Reclaiming Peace: The Life and Writings of Etty Hillesum
I have been told I have an unusual hand - a hand interesting to palm readers. On my left hand, instead of having two parallel lines as most people do, I have a single line, which cuts directly across my hand. In palmistry circles this is called a simian line, which most people don’t have. Having a simian line, according to palm readers, indicated that my heart and head work as one. It indicated, allegedly, quite an intense individual. Now of course, I don’t take such pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo seriously. If this kind of thing has any validity at all, it would be in this narrow sense: palmistry is a means of creating a therapeutic space, a safe space, in which one can intentionally attune to another, and thus perhaps be able to intuit something from them. The simple act of offering another individual your undivided attention has an emotional, healing value to it.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung was interested in our “collective unconscious”; patterns of thought and images within humanity collectively, which surface throughout human history, in primordial mythic traditions, in alchemy, mythology, and the occult. Carl Jung was fascinated by all such subjects, extrasensory perception, UFOs, and indeed palmistry. In the mid-1920s, a respected Jewish German palmist by the name of Julius Spiers moved to Zurich in order to train as a psychotherapist under Jung. Julius Spier developed his own multidisciplinary approach to psychotherapy, in which he used his palm reading skills as part of his patient analysis. In 1928, having benefited from Carl Jung’s tutelage, now in his 40s Julius Spier moved to Berlin to set up his practice. Spier was very much a ladies’ man. His practice became very popular with the women of Berlin, they regarded him as having a ‘magical personality’. As his palmist-psychotherapeutic approach gained popularity, he began teaching, and his success grew. Being a Jew as he was, living in Berlin became increasingly unwise during the 1930s, and so in 1938 he moved his practice to Amsterdam, where he quickly achieved the same level of success. He was giving lectures, and taking on clients, and in 1941 he took on a new very notable 27-year-old client, and her name was Etty Hillesum.
Etty Hillesum can be thought of as Anne Frank’s ‘adult counterpart’. Both highly intelligent, female Jewish writers, both killed at hands of the Nazis in concentration camps. Etty Hillesum, though, I think offers a far stronger challenge to her readers, because throughout the horror she encountered first hand she ever radiates a radical tolerance. No matter how awful another individual is towards her, she always strives to see the humanity in the other. As she said in her diary, she looks to see the ‘small, naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man's senseless deeds.’ Hillesum’s altruism in the face of the world’s greatest evil is incredibly difficult to comprehend. When she finally departed for Auschwitz in September 1943, she did so singing. She had an unassailable belief in the underlying goodness of people, a belief she was able to maintain despite what she experienced, and even despite being destroyed herself by people. She refused to join others in their hatred of the German people. She rose above hate, despite the horror all around her; something she was able to do, because she discovered the peace of God within herself.
Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch woman who died aged 29 in Auschwitz. She is known to us, and is notable, because of the diary she kept from March 1941 to October 1942, a diary she began writing at the behest of her psychotherapist, spiritual mentor, close friend, and ultimately lover, Julius Spier. In 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. At first the occupying Nazi forces did nothing to the Jewish population. Their presence did not affect Etty Hillesum a great deal; she was able to be her provocative, sexually adventurous self, being the popular, party going girl she was. And yet, she began to wrestle with some spiritual angst. She describes this angst as being like a ‘knot of emotions’, holding her back. It was for this reason she sought out Julius Spier, the man who, as a friend had warned her ‘can tell everything about you. From your hands…’ She later described him in this way: “It’s like this: When [Spier] says ‘This is a table,’ and when someone else says ‘this is a table’, then the two tables are quite different. The things he says, even the simplest ones, sound more impressive, more important, I would almost say more highly “charged” than the same things said by anyone else. And not because he adopts a portentous air, but because he seems to draw on deeper, stronger, and more truly human sources than most others. And in his work he looks for human, not sensational, results, although he invariable causes a sensation just because he is able to look so deeply into people.” Etty attests that within a very short few weeks, her spiritual outlook on the world had a fundamental shift. Spier introduced her to the Bible, and the writings of St. Augustine, breathing exercises, and practices of listening to her interior self. She felt liberated, and free in a way she had never known. She found a peace and harmony within herself. She felt deeply attuned to Julius Spier, as they were both individuals seeking after the deep truths of the interior self.
Many Jews at the time in the Netherlands thought there may not be systematic persecution against them after all, but it was not to last. As anti-Jewish regulations started to kick in, it became apparent that the Jewish population in the Netherlands was under threat after all. Etty Hillesum refused to hide, either physically or in plain sight by playing down her Jewish identity. She wanted to be wholly present to reality, and that meant accepting what the world has in store for her, positive or negative. Talking to God in her diary she says, “Alas, there doesn’t seem very much You yourself can do about our circumstances, our lives… you cannot help us but we must help you to defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last…” And so, she commits herself afresh to pursuing her own spiritual development as of utmost importance. She speaks in her diary of joy, and the beauty of life, while at the same time experiencing persecution. She writes how she cannot hate another, that all such hate is simply part of our human condition, just as much in her and in Gestapo officer screaming at her. She always thought well of others, even if they were oppressing her. “There are, it is true, some even at this late stage putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safe keeping, instead of guarding You dear God. There are those who want to put their bodies in safe keeping, but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings.”
“But the babies, those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night to be carried off to a distant land. I have to put it all down quickly, in a muddle, because if I leave it until later I probably won’t be able to go on believing that it really happened. It is like a vision, and drifts further and further away. The babies were easily the worst.”
In northern Holland, there was a temporary camp set up for the Jewish population called Westerbork. In order that Etty Hillesum might minister to the Jewish people suffering there, in order that she might lead some of these people to the peace she knew in God, she voluntarily entered that camp, rather than being sent there by force. When she saw anger and hatred in others, she thought of the interior pain that must be inside of them. She longed to minister to people at that level. On the 7th September 1943, under the order of an SS commander, Etty was deported to Auschwitz with her parents, and her brother.
‘Good Bye for now. We left the camp singing’ - Etty