Etty Hillesum - A selection of Etty Hillesum's writings

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born on January 15, 1914 in Middelburg, Holland. Her father, Levie (Louis), originally from Amsterdam, was a teacher of classical languages, and her mother, Riva (Rebecca) Bernstein, originally from Potchev (Russia), taught Russian. She had two brothers, Jacob (Jaap), born on January 27, 1916, who became a doctor, and Michael (Mischa), born on September 22, 1920, a musical prodigy, but also schizophrenic.

After elementary school and high school in Deventer, Etty took a literary degree and studied law in Amsterdam. On June 6, 1935, she passed her undergraduate law exams. During this period she lived with her brother Jaap, who was studying medicine. She was socially and politically active, and lived in an environment of left-wing anti-fascist students. In March 1937 she moved in with a widowed accountant, Hendrik (Han) J. Wegerif, who asked her to run his household and who also became her lover, much to the dismay of his son, Han, who lived in the same house. On July 4, 1939, Etty passes her final exams and earns a master's degree in Dutch public law. At the same time, Etty studies Slavic languages in Amsterdam and Leiden, but the war interrupts her studies.

It was at the beginning of 1941 that Etty had an encounter that would change her life. Julius Spier, a German born in 1887, who had worked for a commercial firm for twenty-five years, discovered chirology in 1904, the study of personality through the reading of the hands. After a didactic analysis with Carl Gustav Jung in Zürich, he opened his own psychochirology practice in Berlin in 1929. In 1939 he had to leave Nazi Germany and settled in Amsterdam, where he opened his own practice and gave courses. It was there that Etty was invited by a member of his household for a palm reading. She fell under the spell of Spier's personality and decided to start a therapy with him. On March 9, 1941, probably at Spier's instigation, she began to write her diary. While she was one of his patients, she also became his principal secretary and his friend at heart. Spier teaches her to tame her depressive, chaotic and egocentric temperament and introduces her to the Bible and St. Augustine. He died on September 15, 1942.

In the meantime, the grip on the Jews in Holland was tightening and restrictions were increasing. On July 15, 1942, on the advice of her brother Jaap and thanks to her connections, Etty obtained a position at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, an institution created by the Germans to coordinate communications with the Jews. At her request, she was transferred on July 30, 1942 to the Westerbork camp, a transit camp, to provide social assistance. This first stay lasted barely two weeks, but she returned on August 21 for another short stay, and finally on November 20. On December 5 she had to leave the camp for health reasons and did not return until June 6, 1943. But this last stay will be definitive. Her parents and her brother Mischa, victims of the great roundup of June 20 and 21, 1943, joined her. On September 7, 1943, the Hillesum family left Westerbork for Auschwitz. Etty's parents died during the transport or were gassed upon arrival in Auschwitz (September 10, 1943). According to the Red Cross, Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943 and her brother Mischa on March 31, 1944.

The work that Etty left us is above all her diary, which extends from March 9, 1941 to October 12, 1942, a period of barely 19 months. It is also her letters which go from August 5, 1941 to September 11, 1943. This work does not only reflect an era, but above all the intense and rapid inner evolution of a woman who can be ranked among the mystics. My biographical data and excerpts from the writings of Etty Hillesum are taken from : Etty Hillesum. Les écrits d’Etty Hillesum. Journaux et lettres 1941-1943. Complete edition. Paris: Seuil, 2008, 1081 pp.

A selection of Etty Hillesum's writings

I wanted to include Etty Hillesum's writings in this section for two reasons: first, references to the New Testament appear throughout her diary (on a few occasions she alludes to her reading of the gospel according to Matthew), and second, her great intuitions reach the heart of the gospel. I therefore present a bouquet or an anthology of quotations from her diary and her letters, a selection of texts that have reached me deeply in the heart of my reading and that I have grouped into two sets: reflection on the great themes of life, and reflection on biblical texts.

There is, however, a third reason that leads me to put forward this Jewish woman. In a world that is searching for its way in the midst of cultural upheavals, she can be that beacon that guides in the night. In a secular world, this non-religious woman leads the way of authenticity. While she has been described as depressed, chaotic and egocentric, her evolution in nineteen months opens the door to all hopes.


Reflection on the major themes of life

Reflection on biblical texts