Friday, July 27, 2012

"The Piece of Heaven Outside My Window"

I have hesitated a long time before deciding to write about the woman who has been an inspiration to me for over three decades: a woman who found God by looking deep into herself. This statement could so easily sound like an evangelical calling, but such an association could not be further from the essence of the person to whom I am referring. For whatever she might have discovered, it was not religion in the context that most of us would recognise it. For her, religion merely meant one's own personal relationship with God, and seeing that God in everyone. The woman was Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman who, in the heart of the Holocaust, manifested a world of beauty and reverence. 

'Become who you are', was the lesson received by Etty Hillesum from her spiritual teacher, the palmist Julius Spier. And during the extreme conditions of the Second World War, that is what she strived to do. She remained true to herself, and through her example she has become a guiding light for many to this day. Her diary and letters bear witness to her spiritual awakening. She gradually learned to recognise a certainty in herself, a specific something that could never be taken away from her, a something that in a way made her invulnerable. In that part of her soul she recognised God.

The writing of her diary had a meditative effect upon her spirit. She ventured ever deeper into herself, eventually to discover God in the depths of her soul: "..and here is perhaps the most perfect expression of my life's feeling: I rest in myself. And that 'myself', that deepest and richest part of me in which I rest, I call 'God'."

On the day that Julius Spier died, on the very day that the Gestapo would come to take him away, Etty wrote: "You have allowed me to speak the name of God. You have been the intermediary between God and myself, and now you, my teacher, are gone, and with you my direct path to God. It is good that this happens, that is what I feel."

Etty believed that many people do not handle suffering in the way in which they perhaps need to. "People draw back from feeling suffering, and therefore become further entangled in fear and self-pity: suffering is not beneath human dignity. One can suffer either with or without dignity. What I mean is: most Westerners don't understand the art of suffering, and in its place put a thousand fears. This is no longer living, what most people do: fear, resignation, bitterness, hate, despair. My God, it is all so easily understood. But when this life is taken from them, then not so much is taken away from them? One accepts death as a part of life, including the worst form of death. And do we not live a whole life each day, and does it really make a difference if we live one day shorter or longer? I am with the hungry, with the mistreated, with the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmin and with the piece of heaven outside my window. There is a place for everything in life. For a belief in God and for a terrible destruction."


The further the diary progresses, the more Etty's life is coloured by the resolution to place herself in the service of others. During the course of the diary she prepares herself more and more to go to the Westerbork concentration camp when her summons arrives, rather than choosing to go into hiding. In the first instance she did not seek to evade what she considered to be her fate and the collective fate of her people;  secondly she wanted to go with the others to be a support for them. The last words in her diary underscore this: "One would wish to be a bandage on many wounds." 

Etty Hillesum wrote her diary during a time of a great explosion of hatred and aggression, and in just such a time, as her only weapon, she chose love: "All catastrophes emanate from ourselves. In our inner selves we must free ourselves from everything, from every immutable possibility. From every cliché, from every tie that binds, we must have the courage to let everything go, every norm and every foothold. We must dare to make the great spring into the cosmos, dare to risk, and then, then, is life so endlessly rich and overflowing, even in its deepest suffering."

Survivors from the Westerbork camp confirm that for many in those dark days Etty was both a support and a mental shield, a shining example through the light of her personality.

On 7 September 1943 Etty Hillesum, together with her entire family, was set upon a train to Poland. A Red Cross notice reported that she had died on 30 November of that same year in Auschwitz, age 29.

You are welcome to read my second post about Etty Hillesum's life and insights here:
God will Nevertheless be Safe with Us


  1. Such a moving account, and related with the dignity which Etty Hillesum's exemplary life deserves.

  2. I feel Etty Hillesum touched the deepest eternal truth that is within us all. Although I have not heard of her previously I consider her to be an awakened soul and an enlightened master. She completely lived her truth and was a lighthouse of compassion and love. In the midst of hatred and ignorance she shone like the brilliant sun to the people she touched. "Become who you are', was the lesson received by Etty Hillesum from her spiritual teacher, the palmist Julius Spier." This statement points to who we truly are in the core of our being, our true nature. Some call it Buddha nature, some call it Christ consciousness, but whatever label we use it simply points to that which cannot be defined or named, the very essence of Being. Etty also points to learning how to suffer. And many great teachers point to the suffering in our lives as the portals to transcend the suffering. We can discover that part of our inner self that cannot be broken by suffering, that is deeper than the suffering itself. Rather than resisting suffering when it is inevitable she alludes to accepting what life brings to us. It is almost paradoxical that the way out of suffering is not away from it but through it. Not that we do not attempt to change or improve our situation. Of course we can still attempt to make improvements while accepting what is before us. Here are some quotes in support of what Etty's teaches us with regards to suffering:

    "If you can touch the world of beauty in the world of ugliness, then you can touch the world of suffering in the world of enlightenment.
    The world of enlightenment is within the world of suffering."
    ~Thich Nhat Hanh

    "Through Love: Darkness becomes clear.
    Through Love: Bitter things become sweet.
    Through Love: Pain becomes the healing.
    Through Love: Dead becomes alive."

    "In the midst of conscious suffering there is already the transmutation. The fire of suffering becomes the light of consciousness."
    -Eckhart Tolle

    Not everything is about suffering, for in transcending the suffering Etty points to the beauty of life that is around us. "We must dare to make the great spring into the cosmos, dare to risk, and then, then, is life so endlessly rich and overflowing, even in its deepest suffering."

    I wholeheartedly agree with Hawkwod that this is a very moving story, and a great teaching that is meaningful today as it was during the Holocaust. Thank you Emma for writing this.

  3. Thank you Hawkwood and Joseph, for allowing yourselves to be touched by Etty's light, which keeps on shining - and which becomes ever brighter the more we choose to tread her spiritual path.