This future life has been taken away from her by the National-Socialist view of the world, in all senses the complete opposite of her own view. Beware: not because of her way of looking at things her life was taken, she was killed because was a Jew.

Henriëtte Boas represents in the Netherlands the Jewish point of view. She accentuates the non-Jewish character of Hillesum’s posthumous Works, and its popularity in a non Jewish cultural spheres, especially the Christian cultural milieu. This is not a very profilic way of putting the question, because becoming part of the dominating culture is the essential character of the group of Jews Etty belonged to: the assimilated European Jews in the period before the Second World War. Trying to understand how much of the Jewish background has remained with those assimilated Jews, consciously or unconsciously, might be much more interesting. Since it is very difficult to establish what is specifically Jewish in the cultural sense of the word, researching into this field is arduous.

Investigating Etty Hillesum from the point of view of theology can produce interesting results. With her idea of religion and her idea of God Etty Hillesum was far ahead of her times. We have to mention also her unbiased attitude with respect to other religions and the way in which she coped with, in a religious manner, the persecution of the Jews, while the persecution was in full swing.

Very specific is the mystical interpretation of Etty Hillesum’s Work, which was undertaken quite early by Loet Swart. We may say this has turned out to be a fruitful approach.

The approach of Hillesum from a more political point of view is basically more referring to Etty’s political position as it was before the War and not so much to the spirit with which she wrote the dairies and the letters. As an example may serve the conference Werner Stertzenbach held 1993 in the context of a series of lectures organised by the Etty Hillesum Centre in Deventer. Almost reached at the end of his lecture Stertzenbach evokes his public: “I belief, dear public, that we will do justice to such a valuable person, to such a talented thinker, if we would spent ourselves here and now for the case of human rights, and if we would turn ourselves with all our forces against injustice, against repression and against war.” Stertzenbach does not accept Etty’s religious point of view, and in a fictitious dialogue with her he brings to the forefront the following delicate question: “Is it no so, that in the history of the human kind, religion and the belief in god have played a disastrous role?”

In the end I would like to refer to the research from a psychological point of view in which two scholars have worked: in the Netherlands the psychologist J. Bendien , and in Italy the psycho-analyst Nadia Neri. In the beginning of the dairy we find a unique report of a very particular but nonetheless successful therapy conducted by Julius Spier, including all the therapy accompanying phenomena like transfer and contra-transfer.

Beyond the strictly academic context we have to present the more personal research of those who look for Etty Hillesum’s message. Some of the readers of Etty Posthumous Works report this as a crucial experience in their life and they consider Etty their guide or mentor: her texts are carefully read because they supply the readers with guidelines for their own existence. In a certain sense this way of dealing with Etty’s texts is very near to her own method of reading, commented on by Etty herself with these words:
“Bit by bit I take it in me, the last couple of months, the man, his work and his life: Rilke.
And this is perhaps the only correct way to occupy yourself with literature, study, human beings, or whatever thing in the world: to lap it up very slowly, to let it grow in you, underneath, up to the point that it becomes part of yourself.”

In this very large area of research two publications deserve our attention: “De moed hebben tot zichzelf” by Ton Jorna, Denise de Costa and Marijn ten Holt, and the follow up to this study “Van aandacht en adem tot ziel en zin”. This second publication presents significant words from the Works of Etty Hillesum in the form of lemma’s analysed by Jorna or De Costa.
How fascinating Etty’s dairies may be for us, they are not very coherent or systematic in their approach. As a matter of fact they are dairies, no essays. Reading the text may certainly confer the reader with a sense of the whole, but tracing down specific thoughts throughout the text is for a normal reader quite a job. Jorna and De Costa consider as very meaningful the way Etty uses her vocabulary. She did not use her words in a casual way, in her work we find key concepts with their own particular meaning and it is possible to follow their development. The authors have tried to identify the meaning of a corpus of hundred words. Their work had a point of departure in the following question: “How does Etty Hillesum use this word, in which context, how often and what meaning she gives it.” This particular approach made of the “dictionary” an important and helpful instrument in the hand of those who want to deepen their knowledge of Hillesum’s Work.

Looking at the whole of the Hillesum studies one sees that most attention is dedicated to forging the instruments that are helpful to interpret the texts. They supply a firm basis for ulterior research, not only directed toward the cosmos which is the text itself, but also toward the broad socio-cultural context wherein Etty’s dairies and letters came into being. Evidently Etty as a person is important in this regard, but at the same time biographical research cannot be decisive because the meaning of what writers have written goes beyond the person as such.
One thing has become very clear in the reception of Etty’s work: a too personal approach, usually resulting in sanctifying or condemnation, brings about only poor results. What Etty has left to us has an importance sui generis, and the question whether we agree with her or maybe not, has no academic relevance whatsoever.



‘De Spirituele zoektocht van Etty Hillesum’

Een Analyse van De Nagelaten Geschriften van Etty Hillesum 1941-1943
in het licht van Eric Voegelin, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas en Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Het woord ‘God’ is door de geschiedenis heen vele malen gebruikt en/of misbruikt voor menselijke doeleinden, voor obscure immanente en ideologische projecten (Voor Voegelin: Marx, Hegel), tot het moment waarbij ‘God’ zelfs ter ‘dood’ werd verklaard (Nietzsche). De vraag is: laat ‘God’ of de Bijbelse ‘Ik ben wie ik ben’, zich door het menselijke bewustzijn in een troosteloos systeem plaatsen? De voortdurende dialectiek tussen de aanwezigheid van ‘God’ en ‘verscheurende afwezigheid’ (‘alienation’), die een soort van ‘ideologische traditieontwikkeling’ van een ‘Godsverduistering’ (Buber, Gottesfinsternis, 1952) heeft mogelijk gemaakt, wordt in Etty Hillesums Nagelaten Geschriften (1941-1343) op sterke wijze naar voren gebracht. Het grote en toenemende belang van Hillesums geschriften en de noodzaak tot verder wetenschappelijk onderzoek (bijvoorbeeld i.v.m. Anne Frank) vindt zijn weerklank in de uitzonderlijke, bijna profetische kracht waarmee Hillesum toont hoe de mens zijn levensweg zoekt tussen moreel nihilisme en sociaal engagement, tussen het transcendente – ‘God’ – en aardse kwetsbaarheid, tussen leven en dood:

De Nagelaten Geschriften geven een perspectief van binnen uit. Het is een autobiografische tekst van ‘het denkende hart’ (EH, 575), een ‘spirituele matrix’ of ‘zielsverloskunde’ (Plato, Socrates), die zich openbaart in persoonlijke ontwikkeling van karakter en verandering in identiteit (Dresden: ‘identiteit als opgave en oplossing’, 1990). Op individuele wijze zoekt Etty Hillesum een weg om bovennatuurlijke (Voegelin: daimonion, metaxy -‘In-Between’-) ervaringen in haar dagelijks leven weer te geven.

Midden in de intellectuele, spirituele en emotionele ervaring van haar ziel (Gaillardetz, 2000), als in de historische realiteit (Lagrou, 1985) van WOII, is er ontwikkeling en spirituele groei (Voegelin: ‘being moved’, helkein). De lezer is direct betrokken bij gebeurtenissen in het centrum (Hillesum: ‘Zentrum’) van haar bewustzijn (Snijders, 1993). Door uitgebreide levensvragen (haar ‘questioning’, ‘aporein’) naar het goddelijke (Voegelin: ‘the ultimate ground’, aitia of prote arche) toe, ontdekken we midden in Hillesums geschriften een geleidelijke doorbraak (Plato: Periagogé), een openheid naar het transcendente, naar iets ‘tijdloos’ (Eliot, 2004), dat zich openbaart in de tijd en dat zij ‘God’ noemt.

De dagboeken en brieven zijn doorleefd, doortastend en tegelijkertijd intellectueel doorgrondend, een reflectief verweer tegen het totalitarisme (Purcell, Hitler and the Germans, 1999). Pijnlijk bewust en van binnenuit, laat Etty Hillesum zien wat het betekent om mens te zijn, daarbij het tegengestelde te ondergaan: een totalitaire ideologie die tot doel had de individualiteit geheel te vernietigen (Voegelin/Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1999). Hillesums spirituele grondhouding, een schrijvende en bijna ‘mystieke’ (Barry, ‘Mysticism in Hell’, 1993) oppositie tegen het Nazi-regime, geeft haar een plaats naast andere moderne religieuze wijsgeren die zoekend naar zingeving, een antwoord hebben willen geven op de trauma’s van de Sjoa (Smelik, Pollefeyt).

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Ook in deze ruimere context blijven belangrijke vragen onbeantwoord: ‘Wie “Is” Etty Hillesum?’ (de zijnsvraag), ‘Hoe handelde zij?’ (moreelethische vraag) en ‘Wat kenmerkt haar spirituele zoektocht?’ (existentiereligieuze vraag). Specialisten als Van Oord (L’esperienza dell’Altro: Studi su Etty Hillesum, 1990), Brenner (Writing as Resistance, 1997), De Costa (Inscribing spirituality and sexuality, 1998) en Van den Brandt (Denken met Etty Hillesum, 2006) hebben verscheidene aspecten van Hillesums profiel naar voren gebracht, onderzocht is echter niet wat haar invloed is in een breder religieusfilosofische context. Centrale vraag is dus hoeverre Hillesums zoeken (zetesis) een doelgericht inrichten van het ‘spirituele landschap’ van de menselijke ziel (psyche, nefesj) veruiterlijkt? Kan deze ‘kroniekschrijfster’ die ‘niet kon knielen’ (EH, 580; De Costa, 1996) een theologische ontplooiing rondom de interreligieuze dialoog en het ‘Gods’ vraagstuk mogelijk maken? Het is duidelijk dat de theologische tendens en de diep wijsgerige inslag van De Nagelaten Geschriften een unieke en zeldzame kans bieden om te focussen op de spirituele impact van Hillesums zoektocht en daarmee onmiskenbaar kunnen bijdragen tot een meer gefundeerd, contextueel vertrekpunt voor wetenschappelijke bezinning op de geheimnissen van de goddelijke aanwezigheid in het menselijke bewustzijn (‘consciousness’).

Het onderzoek beoogt een zo volledige mogelijke studie van alle religieusfilosofische relevante structuren en sporen van transcendentie (transcendence) in Etty Hillesums De Nagelaten Geschriften, hun centrale spirituele ontwikkeling en hun historische situering;

Cruciale onderzoekspunten zijn: goddelijke aanwezigheid/afwezigheid, spirituele ervaring, interpersoonlijke ontmoeting, religieuze spanningsvelden, schrijvende samenspraak en de historische context van WOII, totalitaire ideologieën en de Sjoa. Voorname aandacht gaat ook uit naar de actieve ‘opsporing’ van spirituele ‘sites’ binnen Hillesums bewustzijn, de ruime religieusfilosofische situering van dergelijke bewegingen en de potentiële diversiteit aan en onderlinge samenhang van spirituele ervaringen in de menselijke ziel;



Een dergelijk uitgangspunt noodzaakt inzicht in de impact van spirituele structuren en hun functioneren. Het doel is om De Nagelaten Geschriften door middel van vier religieusfilosofische werken te belichten:

Autobiografische en fundamenteel ‘Zijns’-analyse, geïnspireerd door Eric Voegelins analytisch model van de goddelijke realiteit (‘divine presence’ of ‘Ground of being’) in de menselijke (‘noetic’ of ‘pneumatic’) ervaring;

Centrale en fundamenteel moreelethische studie over de interpersoonlijke ‘relaties’, ‘dialoog’ en ‘samenspraak’ door middel van Martin Bubers en Emmanuel Levinas’ filosofieën van interpersoonlijke ontmoeting;

Politiek religieuze beschouwing vanuit Dietrich Bonhoeffers geschriften, op de spirituele ervaring, lotsverbondenheid en zoektocht (‘personal search’, zetesis) van de menselijke persoon, die in spanningsveld naar het goddelijke toe (arche, epikeina, Agathon) een evenwicht schept tussen rationaliteit en spiritualiteit en zo binnen de vergankelijkheid, nabij het goddelijke komt;

In zijn finaliteit wil dit onderzoek, De Nagelaten Geschriften aangrijpen om de omvang van het spirituele landschap in het menselijke bewustzijn (pneuma, nous of ‘consciousness’) en de occupatie van Etty Hillesums spirituele zoektocht in de geschiedenis te reconstrueren.