Etty Hillesum doesn't fit in boxes.
Which might be why I'm so magnetically drawn to her.
People who defy categories intrigue me. Somehow they manage to elude the label-makers we carry in our left(-brained) pockets, always ready to whip out and define, clarify, defend the boundaries.
And Etty, the Holocaust mystic and memoirist (there I go with my label-maker--doh!!)-- was stunningly contemporary in her defiance.
Among Holocaust writers, Etty is often omitted - perhaps, as some might suggest, because of Etty's unorthodox sex life. She was a passionate woman, and in her younger years, that was expressed through a variety of lovers.
"I am accomplished in bed," she wrote at age 27, when she was sleeping with her landlord. “I'm just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers.”
Thanks to a later lover, Etty was introduced to the work of Carl Jung. And it was through Jungian therapy, combined with her voracious reading of Rainer Maria Rilke, that she stumbled upon the contemplative life.
As a spiritual migrant, no religion really seems to "claim" Etty. Born a Jew, Etty was also drawn to the works of Christian mystics, Eastern philosophy, Russian spirituality, and psychology. She referred to God as "Mystery" and felt compelled to her knees by this Person. As tensions and terror spread in World War II Europe, Etty found herself frequently praying on “the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom."
When you read her diaries, one can clearly see the gradual transformation of an obstinate, self-doubting, navel-gazing young woman into a selfless, luminous figure.
You might even say her fiery eros blossoms into a generous agape.
Her growth is tentative at first, as she gets to know her interior:
I still lack a basic tune; a steady undercurrent; the inner source that feeds me keeps drying up. Worse still, I think much too much. My ideas hang on me like outsize clothes into which I still have to grow.
While these "outsize clothes" feel ill-fitting, Etty becomes increasingly aware of a deep well inside of her. There she finds God. "Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.”
As she excavates her inner life through prayer, journaling, and therapy, she begins to root out whatever "rottenness" she finds there. Her self-doubt, her self-indulgence. She finds this process a far more intimate experience than sex.
Something I have been wanting to write down for days, perhaps for weeks, but which is sort of shyness—or perhaps false shame?—has prevented me from putting into words. A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Sometimes, in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face. It has become a gesture embedded in my body, needing to be expressed from time to time... When I write these things down, I still feel a little ashamed, as if I were writing about the most intimate of intimate matters. Much more bashful than if I had to write about my love life. But is there indeed anything as intimate as man’s relationship to God?
By 1942 it was clear that Europe had become a dangerous place for Jews. People were disappearing. Etty wore a gold star pinned to her chest wherever she went.
Etty took solace in her deepening silence.
I draw prayer round me like a protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.
Yet Etty did not use prayer as a form of escape. Instead of fleeing or even hiding, Etty felt it her mission to be with her people to the end. She volunteered at the Westerbork transit camp, where Jews were detained on their way to the death camp in Auschwitz.
As thousands upon thousands of her neighbors were shuttled through the camp, Etty moved with an almost monastic rhythm. Amidst the terror she made her rounds: Prayer. Work. Writing. Work. Comfort. Prayer. Work. She moved from barrack to barrack, listening to the fears and sobs of her fellow prisoners.
She would rock bereft mothers - women older than she was, she at the tender age of 29. And rather than hating the Nazis, she even found it within herself to see their broken humanity.
Prisoners who survived this experience described Etty as "radiant." It dazzles from her letters smuggled from the camp:
All I want to say is this: The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire…
And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.
Etty was murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers, the same chambers that my great-grandparents and great aunts and uncles were murdered in. My heart catches in my throat to think of the tender hearts that held the terrified children, the parents who were beside themselves with grief, the elderly who walked to their death.
Etty's last words were scribbled upon a post card, shoved through the slats of the cattle car as she was shuttled off to Auschwitz. It was found by a farmer and mailed to her addressed friend.
Her final words:
"We left the camp singing."
To learn more about Etty, we heartily invite you to join us at the Women Mystics School. On April 2, 2022, bestselling author and Etty Hillesum scholar Patrick Woodhouse will offer a rich, 90-minute masterclass about Etty's radiant life and spirituality. (It's going to be so delicious, I'm having a hard time containing myself!!)
Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the co-director of Contemplative Monk, and the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.