International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature: Etty Hillesum

Posted 28 May 2013 in StressPoints by Howard Lipke, PhD

One Sunday in March 1941, a 27-year-old Jewish Dutch woman named Etty Hillesum began a diary at the suggestion of her Jungian psychotherapist, Julius Spier. The Netherlands had capitulated to Nazi Germany the previous May and Etty was coming to understand the infernal snare tightening around her and her family and friends. Her self-exploration became a deliberate act of self-assertion in the face of unrelenting Nazi efforts of oppression and negation. 

Over time, Etty’s dairies evolved into a journey of spiritual discovery. Despite her failed efforts to save her family and her own death in Auschwitz in November 1943, her writings survive. For all their vitality, it wasn’t until 1981 that they finally emerged in print with the Dutch publication of Het Verstoorde leven: Dagboek van Etty Hillesum 1941–1943 (edited with an introduction by Jan Geurt Gaarlandt. Haarlem: De Haan). They have since been published in at least fourteen countries and twelve languages. 

The same post-war society which embraced her younger neighbor and fellow Jew, Anne Frank, as early as 1947 wasn’t yet ready to confront the Holocaust through the eyes of the more mature, probing and passionate Etty. Modern workers in trauma science have much to learn from her as is clear from this representative sample of her work, written on April 30, 1942; the day after the authorities issued an order for every Jew to wear a yellow star of David:

Thursday, six o’clock. Never give up, never escape, take everything in, and perhaps suffer, that’s not too awful either, but never, never give up.

Last night. At 8:45 P.M. I dropped in to see Liesl and Werner. Werner sat by the coffee grinder in the corner of the kitchen, his gypsy face staring out defiantly above his yellow star- in its special honor he had brought two pounds of real coffee beans that afternoon, which must have cost him a whole week’s wages at the very least… And then we flopped into armchairs and, with the steaming black coffee before us, reflected a bit on the Middle Ages and on history and yellow stars and psychology. In the years to come, children will be taught about ghettos and yellow stars and terror at school and it will make their hair stand on end.

But parallel with that textbook history, there also runs another. A few comfortable chairs, bought with the insurance money because all your possessions were wiped out of existence by bombs- a cup of coffee, a few good friends, a happy atmosphere, and a little philosophizing.  And life being beautiful and worthwhile all the same…

And I said, “It is probably worth quite a bit being personally involved in the writing of history. You can really tell them what the history books leave out.” That man in Beethovenstraat this afternoon won’t get a mention in them. I looked at him as one might at the first crocus in spring, with pure enchantment. He was wearing a huge golden star, wearing it triumphantly on his chest. He was a procession and a demonstration all by himself as he cycled along so happily.  And all that yellow- I suddenly had a poetic vision of the sun rising above him, so radiant and smiling did he look.

Come now, Etty my girl, things aren’t all as congenial as you make out, and you really seem to gloss things over with your flights of poetry... Yet sometimes I can take the broad historical view of the measures: each new regulation takes its little place in our century, and I try then to look at it from the viewpoint of a later age.

And the suffering, the ocean of human suffering, and the hatred and all the fighting? Yesterday I suddenly thought: there will always be suffering, and whether one suffers from this or from that really doesn’t make much difference. It is the same with love. One should be less and less concerned with the love object and more and more with love itself, if it is to be real love. People may grieve more for a cat that has been run over than for the countless victims of a city that has been bombed out of existence. It is not the object but the suffering, the love, the emotions, and the quality of these emotions that count. And the big emotions, those basic harmonies , are always ablaze (“blazing harmonies” is not bad!), and ever century may stoke the fire with fresh fuels, but all that matters is the warmth of the fire. And the fact that, nowadays, we have yellow stars and concentration camps and terror and war is of secondary importance. And I don’t feel less militant because of this attitude of mine, for moral certainty and moral indignation are also part of the “big emotions.”

Hillesum, E. (1996). An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork. Translated from the Dutch by Arnold J. Pomerans; foreword by Eva Hoffmann; introduction and notes by Jan G. Gaarlandt.  Pages 128-130. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Note: ISTSS will host a performance of Etty, a one woman play based on the writings of Etty Hillesum at its 2013 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. Watch for the meeting program for further information.