Remembering Etty

…Most people here are much worse off than they need to be because they write off longing for friends and family as so many losses in their lives, when they should count the fact that their heart is able to long so hard and to love so much amongst their greatest blessings.
—Etty Hillesum (1914–1943)

She describes the time of the yellow stars, this strange time in Holland when stars have only just begun to be sewn onto the clothes of the Jews. She and her friends are defiant and yet despairing. They huddle together near the warm stove with their cigarettes and their precious, rationed coffee and sew on their stars. But then, she writes, something changes in her, shifts inside her, as she leaves to go home and sees a young man wheeling crazily round and round the fountain in the square. He has this huge yellow star sewn—bang!—in the middle of his chest. A yellow star circling the water fountain.

She speaks of the loneliness of the young. It is the middle of the war and many of their teachers at the university have been sent in front of the firing squad. She feels like the young have now to guide themselves (rudderless) through this terror.

She has the sudden impulse to rush up to the professor as he comes out of the lecture theatre into the cold blue night. She puts one of her arms around him, and under avenues of plane trees all emptied of leaves they walk through the freezing air to the skating rink. She writes:

… he seemed a broken man and good through and through and he was suddenly as defenceless as a child, almost gentle, and I felt an irresistible need to put my arm around him and lead him like a child … The next day she finds out that he has shot himself.

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman of 28 who, on the advice of her Jungian therapist, began to write a journal. The journal covers the years 1941–1943 until she volunteers to work as part of the Jewish Council in the Dutch camp of Westerbork. This camp served as a kind of holding station for people who were being sent to Poland and concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Buchenwald. From Westerbork she wrote long letters to her friends and family back in Amsterdam. These letters have been collected, together with her diaries, and published. Eventually, she too was sent to Auschwitz and died there in 1943.

Etty starts out writing about the things that matter to her in daily life—her work as a Russian tutor, her relationships with men, her friendships, her love of Rilke’s poetry, her secret wish to be a writer, to do something that mattered, to leave some kind of legacy. Then, over time, world events begin to encroach on her life and she is forced to grapple with the enormity of these events. Gradually more and more laws and strictures are placed on the Jews in Holland and it becomes clear that death is waiting for them somewhere in Poland. Through this period, the whole tenor of the diaries and letters changes. In her desire to become the ‘thinking heart of the barracks’, she records her struggle to be fully present to those around her and to her own suffering. Her writing becomes a dialogue with her beloved God as she herself is transformed into a mystic. Like any mystic, she writes of the burnt beauty of the world that exists in spite of all the trespasses (large and small) that we commit on a daily basis.

Etty is a teacher: she schools us in the language of grace. Spirit presses through the pages. Once known through her journals, we cannot forget her. Yet she asks us to remember also the anonymous dead as they wait to be loaded into the freight cars:

I see a dying old man being carried away, reciting the Sh’ma to himself. Saying Sh’ma means saying a prayer over a dying person … I can see a father, ready to depart, blessing his wife and child and being blessed himself in turn by an old rabbi with a snow-white beard and the profile of a fiery prophet…

Etty asks us to allow the long queues of the dead into our lives. Many people feel unable to read, see or hear anything about the concentration camps. It is morbid, gruesome, too depressing. This particular truth is one that should not be spoken.

There is indeed a quality that is unspeakable. As the writer and literary critic George Steiner wrote after the war, ‘The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.’ Others claimed that no poetry could be written and no paintings painted after the events of World War II. The things that occurred in the camps are seen as beyond language and sight—incommunicable. Survivors themselves have no illusions as to the unspeakable essence of the things they have seen. There are no gods here. Etty provides us with an extraordinary insight into this place. She speaks of having to ‘hold God’s hand’ and lead Him through the labour camp. We are left with an image of this woman supporting a tiny, crumpled, defeated god through the aisles of bunk beds. It was a place outside of creation. In its full terror, even God stood uncomprehending.

Yet still they urge us to remember. The work of remembrance is a hard and constant labour. To paraphrase Etty’s favourite poet: how much suffering there is to get through. How many terrible stories. Work through them like you work through a chore. An active, constant and public process of ‘not forgetting’. A cold journey through snow too deep. It is easier to pretend that we know all that already and to get on with our lives.

But what is the quality of the remembrance? How we remember, the ways we remember, the meanings we make or take or make up from the stories of the Shoah. Memory, public memory, may sometimes be as dangerous as forgetting. As can be seen in our own increased fascination with Gallipoli, memory and remembrance can be twisted into a macabre celebration of suffering and nationalism. The act of remembrance can also easily become an excuse for further violence. The memory of suffering at the hands of another is placed in the annals of collective history and drawn out in a ceaseless ‘dreamtime of vengeance’.

In his book Lost Icons Rowan Williams reflects in depth on this question of memory, particularly as it relates to the Holocaust, and asks: ‘…will it do, finally, to treat the Shoah as beyond thinking?’ He looks to the work of his friend, the Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose, who argues that there is a real danger in placing the memory of the Holocaust outside current political thought and beyond language. This leads, Rose argues, to an ‘exaltation of the martyr community to a place outside political thought’. Williams and Rose would argue that this exaltation of the Holocaust dead and its surviving community lets us as individuals off the hook, so to speak. If the Shoah is beyond politics, beyond language or thinking even, then it has nothing to do with us. We can feel bad about it, guilty, even identify with its victims in what Etty would call a self-gratifying ‘greedy compassion’, but in the end it has nothing to do with us and our lives as lived. As Williams writes, this ‘leaves us with the unhappy gulf… between the self as moral agent and the self as political or civic subject’.

Instead, Rose suggests that memory and remembrance should be concerned with drawing us as individuals into a directly personal relationship with the dead. That is, we could begin to recognise ourselves in the other. We could connect their experiences to our lives in a way that opens up the possibility for a kind of exchange, a dialogue, a listening, a conversation. We could grieve their loss. Etty suggests something similar when she writes:

And finally: ought we not, from time to time, open ourselves up to cosmic sadness? One day I shall surely be able to say … ‘Yes, life is beautiful, and I value it anew, even though I know that the sons of mothers, and you are one such mother, are being murdered in concentration camps’ … And your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself, part of your body and your soul … Do not relieve your feelings through hatred, do not seek to be avenged … Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate.

Vitally, this recognition of self in the other ensures also that the personal and the political become reunited. In reading the work of writers such as Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Aharon Appelfeld and Charlotte Delbo, we see how quickly an individual’s life can be swept away. By-laws passed in parliament that once seemed fairly innocuous can all mount up into one terrifying force. In reading stories from the Holocaust, we may begin to understand how tangled our lives are in the political processes that go on around us—above our heads—but which somehow we consistently fail to connect with our emotional, moral, ethical and spiritual selves. This lack of connection ensures our continued inaction and silence.

In an age when, as Rowan Williams writes, ‘we choose the distinctive hell of placing our own wills at the centre of things’, these stories teach us about contingency and suffering. Our lives are not self-made. We are not always in control. Sometimes things happen.

As the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote in Leningrad in 1944: ‘…this cruel age has deflected me, like a river from its course./Strayed from familiar shores/my changeling life has flowed/into a sister channel…’ To read the stories from the Holocaust shows us just how quickly our lives can be changed and destroyed by political processes. These stories may be the crucible for the development of a genuine moral imagination: an imagination that sees the detained man and can imagine what it may feel like to be that man. His changeling life diverted into a sister channel.

In turn, and once developed, such a moral imagination and compassion helps us as individuals. Suffering always comes knocking—whether in the form of physical illness, the death of a brother, lover, parent, the burning down of a house, the loss of a job. But if we can know that our wills are not at the centre of the universe, then we can begin also to guide some compassion towards ourselves; to know that we are not always to blame. We cannot always pull our socks up, change our lives, get out of a rut, self-visualise or think positive and thus dispel pain with a sleight of hand. We need a new, old sort of knowing to counterbalance these messages. As Etty writes to us:

Suffering is not beneath human dignity. I mean: it is possible to suffer with dignity and without. I mean: most of us in the West don’t understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead … And I wonder if there is much of a difference between being consumed here by a thousand fears or in Poland by a thousand lice and by hunger? We have to accept death as part of life, even the most horrible of deaths … when I say, I have come to terms with life, I don’t mean I have lost hope. What I feel is not hopelessness, far from it. I have lived this life a thousand times over already, and I have died a thousand deaths. Am I blasé then? No. It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain.

Let us remember Etty and mourn her loss.



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