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

One of the reasons that Etty Hillesum’s diaries touched me so deeply is the way in which she openly struggles with the persecution that she is facing. Whether looking for a distraction from the blatant threats posed to her very existence, or whether confronting them or their representatives (in the form of fellow citizens who openly challenge her right to buy toothpaste in the pharmacy after groceries are forbidden to sell goods to Jewish people), she engages with her reality and we readers, decades later, have a glimpse of her attempt to continue living her life in these unthinkable circumstances.

Around the same time that Etty Hillesum’s diary begins, in early 1941, Vere Hodgson writes this in her own wartime diary: “Sometimes I think it will end for me like that girl in Liverpool who wrote a diary. The blitz was going well overhead, and she sat writing about it…The diary was eventually found — she never was.” Ironically, Hodgson and her diary do survive the war, but Etty Hillesum did not. Her own awareness of this possibility, even likelihood, makes reading her diaries even more compellling:

“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

In her desire to make the most of every minute, she coped as best as she could, in a myriad of ways:

Distraction with new experiences–
I surprised myself with a need for music. I don’t seem to be unmusical, am seized with interest whenever I hear a piece of music but have never had the patience to sit down specially to listen to it; my full attention has always been reserved for literature and the theatre, areas that are within the province of my own thoughts. And now, quite suddenly, music is beginning to press its claims, and once again I find that I am open to an experience that makes me forget myself. 1941

Distraction with familiar experiences–
Still, now I am myself once again, Etty Hillesum, an industrious student in a friendly room with books and a vase full of ox-eye daisies. I am flowing again in my own narrow river bed and my desperate involvement with ‘Mankind’, ‘World History’ and ‘Suffering’ has subsided. And that’s as it should be, otherwise one might go mad.  June 1941

Struggle between confrontation and avoidance–
Tonight new measures against the Jews. I have allowed myself to be upset and depressed about it for half-an-hour. In the past I would have consoled myself by reading a novel and abandoning my work. October 24, 1941 (57)

Peacefulness and busy-ness–
Sometimes my day is crammed full of people and talk and yet I have the feeling of living in utter peace and quiet. And the tree ouside my window, in the evenings, is a greater experience than all those people put together. I sometimes think so many things happen in my life, so many interesting people, so many books, so much talk, it’s a pity I can’t write it all down for the years to come. But then, my real life is something quite different…  (96) March 1942

Living in the moment–
But, of course, by then the English may have landed. At least that’s what those people say who have not yet abandoned all political hope. I believe that we must rid ourselves of all expectations of help from the outside world, that we must stop guessing about the duration of the war and so on. And now I am going to set the table. July 11, 1942 (186)

Writing things out to make sense of them —
And yet there it always is again: life remains so ‘interesting’ through it all. Every-present in me is an almost demonic urge to watch everything that happens. A wish to see and to hear and to be present, to worm out all of life’s secrets, to observe with detachment what people look like in their last convulsions. And also, suddenly, to be forced to face oneself and to learn what one can from the spectacle that one’s own soul enacts in these times. And later to be able to find the right words for it. July 28, 1942 (205)

It’s precisely because she did struggle to “find the right words for it” that we have this record so many years later. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?