Sunday, January 13, 2013

God Will Nevertheless Be Safe With Us

This is my second post about Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman who kept a diary during the second World War. Her writing – and her whole being – made an indelible impression on myself and many others. 
Her diaries were no war-journals: rather, they express a love and compassion above and beyond  the most difficult circumstances in which she found herself. Her appeal to live to the full, not because of circumstances, but rather in spite of them, and to seek for the love within, still resonates for us today. 
The link to my first post, "The Piece Of Heaven Outside My Window" , an introduction to Etty and her circumstances, can be found here and on my sidebar. 

In one of Etty Hillesum's letters from Westerbork camp she writes: "As long as we make sure that, despite everything, God will nevertheless be safe with us."

What a remarkable thing to say - God will nevertheless be safe with us. How to understand this? And was this a farewell letter? Was she preparing herself for a definitive farewell when she wrote this to one of her friends in Amsterdam? She asks for a warm dress, and she speaks about well-filled backpacks. At the same time she prepares bottles with milk and tomato juice for the babies who will make the journey to their unknown fate. And here we read: "One mother says, almost apologizing: 'My baby seldom cries, but now, it is almost as if he feels what is going to happen." The cries of the infants swell, filling all the dark corners and cracks of the eerily-lit blockhouse. It is hardly endurable. And a name wells up in me: Herod." 
These heartbreaking and dramatic moments remind her of the infanticide in Bethlehem, and of the words of Jeremiah: "In Rama a voice was heard, a loud wailing and lamentation. Rachel cried for her children and did not wish to be consoled."

She writes, in the midst of thousands of desperate companions in adversity, letters which reveal her own grief about the suffering of others, and of what people do to each other. She herself searches for a peaceful little haven, for some silence. Exhausted because of her work in the camp infirmary, or, during long  nights, of helping those who are destined to go on the transport the following day, she tries to find some solace in her writings, sitting on whatever is available to sit on: a wheelbarrow, an iron bed, an upturned bucket - anything.

On one of those nights she writes: "I know that those who hate do have their profound reasons for this hatred. But why would we keep on choosing the easiest and cheapest option? When my experience here is how every atom of hate, added to the world, makes this world more barren than it already is. And I therefore mean, maybe childish but persistent, that this earth would only become more inhabitable through the love, of which the Jew Paul writes in his first letter to the city of Corinth." 

Not only in her relatively 'safe' room in her house looking out over the square in Amsterdam, even in the hell of Westerbork, she maintains her stance " be without hatred or bitterness.." - even towards her persecutors and executioners. 

It is love that keeps her going. She talks with God, calling it 'one long dialogue'; she rests in God, tears of gratefulness are her prayer, lying in her small triple bunk. In one of her letters we read: "When, after a long and difficult process, one permeates into these primal sources in oneself, and which I now wish to call God, then we renew ourselves through this source... I want to bend down on my knees, but I will ensure that my strength will not explode in boundlessness."
And in her diary she continues: “I can't stop writing, not even here in Westerbork; I would want to search for that one redeeming word, that one redeeming formula...
“Why did you not make me a poet, God?
“You made me a poet, and I shall patiently wait for the words to grow inside of me, words that can testify to all that I feel which I need to testify about, my God: that it is good and beautiful to live in your world, despite what we people do to one another."

Still at home in Amsterdam, July 1942, she writes: "I will promise you one thing, God, a small thing it is: I will not hang my worries for the near future as weights on today; but that takes practice. Every day now is enough in itself. I shall help you, God, that you do not give up on me, but I cannot guarantee anything. But this becomes more clear to me: that you cannot help us, but that we need to help you, and by doing so, we help ourselves. And this is the only thing that we can save and also the only thing that matters: a piece of you in us, God. And maybe we can also work together to reveal you in the wounded hearts of others."

In the care of Etty, God indeed was safe.


  1. Thank you for providing us a glimpse of the life and soul of Etty Hillesum. She was an embodiment of compassion, and her life radiated pure love, and she was a great light to those around her and now through your writings she is a great light to all of us who come to know her. She was indeed a poet and had her unique way of expressing things. I especially like, " "I will promise you one thing, God, a small thing it is: I will not hang my worries for the near future as weights on today; but that takes practice. Every day now is enough in itself... " I feel Etty truly knew the indivisibility and oneness of Life. In face of extreme cruelty and ugliness she saw the underlying beauty of God in all things.
    She also realized that love in action, our compassion and kindness towards each other "completes" God, not that God needs completing, but we can further the one purpose of God, of Life, of the Universe, that is for God (the universe) to know Itself through us. Thank you Emma for sharing the story of this beautiful woman who is a great beacon of light to humanity.