Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life: 1941-1943
Persephone No. 4 (1999)

Of the three personal accounts that I read for Persephone Reading Week, In Wartime, An Interrupted Life, Etty Hillesum’s diary, was the one that struck me most soundly.

Partly, perhaps, because she does not survive the war, so what a reader is left with at the end of the reading experience, is a more dramatic expression of the losses that characterized that period, on both sides, on all sides.

But also because her diaries were more intimate than those of Vere Hodgson (which were intended as a social record of the war) or the letters of Mathilda Wolff-Monckeburg (which were written with her children in mind).

In the latter cases, both women had specific reasons for keeping a record and did so primarily because it was wartime, whereas Etty Hillesum seems to naturally express herself through writing and offers a deeply personal exploration and meditation.

In March 1941, she notes: “I think I know that all the ‘writing’ was about a swell: it was just another way of ‘owning’, of drawing things in more tightly to oneself with words and images. And I’m sure that that used to be the very essence of my urge to write: I wanted to creep silently away from everyone with all my carefully hoarded treasure, to write it all down, keep tight hold of it and have it all to myself.”

Amidst her entries on war, she has others that are clearly personal: “Do I demand absolute love from others because I’m unable to give it myself? And then I always expect the same level of intensity, when I know from my own experience that it cannot last. And I take flight just as soon as I notice the other becoming lukewarm. That’s an inferiority complex of course, something like: if I can’t inspire him enough to be on fire for me at all times, then I’d rather have nothing at all.” September 1941

But as with Vera Hodgson’s and Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg’s records, there are times when the personal and political intersect boldly, as in this May 26, 1942 entry: “We walked along the quay in a balmy and refreshing breeze. We passed lilac trees and small rose bushes and German soldiers on / patrol. We spoke about our future and how we would so like to stay together. Then I walked back home in the evening, through the soft night, feeling light and languid from the white chianti, and I was suddenly absolutely certain of what I now again doubt: that I shall be a writer one day. Those long nights through which I would write and write would be the most beautiful nights of all.”

Etty Hillesum is more philosophical in her attempts to cope with the horrors she faces as an increasingly vulnerable Jewish woman. She says: “…I had a liberating thought which surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: if there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.” March 15, 1941

And, many months later, she continues to debate the matter but says that “…I see no alternative, each of us must turn inwards and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable.” September 23, 1942

Like Vera Hodgson and Mathilda Wolff-Monckeburg, Etty Hillesum turned to outside sources to cope with the stress and strain of living in wartime and I will share some of the excerpts that bring that to light tomorrow.

For now, I will close with one more quote from Etty Hillesum’s diaries: “I don’t have to stand in queues and have few worries about the housekeeping. I don’t think there’s another person in all Holland who has it as easy, at least that’s how it seems to me. I feel a very strong obligation to make full use of all this time I have to myself, not to waste one minute of it. And yet I still don’t work with enough concentration and energy. I really have obligations, moral obligations.” June 19, 1942