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Safeguarding the sacred amidst the Holocaust

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians on Jan. 27, 1945. Etty Hillesum's diary is an intimate and haunting moral document for the ages

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians on Jan. 27, 1945.  They arrived fourteen months too late for Etty Hillesum.  She was murdered there on Nov. 30, 1943, at age 29. 

Between early 1941 and Sept. 1943, when she left for Auschwitz, Etty underwent a remarkable spiritual transformation.  On April 30, 1942, in response to the Nazi edict that Jews in the Netherlands must wear a yellow Star of David on their outer clothing, she remarked in her diary, “Never give up, never escape, take everything in, and perhaps suffer, that’s not too awful either, but never, never give up.”  On July 16, 1942, she observed, “there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.”  Her diary’s last sentence is this, “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” 

Like Anne Frank’s diary, Etty’s is an intimate and haunting moral document for the ages.  While Anne’s diary became a bestseller when it was published in English in 1952, Etty’s diary, along with some letters, wasn’t published in Dutch until 1981.  Since then, there have been translations and new editions and her reputation has grown enormously.  In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced her a woman “transfigured by faith,” filled with “love and inner peace.”

Jan G. Gaarlandt, Etty’s publisher, contended in 1983, “In Holland today, Christians and Jews are claiming Etty as typically Christian or typically Jewish—an unprofitable discussion because…. Her religiosity is totally unconventional.” 

Etty’s father, a school headmaster, was one of the 2,100 Dutch Jews employed in the public sector who lost their jobs in late 1940.  Like the entire five-member Hillesum family, many of the 2,100 were among the 102,000 Jews from the Netherlands to perish in the Holocaust. 

In July 1942, Etty started work with the Amsterdam Jewish Council, which, because it provided staff with exemptions from deportation to the camps, was intended to protect her.  But two weeks later she volunteered to go to Westerbork concentration camp, the last stop before the death camps in the east, to provide support for Jews in transit.  Friends repeatedly offered to help her escape and go into hiding.  She always refused. 

On July 11, she maintained, “events have become too overwhelming[,] too demonic to be stemmed with personal resentment and bitterness…. People often get worked up when I say it doesn’t really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main thing is that so many thousands have to go…. I don’t think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer.”   

The prayer she recorded the next day reads, “I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it….  But one thing is becoming… clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves.  And that is all we can manage these days… that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.  And perhaps in others as well.” 

A year later, she affirmed, “Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves…. The main path of my life stretches like a long journey before me and already reaches into another world.  It is… as if everything that happens here and that is still to happen were somehow discounted in me, as if I had been through it already, and was now helping to build a new and different society.” 

Patrick Wolfe’s biography of Etty Hillesum is available on his web site:  His book, A Snake on the Heart – History, Mystery, and Truth: The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject, will be published in March by Iguana Books of Toronto

You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking at

* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, January 28th 2023