© Jan L. Richardson ◊The Painted Prayerbook◊
In 1941, a young Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum began to keep a journal. Hitler’s armies had invaded her homeland of The Netherlands nine months before she took up her pen. As the Nazi forces wielded increasing control over nearly every aspect of her life and the life of her community, Etty continued to write, filling a series of eight exercise books over the next nineteen months. “If I have one duty in these times,” she observed, “it is to bear witness.”
Etty bore witness not only to what was happening in the world around her but also in the world within her—the one place the Nazis could not invade. Amid the mounting terrors that the Nazis were inflicting, Etty documented and reflected on the dailiness of her life. She wrote of the complexities of her relationships with family and friends, her work as a Russian tutor, her passionate appetite for reading (among her favorites were the works of the poet Rilke as well as the Gospels). She wrote of her hungers, her longings, her prayers. Her diaries weren’t a form of escapism; rather, they convey her conviction that the exterior and interior worlds are not separate from one another. Etty believed that doing one’s inner work is crucial to the thriving of a society. She wrote that if we refuse to look into our own shadows, if we resist going into the dark places within ourselves and our world, our shadows eventually spill out in hatred and violence—as her own homeland was experiencing.
Etty recognized both her capacity for hatred and the need to let it go. On a February day, she notes the martyrdom of a young man; she comments on how he had played the mandolin, and had a wife and child. She runs into a friend and talks with him about the martyred man. Her friend asks, “What is it in human beings that makes them want to destroy others?” Etty’s response reminds him that they, too—the two of them—are among the human beings of whom he speaks. “I see no other solution,” she tells him, “I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there.”
Etty wrote with a sense of her own frailty—she describes occasions of anxiety, illness, and depression—as well as a keen understanding of the brokenness around her. In the midst of this, Etty evinces a stubborn willingness to enter the darkness and its mysteries. There she finds the presence of God and the riches of her own soul.
One spring morning she wrote,
I went to bed early last night and from my bed I stared out through the large open window. And it was once more as if life with all its mysteries was close to me, as if I could touch it. I had the feeling that I was resting against the naked breast of life, and could feel her gentle and regular heartbeat. I felt safe and protected. And I thought: how strange. It is wartime. There are concentration camps. I can say of so many of the houses I pass: here the son has been thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an 18-year-old boy in that house over there has been sentenced to death. And these streets and houses are all so close to my own. I know how very nervous people are, I know about the mounting human suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all.
And yet—at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant as if it would never stop.
That is also my attitude to life and I believe that neither war nor any other senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.
In 1942, Etty Hillesum was sent to the labor camp at Westerbork, where she held a position that enabled her to travel back and forth to Amsterdam. Her position offered the possibility of escape, and on one occasion, friends tried to kidnap her to prevent her return to Westerbork. Etty resisted, believing she was called to remain with those who were suffering. At Westerbork she continued to tend her inner terrain, acknowledging both the beauty and the struggle that she found. In one of her letters from the camp, she wrote,
When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green-uniformed guards—my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after his likeness [Genesis 1.27]. That passage spent a difficult morning with me.
On September 7, 1943, Etty was put on a train to Auschwitz, along with her mother, father, and one of her brothers. None of them returned.
Etty flung a postcard from the train as they left Westerbork; a farmer found it and put it in the mail. On the postcard Etty had written, “We left the camp singing.”
Etty has been constant with me as I’ve pondered this week’s gospel lection, Matthew 10.24-39. Her words and her life have provided both commentary and challenge as I’ve prayed with Jesus’ words about shadows and darkness. With her own life she continues to teach me about how everything that is hidden eventually becomes revealed, about how we are called to proclaim in light what God tells us in the darkness. She persists in telling me what it means not to fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and how we find our lives by losing them.
With her eloquent, raw, searing, haunting words, Etty reminds us that the shadows may hold fear and terror, but beneath that, deeper than that, more enduring than that, they contain the presence of God, who dwells in darkness as well as in light. She bears witness to the God who is shrouded in mystery yet longs to be known by us and to know us in all our brokenness and our beauty.
So how do we sort through what lies in the shadows of our own souls, our society, our world? How do we listen for the voice of God in the darkness and receive the revelations that Christ has for us there? How do we bring to light what we find in the shadows? Who or what helps us navigate the connections between the inner and outer realms? How does God call us to bear witness to, to “tell in the light,” what we find there?
Blessings to you in darkness and in daylight.
[Quotations from Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty HIllesum, 1941-43. Edited by Klaas A. D. Smelik, 2002.]