This past week I had the privilege of speaking to a wonderfully interactive group at a residential campus for senior Jewish residents in Northeast Ohio. As I set about thinking of my theme for this presentation, I was confronted with two very challenging realities which dampened the beauty of a sparkling new year for me: the rapacious division among us brought on by reactions to Covid restrictions, and the diagnosis for my youngest sister of colon cancer. Both of these realities are the result of a disease that has spread and has the power to terminate the fragile grasp of democracy in the former and blessed good health in the latter.
I recalled that some 25 years ago I read An Interrupted Life by Etty (Esther) Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who rose to the heights of mystic sanctity while facing death in Auschwitz at the age of 27. Her book is the first of several diaries which were published in English in the 1980’s, some 4 decades after her death. The diaries are published in Dutch but not all of them are in English as of now. Well, Etty Hillesum became my topic for the presentation and my own source of helpful reflection as I prayed over our country’s political divide and my sister’s illness.
Etty was born on January 15, 1914, to a dysfunctional family and later lived a reckless youth, but finally settled as a woman who yearned to reach the God within her soul, the God who would give her hope. She attended law school in Amsterdam and also obtained a certificate to teach Slavonic languages. Under the guidance of her psychoanalyst, Etty begins her diary in March, 1941. But, somehow, she thought of the nascent advances of Nazism at that time as not impacting her until in April, 1942, when she was forced to wear the yellow star.
The slow, deep reach of God for Etty and Etty for God begins when Etty becomes a ‘staff’ member in 1942 of the Westerbork, a transit camp which gathered victims to be transported on cattle cars to Auschwitz. She writes that “I am with the hungry, ill-treated, and the dying everyday…” and yet she says “…something springs from the heart, an elementary force …that life is glorious and magnificent.” Because her ‘role’ allows her to go to Amsterdam one day a week, she is never tempted to escape but to return to Westerbork because, “I don’t think I could be happy if I were exempted from what so many others have suffered.” She finds herself praying and conversing with God continuously. She asks God to let her be “…the thinking heart of these barracks” by recording the suffering, documenting the anguish of everyday life. Scholar Patrick Woodhouse writes, “She never wanted to be numb to the sufferings of others.” Along with other researchers, he discovered overwhelming evidence that she was incapable of hate—even against the guards who terrorized her. On the way to her own death in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943, she tossed a postcard from the cattle car which said, “We left the camp singing.”
Etty had read St. Augustine, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, The Imitation of Christ, and well-known works of mysticism. One could argue that she became a mystic herself. For me, she demonstrates that no matter how fierce the temptation is to give up on hope, if we see the image of God within us, we can leave our desperation, singing. At the end of her life, Etty found the God within—the God she had been seeking all this time—and according to witnesses in the same cattle car rumbling to the death camp, her appearance was “radiant.”
One of my favorite quotes of Etty’s is, “My God, I love to stop in a warm place, but I’ll stop in the cold as long as You are there. I am seeking for the person inside of me.” Etty had found the God within her through prayer, reading, seeking, and giving herself to others. Woodhouse says she found that she was made in the image of God and so was everyone else. She came to believe that reaching and loving the God within her soul gave her great hope. This will be a bright year if I can live in that kind of hope, if I can believe that God is in this messy life of political turmoil and that my sister will find peace and healing as I hold her in hope.
If you haven’t read Etty Hillesum, you will find her book, An Interrupted Life, immensely helpful for insights on how the gift of hope can inspire goodness and complete generosity.
I also suggest, A Life Transformed, by Patrick Woodhouse. This book covers Etty’s conversion and her growth in mysticism. Keep a notebook for quotes you will want to record from both books because her quotes are very rich in spirituality.
Let us know where and how you may have found hope to go forward in 2022. Are there any readings or spiritual practices you can share that helped you find and live hope after disappointment and loss?