"The chronicler of our adventures"
What Etty Hillesum's diary can—and cannot—tell us about Anne Frank.
“I shall become the chronicler of our adventures. I shall forge them into a new language and store them inside me should I have no chance to write things down. I shall grow dull and come to life again, fall down and rise up again, and one day I may perhaps discover a peaceful space round me that is mine alone, and then I shall sit there for as long as it takes, even if it should be a year, until life begins to bubble up in me again and I find the words that bear witness where witness needs to be borne.” (Etty Hillesum)
What I’m working on
“Here goes, then.” The diary of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch-Jewish woman fifteen years older than Anne Frank, opens modestly; but what follows is one of the most remarkable documents of Holocaust literature. A teacher and translator of Russian language and literature, Hillesum began writing her diary in March 1941 largely as a chronicle of her love affair with Julius Spier, a German Jewish man several decades older. In language that is both soul-searching and intensely erotic, she documents the relationship as it progresses and contemplates the diary as an instrument of her emotional and sexual rebirth. “So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose,” she writes early on. “It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love.”
A line Anne Frank could never have written! Yet the connections between Anne’s diary and Etty’s are striking. Both women were deeply if unconventionally spiritual, longing for a connection with God that ultimately felt more profound to them than any human relationship. “I realize I cannot fully express my feelings for a person in embraces,” Etty wrote in a line that echoes Anne’s sentiments regarding Peter almost verbatim. Both were also keenly self-conscious about their identities as writers, plagued with doubt about their abilities—“Your imagination and your emotions are like a vast ocean from which you wrest small pieces of land that may well be flooded again,” Etty lectured herself—and continually striving to improve. And both expressed frustration with the position of women as the “weaker sex.” Etty even recorded the connection between her moods and menstruation, as Anne did.
But there is one crucial difference. Anne’s diary ends abruptly with her still in hiding, three days before the raid on the Annex. Etty managed to keep writing in Westerbork, the Nazi transit camp for Dutch Jews, where she volunteered to go in summer 1942 as an employee of the Jewish Council, an organization established by the Nazis to serve as a liaison between the Jewish community and the occupiers. (This article by my friend Arnon Grunberg, a Dutch novelist and journalist, thoughtfully lays out some of the ethical complications of the council’s position.) Her detailed notes from Westerbork offer not only an essential account of the camp’s unique horrors, but also an intimate perspective on her enduring faith in God amid the degradation around her. Could it be possible, then, to extrapolate from Etty’s diary some suggestion of how Anne, with a similarly sensitive and spiritual temperament, may have felt in Westerbork?
The first year of Etty’s diary is almost entirely preoccupied with her love affair and her spirituality. But inexorably the persecution of the Jews steals in. She notes the suicide of a friend and the arrests of beloved former professors. Signs go up along the promenade where she once loved to walk: “No admittance to Jews.” She accompanies Spier to the Jewish Council to register, and to deposit his assets, as required, at the bank designated by the Nazis for that purpose. And she wonders how to bear witness to it all. “Do I really have to write down things like these?” she asks after recording her efforts to procure fresh food. “Whole books would be filled.” Like Anne, who muses that “it would be quite funny 10 years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here [in hiding],” Etty imagines that those books might one day “make exciting reading.” But, she concludes, “let others write them, not me…. The tree outside my window, in the evenings, is a greater experience than all those people put together.” Just as the chestnut tree in the courtyard of the Annex is for Anne, this tree is to Etty more than just a tree—it symbolizes her connection to all of nature, and thus to God.
Like Anne, Etty experiences the presence of God primarily through the natural world. Cycling home one night, she writes, “I melted into the landscape and offered all my tenderness up to the sky and the stars and the water.” As the Nazi threat increases, she finds consolation in her spiritual practice: “I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.” Even as the humiliations mount, she insists on the strength of her interiority, drawing on her faith. “The sky within me,” she writes, “is as wide as the one stretching above my head.”
With the news of the imminent call-ups of Jews to Westerbork and thence to “labor service” in Germany, Etty recognizes that “what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that.” A friend recommends her for a job with the Jewish Council, the primary role of which, as of summer 1942, is to facilitate the transports. Though she has misgivings about the organization, she hopes to use her position to do good, to be “a center of peace in that madhouse.” For the same reason, she voluntarily accompanies the first group of Jews sent to Westerbork, where she remains, on and off, for more than a year, writing her chronicles. (She was allowed to go back and forth to Amsterdam for health reasons.) “Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks,” she prays.
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This isn’t the place for details of life at Westerbork, to which I devote several sections of my forthcoming book about Anne Frank. What does seem relevant is how Etty responds to her circumstances: by reaffirming her faith. “No matter whether I am sitting at this beloved old desk now, or in a bare room in the Jewish district, or perhaps in a labor camp under SS guards in a month’s time—I shall always feel safe in God’s arms,” she writes before her deportation. This faith persists in Westerbork, where she continues to use her diary as both a personal journal and a conduit of her thoughts to God. “I shall have to find a new kind of patience to meet this entirely new state of affairs,” she writes. “I shall follow the tried and tested old method, talking to myself now and again on these faint blue lines. And talking to You, God. Is that all right?” And she feels a renewed purpose in her role as “the chronicler of our adventures”:
I shall forge them into a new language and store them inside me should I have no chance to write things down. I shall grow dull and come to life again, fall down and rise up again, and one day I may perhaps discover a peaceful space round me that is mine alone, and then I shall sit there for as long as it takes, even if it should be a year, until life begins to bubble up in me again and I find the words that bear witness where witness needs to be borne.
Earlier, in Amsterdam with Spier, Etty affirmed her faith in humanity in language strikingly similar to Anne’s most famous quote (“Despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”). “Yesterday afternoon we read over the notes he had given me,” she wrote on March 15, 1941. “And when we came to the words, ‘If there were only one human being worthy of the name of “man,” then we should be justified in believing in men and in humanity,’ I threw my arms round him.” She continued: “If there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.” There is no evidence that Etty stopped believing in “that one decent German” in Westerbork. “I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes. And at the end of each day, there was always the feeling: I love people so much,” she wrote several months after first arriving in the camp.
Many have pointed out that Anne wrote that famous line about people being good at heart before her experience of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. Westerbork, for all its torments, was not a camp where people were systematically murdered. We don’t know if Etty was able to maintain her optimism in Auschwitz, where the Nazis sent her to the gas on November 30, 1943, less than three months after her arrival. Her last written words were on a postcard that she tossed from the cattle car in which she was transported to the death camp, discovered by a Dutch local who mailed it to its addressee. “We left the camp singing,” she wrote.
We have testimony from a number of witnesses about the last seven months of Anne’s life. People who were in the same barracks and work detail remember her enjoying the comparative freedom of Westerbork after her long years in hiding (Otto recalls this, too); she and Peter are said to have been “always together.” But we don’t know anything about her inner life during these months. Did she hold on to her ideas about God, her optimism, her faith in humanity? No one can answer this question. But the experiences of others who were like her, in similar situations, allows at least for informed speculation about how she might have thought and felt.
What I’m reading
I’m almost 250 pages into Robert Caro’s The Path to Power. As I explained in last month’s newsletter, I’m planning to read all four (existing) volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro’s magisterial biography, over the course of this year. I’m tweeting my thoughts daily on Twitter using the hashtag #caroin2023. Here’s one from yesterday:
There’s an interesting little group reading together—join us!
Where I’ll be
On February 1 at 1 p.m., I’m giving a talk about Anne Frank—specifically, her editing of her diary and why it matters—for the American University lecture series “Acts of Remembrance: Shaping Holocaust Memory in the Twenty-First Century.” It’s free on Zoom: sign up here.
From the Shirley Jackson files
I loved reading this piece about Wendy June Marie, who lives in Jackson’s former house on Main Street in North Bennington and recently started a business selling homemade scones and other pastries, using ingredients from Jackson’s garden! Follow her on Instagram for pics of the house and her great-looking scones: @moonsconesvt.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are considered, by some, to dream.”—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House