Woodhouse, Patrick. Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Hillesum, Etty. Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941 -1943. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

In his theological rendering of Etty Hillesum’s life, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed, the Rev. Canon Patrick Woodhouse writes of a dramatic transformation that took place in the young woman’s narrative. This transformation was not simply one of life circumstances, which took Hillesum from a bohemian community in Amsterdam to her death in Auschwitz; rather, according to Woodhouse, Hillesum’s own letters and diaries speak to a spiritual transformation, by which, alas, he also means a moral one. Woodhouse begins his book with these stark words:

Etty Hillesum did not emerge from adolescence a balanced young woman already well on her way to becoming a saintly figure. The early pages of her diary reveal an insecure, emotionally disturbed and sexually chaotic young woman with a turbulent inner life which she cannot understand and which from time to time pitches her into deep depression. (Woodhouse 2009).

Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish woman whose published letters and diaries span the years 1941 – 1943, when she was twenty-seven to twenty-nine. Her writings wind their way from the artistic and intellectual world of Amsterdam, to Westerbork detention camp, a staging ground before her final deportation to Auschwitz. Of course hers is a world transformed, but the inner resources that she displayed—her profound spirituality and her capacity to look squarely at suffering and evil—these were evident very early in the diary, long before she became more deeply fascinated by the Bible, and indeed even while she was living what Woodhouse would characterize as an “emotionally disturbed and sexually chaotic” life. As Hillesum writes of an early encounter with an SS guard who was harassing her fellow Jews:

To put it very crudely, which will probably cause pain to my fountain pen: if an SS man were to kick me to death, I shall nevertheless look into his face and wonder to myself, both in terrified amazement and out of human interest, My God, you poor fellow, what terrible things must have happened in your life to bring you to this pass? (Hillesum 2002).   

What struck me in reading her diaries and letters was the remarkable coherence of her life.  Her inner life, although turbulent and quixotic, is at the very same time, full of grace and courage even in the midst of the growing terror that surrounded her.  

As for sexual chaos, Woodhouse is referring to the uncomfortable fact that this saintly woman was very much a sexual being. The early portions of the diaries reveal relationships which are questionable, to be sure, with two much older men—one of whom was her mentor, and the source of much of her spiritual and intellectual awakening, Julius Spier.  

What to make of this relationship and of Etty’s love for this man? Spier was a student of Jung, a practitioner of the dubious science of “psychochirology,” the study of personality through the reading of hands. Spier’s professional ethics were questionable to say the very least, as he frequently concluded his counselling sessions with Etty and other female patients with therapeutic “wrestling,” ostensibly an embodied form of dialectic psychotherapy. Today we would be correct to name his practice abusive. And yet whatever the ascription we give to this relationship, for Etty, it was indeed significant, but not in the sense that Woodhouse and other moralists argue (such as the former Archbishop Rowan Williams (1)), who claim that Spier was a chapter that had to be left behind in her transformation.

Yet what if the theological and the moral vision that Hillesum’s diaries lay bare is not one of conversion from sin to sanctity, but speak instead to very real contradictions that inhere in the heart of life, contradictions that are brought into profound relief in the extremity of suffering that Hillesum witnessed? Read thus, one is rather struck, not by Hillesum’s conversion, but by the resolute coherence in thought and in encounter with others, including with God. This is a young woman who walks courageously through the valley of the shadow of death, yet throughout this journey, she remains unwavering in her commitment to life and beauty, which she seeks to uncover even in the most abject of circumstances. As she writes:

Life is beautiful. And I believe in God. And I want to be right in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say, ‘life is beautiful.’

(Hillesum 2002).

It is this sensibility which she displays long before her so-called religious conversion. It is this that enables her to experience with Spier and her other sexual partners genuine love and and goodness, for hers is an eros that flows naturally and gratuitously toward the other. She is not a naïve innocent—instead, she brings to the erotic encounter (be it with a lover, with God or with the Jewish prisoners whom she serves) a mature and deliberate openness to transcendence, in spite of the ambiguity in which her encounters are also immersed. 

As Hillesum describes:

Whenever misfortune strikes, people have a natural instinct to lend a helping hand and to save what can be saved. Tonight I shall be helping to dress babies and to calm mothers—and that is all I can hope to do.  I could almost curse myself for that.  For we all know that we are yielding up our sick and defenseless brothers and sisters to hunger, heat, cold, exposure, and destruction, and yet we dress them and escort them to the bare cattle cars—and if they can’t walk, we carry them on stretchers. What is going on, what mysteries are these, in what sort of fatal mechanism have we become enmeshed? The answer cannot be that we are all cowards. We’re not that bad. We stand before a much deeper question (Hillesum 2002). 

Hillesum bears witness to her people’s suffering, but this bearing witness is not only to the fateful march to the crematoria; it is also to the acts of resistance, even when the only resistance that was possible was preparing her fellow Jews for death. It is precisely here, through such small acts–ones in which the heart refuses to be corrupted by the demonic forces all around–that God is revealed. In such witness, there is no shame or guilt (“We’re not that bad”) there is only faithful unknowing (“We stand before a much deeper question”). And so she continued courageously and uncynically to dress babies and comfort mothers even on their last, lethal, and impossibly cruel journey. 

Such a view is an erotic love for the world. It is one that knows that, even within this world’s terrible violence and suffering, there is still life; there is even on occasion eruptions of joy. As she described it, joy often came unexpectedly to Etty and it enabled her, in part at least, to escape the Nazis’ fatal mechanisms. She knew that she could not hope to possess this joy; she could only hold it for a moment and then, with gratitude, allow it to return to its source. I would venture that this was a lesson that Etty learned as much in the arms of her lovers as she did reading her cherished Dostoyevsky, Rilke, or Bible.

As for Woodhouse, one ought not be surprised that a male cleric gets things so utterly wrong about a young woman’s sexuality that he believes it must be renounced in order to find God. What is rather more striking is how he fails to see how her precisely erotic love of the world, even in the midst of death and violence is, in fact, the very heart of the gospel.

(1) Williams is, characteristically, more measured in his treatment of Hillesum’s early entries in the diary than Woodhouse. However, in his Faith in the Public Sphere and elsewhere, Williams becomes preoccupied with Hillesum’s growing faith as she “learns to kneel” before God. Williams interprets this as a gesture of devotion before divine sovereignty that relativizes the claims of humans upon her. Williams implies that this gesture of fidelity to God was coextensive with a “complex awareness that something in the relationship with Spier means something less than entire faithfulness.” (Williams 2012). Yet it was Spier who taught Etty to pray thus and the diaries themselves do not suggest that her romantic longing for him was superseded by her devotion to God.

2 thoughts

  1. An eloquent and thought-provoking post. I must check out the Williams video. Your essay reminded me that your book Thinking Christ has been on my TBR list for too long. I’ve now read the introduction, and it makes me look forward to the rest!

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