'Etty' by Etty Hillesum

Books that have changed my thinking (5) 

‘Etty’ by Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum in 1940

There’s a very interesting storyline in Coronation Street at the moment. It concerns the Webster family - Kevin, Sally, and their two daughters Rosie and Sophie. Kevin has been having an affair with Molly, his business partner’s wife; the elder daughter Rosie has embarked on a career as a model and is seeking breast implants. And the younger daughter Sophie has become a Christian. Sally, Kevin’s wife, found out around Christmas time that she has breast cancer, but last week she was told that the lumpectomy had been successful and that she wouldn’t need any more surgery. The family members are overjoyed at the news and Sophie, the Christian daughter, tells her dad that she has been praying for her mother, implying perhaps that her prayers have been heard and expecting that her father will congratulate her on her efforts. But he doesn’t. Instead, he goes into a tirade against God. ‘So, your mother has been lucky, but what about all the other women who didn’t receive good news today? Where was God for them? Didn’t God listen to their prayers? Why doesn’t God make things easier for us? Why does there have to be cancer in the first place?’ And so on. Poor Sophie, unable to answer her father’s questions, leaves the room in tears.

Of course, she can’t answer Kevin’s questions. They have perplexed human beings since the dawn of time, and believers in a benign deity have been particularly perplexed: how can we say that God loves us when we are subjected to suffering? It’s called ‘The Problem of Pain’ and it has generated its own branch of theology – Theodicy, the justification of God’s ways to man – while at the same time giving non-believers an almost invincible argument against the whole idea of providence.

Trite, quick responses to the problem of pain are impossible to formulate; even lengthy philosophical ones tend to leave us unconvinced. The Book of Job, the Bible’s attempt to explore this question, may contain some of the Bible’s greatest poetry, but at the end of its forty-two chapters we are left with little more than ‘human beings will never understand the inscrutable ways of God’.

There is no satisfying conventional answer. Probably because the whole question tends to be formulated by and discussed by people who are not themselves suffering; generally speaking, those who write books about it or preach about it, are looking at it in the abstract, dispassionately, exploring it as an idea, a concept, rather than from the perspective of genuine experience. 

This is why books such as Etty, by Etty Hillesum, the fifth in my ‘books that have changed my thinking’ series, are so important. This book is a diary kept by the author from 1941 until a few months before her death in Auschwitz on 30th November 1943, and does not present abstract philosophical musings on ‘the problem of pain’; it records actual suffering, mental torment the like of which none of us here will ever experience, along with reflections on that torment, and its influence on her development as a human being. 

Etty was a Dutch Jew. She was born in 1914, and so at the outbreak of war in 1939 she was 25 years old, 27 when she began to write her diary. Her father was a classics teacher, with a very disciplined mind; her mother, a Russian by birth, was ‘passionate, chaotic, and in almost everything the opposite of her husband’. Etty had two brothers, both of them extremely gifted. Mischa, the elder, was a musician, who played Beethoven in public at the age of 6, and Jaap, the younger, discovered some new vitamins at the age of 17 ‘for which he won entrance to all the academic laboratories’. Etty too was brilliant, with an interest in philosophy, literature, languages, and psychology. She read widely from the works of Jung, Dostoevsky, and Rilke, and she made her living as a teacher of Russian, a language which she had obviously learned from her mother. She wanted to be a writer, and envisaged writing a book with the title ‘The Girl who could not Kneel’, presumably about her own wayward and self-willed nature. 

She doesn’t seem to have been conventionally religious. Although Jewish, there is no indication that she was a practising Jew and she seems to be as interested in Christianity as much as in Judaism. Nor does she seem to have been conventionally moral. She tells us quite candidly that she cannot bear her mother’s banal conversation, and she admits to a number of love affairs. ‘It’s difficult to be on good terms with God and your body,’ she writes early on. Just before her diary opens she had fallen under the spell of Julius Spier, a man of magnetic personality, twenty-seven years her senior, and she eventually became his lover, despite the age difference, and despite the fact that he was engaged to another woman and she was regularly sleeping with another man. There also seems to be some suggestion that she terminated a pregnancy herself. 

I mention these things so you won’t get the impression that Etty was some sort of angelic being who could be expected to respond to life differently from you and me. She wasn’t. She was a woman of normal appetites and normal ambitions – a super-intelligent woman and an extraordinarily perceptive woman maybe, but certainly not what we would consider an ascetic religious masochist. 

The diaries start quite slowly, and the reader who has been told that this is a profoundly spiritual work is probably wondering what all the fuss is about. She only mentions ‘God’ in expletives, as in ‘Good God!’, or ‘God help you!’, – that sort of thing. It is only when things begin to get difficult for her that her dialogue with the divine gets underway, and it is only then that we get to see the depth of this woman’s humanity as she grapples with the biggest issues of life from the point of view of one who is actually immersed in them and not as a mere bystander. Re-reading the book last week, I began circling the number of those pages I thought I might refer to in this address. I marked half a dozen of the first hundred pages; thereafter it would have been a lot easier if I had marked the pages that weren’t particularly useful! From the spring of 1942, when Amsterdam’s Jews were forced to wear the yellow star when certain sections of the city and certain shops were barred to them, and they were forbidden to travel on public transport, Etty’s diary entries become increasingly remarkable for their eloquence and poetic power and for the surprising nature of Etty’s commentary on her situation. 

One day in February 1942 a number of Jews are crowded into a hall where they are barked at by Gestapo officials. One young soldier attempts to assert his authority over Etty; he tells her to wipe the smile off her face and says that he will ‘deal with her’ later. She writes:

I am not easily frightened. Not because I am brave but because I know that I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. And that was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and I would have liked to ask, ‘Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?’ Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him there and then, for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind. But all the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.
Something else about this morning: the perception very strongly borne in, that despite all the suffering and injustice I cannot hate others. All the appalling things that happen are no mysterious threats from afar, but arise from fellow beings very close to us. That makes these happenings more familiar, then, and not so frightening. The terrifying thing is that systems grow too big for men and hold them in a satanic grip, the builders no less than the victims of the system, much as large edifices and spires, created by men’s hands, tower high above us, dominate us, yet may collapse over our heads and bury us.

Passages like this – and there are many similar ones – helped me to realise that much of what passes for liberal religion is a self-righteous castigation of individuals and systems, starting from the premise that we have got the answers to life’s problems, and if only people would come round to our point of view the world would be changed for the better. Etty, like other profound thinkers, locates the problem much more widely: evil is in all of us, and there will only be real progress in human affairs when we acknowledge this and when we take steps to remedy it. This is what religious organisations should be concerned with – not fighting over doctrines, shouting about politics, blaming ‘the other’ (whoever the other happens to be) but making us aware of our individual contribution to the collective distress and trying to find ways in which we can overcome it. 

Etty also helped me to realise that prayer is not a mechanical repetition of pious formulae addressed to some supernatural entity who may or may not exist; prayer for Etty is communion with the deepest and richest part of herself, what she calls her ‘cosmic interior’. This is God for her. She speculates no further, but as her troubles increase, her communion becomes increasingly intimate and increasingly frequent, and the girl who could not kneel becomes the woman who wishes to kneel at every opportunity. Nothing is able to shake her belief that life is holy, that the world is beautiful, that people are basically good, that there is a providential purpose behind everything, no matter how bleak things seem. What’s more, she gives thanks for her afflictions, in the realisation that they have deepened her awareness and given her an appreciation of life which she never had when everything was tranquil. 

This is really the paradox of pain. We lament its presence in our lives and, like Kevin Webster in Coronation Street, we find it impossible to believe in a God who would countenance such things. But for Etty, it is only in adversity that we can begin to experience the grandeur and sacredness of life. The pain-free life, the life of uninterrupted sensual enjoyment which we all seem to crave, and which we curse God for not providing for us, is, for Etty, virtually worthless.

In May 2002, when I was told by the doctor in Tallaght hospital that I had probably only 14 months to live, some words from this book popped into my head immediately after the doctor finished talking. On 29th September 1943, Etty had written, quoting a friend, ‘God has moved me up into a more advanced class; the desks are still a little too big for me.’ This mistaken prognosis intensified my response to life and deepened my appreciation of it. Briefly, I too was placed in a higher class and, like Etty, I am genuinely thankful for the experience, although in my natural human cowardice I am glad for the temporary respite.

Etty also gave me a new insight into the meaning of Christianity. She has a discussion with her friend Klaas, a communist, who thinks that the Jews should hate their enemies. Etty says that such hatred is what people have been expressing since the beginning of time, ‘and what do you think the result has been?’ she asks. She goes on:
And I repeat with the same old passion, although I am gradually beginning to think that I am being tiresome, ‘... ... I see no alternative, 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.’
And you Klaas, dogged old class fighter that you have always been, dismayed and astonished at the same time, say: ‘But that – that is nothing but Christianity!’
And I, amused by your confusion, retort quite coolly, ‘Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?’ 

That indeed is Christianity. Not theology, creeds, dogma, liturgy, sacraments, but a willingness to turn inwards and destroy in ourselves what we would like to destroy in others. And not only is it Christianity, but it is also the highest expression of every religious system, east and west. 
When Ravensbruck concentration camp was liberated, a prayer was found scribbled on some wrapping paper near the body of a dead child. In all probability, it was written by a Jew. It was certainly written by someone who thought like Etty Hillesum. It’s one of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever read:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of evil will. But remember not all the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this; and when they come to the judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. 
‘Comradeship, loyalty, humility, courage, generosity, greatness of heart.’ Etty would ask, ‘Are these possible without some degree of suffering?’ She would also say that only when we all learn to pray like this will the world be transformed.

(Written in 2010)


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