The girl who learned to kneel

The inner journey of Auschwitz victim Etty Hillesum to freedom and faith

From the cover of "Beauty and Horror in a Concentration Camp"

7 min read

Etty Hillesum’s diaries and letters, written in the most extreme of personal circumstances, reveal an extraordinary portrait of the challenging reality of what it means to be a person. She honestly discloses in her diary entries how she is constantly in “turmoil and commotion inside.” (Diaries, 143)

Her own family background was evidently Jewish, although the Hillesums did not seem outwardly to practice their faith. But there are repeated allusions in the diaries to the likening of their journey, and that of others, to the wandering of the people of Israel in the desert.

Etty clearly understands that the time for armchair theorizing is over. She says, “They are out to destroy us [the Jewish people] completely.” (153)

Her own personal life, initially, bordered on the dysfunctional, and her family story was equally tragic, with her two brothers suffering from mental illness and experiencing many hospitalizations.

She had a most difficult relationship with her parents. She wrote about her mother, “Stop whining for goodness’ sake, you shrew, you nag.” She described how her “mother is someone who would try the patience of a saint.” She tries to like her, but says, “what a ridiculous and silly person.” (38)

Etty tells how her parents “smother you, and nothing important ever happens. I would degenerate into a melancholic if I were to stay here for any length of time… I don’t know what kind of madhouse this really is, but I know that no human being can flourish here.” (39–40)

It was the German Jungian psychotherapist Julius Spier who recommended that she keep a journal. Indeed, throughout her diaries you can clearly see how much Spier inspired her. However, his own physical relationship with clients and students, like Etty, is regarded unquestionably as unprofessional misconduct.


A strong character. Etty Hillesum understood that an "inner sculpting" was needed to become the person she was supposed to be

Journal of a soul

The diaries are not just a diagnostic account of her trying to pinpoint her problems; they are also a therapeutic way in which she sought to regain who she was as a human being.

She remarks how the worst thing for her will be when she is no longer allowed to have pencil and paper when she is finally transported to Auschwitz. These are, she says, “indispensable to me, for without them I shall fall apart and be utterly destroyed.” (140)

Reflecting on the work of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, Etty understands how it is only by means of an inner sculpting that she can give rebirth to who she is as a human person.

Her diary narrative certainly records her harrowing experiences, but this is not all. She also “remakes” herself through the “inner articulation of the artistic process.” She observes how “everything is a growing process,” and this is the case too in becoming who we are.

In Etty’s perspective, “nothing is pure chance.” (88) The creation of self by self happens continually in our lives. (Henry Bergson, Creative Evolution, 9) The act of diaristic writing, if you like, presses the pause button in human experience, allowing Etty to actually defeat time. She conquers awful events by living the present moment intensely.

Etty writes, “I know how to free my creative powers more and more from the snare of material concerns.” (186) Her writing results in the ripening of experiences, giving her the ability to recapture who she is. So, each entry of the diary becomes in itself a “creative act.” Etty tells how “here on these pages, I am spinning my thread. And a thread does run through my life, through my reality, like a continuous line.” (91)

Her life is “part of a greater whole.” She discovers that whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, it is “possible to create, even without ever writing a word or painting a picture, by simply molding one’s inner life.” (102–103)

Words are important for her since she sees each word as being like “a small milestone, a slight rise in the ground.” But the background to each human story is “wordless,” because it is in “wordlessness… in which more happens than in all the words one can string together.” (137)

No enemies, no hatred

An important insight Etty Hillesum reaches while she and her family are in Westerbork camp, Netherlands, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz, is that rottenness lies within each one of us.

Her friend, Jan Bool asks her, “What is it in human beings that makes them want to destroy each other?”

Etty reproaches him, reminding him that “you’re one [a human being] yourself.” She sees how the only solution is “to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves.”

Jan agrees, saying, “Yes, it is too easy to turn your hatred loose on the outside, to live for nothing but the moment of revenge. We must try to do without that.” The eradication needed is “the evil in man, not man himself.” (84, 86)

Nonetheless, Etty says that many people are still hieroglyphs to her, but gradually she is learning to decipher them. She tells a friend, Klaas, “We have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn’t be thinking of hating our so-called enemies.” (211) The line between good and evil lies in our own hearts.

Etty discovers how “each of us must turn inward 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.” (212)

In Letters from Westerbork, she gives an eyewitness account to her friends of the unfolding human catastrophe. She observes how it is even possible to live as “a prison within a prison.” Etty argues that you need “a great deal of inner sunshine if you don’t want to become the psychological victim of it all.” (245)

She declares “the barbed wire is more a question of attitude.” Looking reality straight in the face, the fact is that every human being carries “deep in his inner being the trend, the part of society” which is playing out. (245, 253)

In Plato’s terms, “society” is simply man “written large,” and to change it, we must begin with ourselves. Unbelievably, given the appalling circumstances, Etty remains positive about human nature, observing how we have the capacities and faculties to change and become who we are as human beings. She points out, “what distinguished each one of us was our inner attitudes.” (85)

Notwithstanding the horror experienced, human beings possess “inner freedom and independence,” which no one can take away from them. (Diaries, 101) As persons, we are strong enough to move beyond the wound of multiple deprivations.

Etty advises that we should give sorrow all the space and shelter that is its due, but when you have given it its right place, “then you can truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.” (97)

Elsewhere in her Diaries, in almost a Julian of Norwich vein, she says, “Have confidence that it will all come together, and everything will turn out right in the end.” (102) She holds that all human disasters stem from us and we can overcome them by unshackling the love that is inside us. (95) As human beings, we have these capacities and nothing or no one can take them from us. The greatest injury is the one we inflict on ourselves.

The only solution is to transform “our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race… into love.” (145) Etty declares that she has no enemies nor hatred: “I hate nobody. I am not embittered. And once the love of mankind has germinated in you, it will grow without measure.” (180–181)

The girl who learned to kneel

Etty uses the image of how a spider spins a web by casting its web ahead of itself and then follows along. She tells how “the main path of my life stretches like a long journey before me and already reaches into another world.” (295)

In Westerbork, she sees that “you cannot play the ostrich.” Commenting on her own life, she summarizes it by saying, “what a strange story it really is, my story: the girl who could not kneel. Or its variation: the girl who learned to pray.” (309, 228)

In a letter, Etty tells a friend of her discovery of the “other.” Her prayer is, “You have made me so rich, oh God… my life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, oh God, one great dialogue.”

Etty and her family perished in Auschwitz. She knew that she would never become the great artist she hoped to be. But she attests how she is “already secure in you, God… and that says everything, and there is no need for anything more.” (332)

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.