Anne Frank was not the only Dutch diarist to record the horrors of the Holocaust. Esther ‘Etty’ Hillesum began her diary in Amsterdam in 1941. In July 1942, the month Anne Frank began her diary, Etty started working for the Jewish Council as a typist before opting to go to Westerbork, the camp where Dutch Jews went before being transported to Auschwitz. For some weeks Etty was able to travel to and from Amsterdam, but in September 1943 she was sent to Auschwitz and died there in November.
Etty Hillesum’s accounts of the Holocaust bring to life the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Like Anne Frank, Hillesum was a Dutch Jew living in Amsterdam.
Born in 1914, she died in Auschwitz in November 1943, at the age of 29. Etty Hillesum began her diaries nine months after Hitler invaded the Netherlands on May 10th 1940. The diaries record her daily experiences and the unfolding of her interior response.
Published four decades after her death under the title: ‘An Interrupted Life’, the book was quickly recognised as one of the great documents of our time.She went voluntarily to Westerbork in July of 1942, at about the same time a young girl named Anne Frank began writing her diary in the attic of a house a few miles away from Hillesum’s home in Amsterdam.
Her letters (the second part of the book) reveal a great deal of detail about the day-to-day life at the transit camp of Westerbork (the last stop before Auschwitz). Individual people come into view clearly and the horrors and atrocities facing the Jews emerge. One of the most striking aspects of Etty’s diary is her compassion. She refuses to join her fellow Dutch in despising the Germans. She tries to rise above hate in the midst of horror and evil and reveals a tremendous inner strength. An Interrupted Life is an incomparable record of the meaning of life that embraces horror and beauty, love and sexual awakening.
Etty wrote the following in June 1942:
God cannot be held accountable to us, but we are accountable to him. I know what will happen to us next (…)
The latest news is that all the Jews will be deported from Holland to Poland, through camps in the province of Drenthe, and the English radio said that since last year 700,000 Jews have perished in Germany and the occupied territories. If we do survive than we will have that many wounds to carry for the rest of our lives.
And still life makes sense to me, my God, I cannot help it.
And God should not be held accountable by us for the senseless things that we do. We are responsible!
I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand camps. I know it all and I do no longer get upset over new information. Somehow I already know it all. And still I find this life beautiful and full of meaning, every minute of it.
Sitting on her backpack in an overcrowded railway carriage, Etty Hillseum wrote this postcard to her friend Christine who lived in Deventer. ‘We have left the camp singing…’ she scribbled. Then she threw the card from the train – her last sign of life. Thrown out of the train by Etty on 7 September 1943, the postcard was found by farmers outside Westerbork camp and forms the last ‘entry’ in the published Diary, An Interrupted Life:
Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower’. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother and Mischa [Etty’s brother] are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing, Father and Mother firmly and calmly, Mischa too. We shall be travelling for three days. Thank you for all your kindness and care. Friends left behind will still be writing to Amsterdam; perhaps you will hear something from them. Or from my last letter from camp.
Goodbye for now from the four of us.
– Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: Diaries and Letters 1941-43
Etty Hilversum most likely died on 30 November 1943, along with her parents and brothers, murdered in Auschwitz. The diary that Etty kept during the occupation and the many letters she wrote, also from Camp Westerbork, were of high literary quality, and after the war they were published in more than ten languages.