Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed

On the way back from Mexico (would that we could be transported from A to B in a haze of particles), I read Patrick Woodhouse's book on Etty Hillesum.

The story of this remarkable woman, killed at twenty-nine in Auschwitz, is well-told. She moved from an emotionally chaotic childhood through the confusions of the early twenties to a remarkably mature adult that accepted and transformed her fate into a form of life that testified to the presence of truth and love in the darkest imaginable circumstances.

One of the key agents of her transformation was Julius Spier - an unusual therapist who had developed a path of psycho-chirologist (associated with the reading of palms) and had been a student of Jung's. His therapy was highly unorthodox - and including as well as scrutiny of hands - wrestling (indeed Etty was the first of his patients ever to throw him)!

Their relationship crossed from a therapeutic into a sexual one (conducted while Etty had a relationship with her landlord - there is a theme of older men here) and was strikingly effective in that from it Etty began to weave the strands of a self that hearkened to her interior life and discovered within it the depth and resources to live out a (short) life of compassion and intelligence - and a remarkable spirituality, fashioned from her own encounters, reading and experience. It was a depth that showed no trace of dependence on Spier and continued to grow after his death (from cancer) mercifully the day before his planned arrest.

It was a spirituality that had no time for, nor interest in, institutions or denominational boundaries and which allowed her to live without hate, even scrutinising in the face of her enemy - the concentration camp guard - signs of a buried humanity. It was Spier, also a Jew, that taught her a love for the New Testament.

She was extraordinary yet exhibited her life in ordinary and simple ways. Ways that at the end drew ample testimony from those she helped and comforted in the transit camp between home and impending death.

Where I found the book difficult I realize is in trying to imagine Etty as a sign of new life from which we should learn particular lessons. It creates an artificial framework that in some (unintended) way diminishes her - in her complexity. That we can learn from her witness I do not doubt but I sense this learning should be allowed to unfold by itself - from the dynamics of her witness and life - each in a radically individual way, rather than be packaged.

I, also, was discomforted by the author's discomfort over Etty (and her friend/therapist's) unconventionality - it felt like the prim intrusion of 'organised religion/morality' that does not serve the living facts of Etty's life. That her therapist did not respect therapeutic boundaries is true and that neither cared a whit for this is more importantly true. Nor did either see the point of institutional religion - though Patrick Woodhouse, an Anglican priest, cannot refrain from occasionally asserting its point, as if Etty remained 'outside' something important, rather than being the importance that is always, and everywhere, inside.

But that said, it is a good book, and brings her life to a wider attention that it richly deserves.

Finally, I was reminded of a phrase from Buber's I and Thou - a text that, like Etty's life, seeks to give meaning to God, God as a reality that addresses us, rather than one that we build a theological or institutional frame around. Buber says, in effect, that though we know in our hearts that we need God, know that God needs us. How He needs us is left unsaid. It is to be discovered in the discrete heart of each one of us, different possibly in each situation. Etty knows that God cannot reach in and rescue her from her fate but she can in her life defend truth and love, and thus ensure that God is present, a freedom that cannot be taken from her, even in death. As St Teresa of Avila said God has no hands but ours, ours is God's making in the world, or His undoing.


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