Books: 'We left the camp singing'

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 Persephone Books pounds 10
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The Independent Culture
On 7 September 1943 a postcard fluttered from the window of a long train, moving slowly out of Holland. It was Etty Hillesum's last communication, written to a friend as she sat on her rucksack in the middle of a full freight- car on the way to Auschwitz. It begins: "Opening the Bible at random, I find this: 'The Lord is my high tower.'" Then she describes the calm firmness of her parents and brother, also aboard, and she adds "We left the camp singing." By November she was dead. She was 29. None of her family survived.

Two years earlier Etty had begun a diary. Restless and given to self- doubt, she wrote: "my ideas hang on me like outsize clothes into which I still have to grow ... my mind lags behind my intuition." Yet day by day, as the Nazi stranglehold tightened on Dutch Jews, she grew into those ideas. Her mind began to fashion a way of living that inspired everyone she met, a serenity that allowed her to declare, again and again, that life was beautiful. Three days before she was deported she wrote, in a last letter from the transit camp at Westerbork: "We have become marked by suffering for a whole lifetime. And yet life, in its unfathomable depths, is so wonderfully good."

Her diaries, now published with her letters, detail the way she reached this remarkable quietude. A graduate in law and philosophy, she was lodging in Amsterdam and teaching Russian when she decided to consult Julius Spier, a Jungian psychotherapist with unusual methods (he liked wrestling with his patients). During her affair with him she absorbed some of his ideas, particularly his conviction that you cannot heal disturbed people without love. She read widely, finding much to admire in Rilke and Dostevsky and - more surprisingly - turning to St Matthew's gospel, to Meister Eckhart and to St Augustine.

She became convinced that hatred was wrong and that each of us should instead turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. She describes the reaction of another Jew to this: "And you, Klaas, dogged old class fighter that you have always been, dismayed and astonished at the same time, say 'But that - that is nothing but Christianity!' - And I, amused by your confusion, retort quite coolly, 'Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?'" Her faith had become too profound for definition. Near the end, she writes: "The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active and yet more peaceful, and it is all the time storing up inner riches."

She always knew that there was little hope of survival - indeed she stopped wanting to survive, as long as others were dying - but sometimes, heartbreakingly, she let herself dream of a peaceful future when she might nurse her mother through old age. More realistically, she predicted that in years to come, children would be taught in school about ghettos, yellow stars and terror, and that it would make their hair stand on end: "And I shall wield this slender fountain-pen like a hammer ... to beat out the story of our fate and of a piece of history as it is and never was before." She'd have been a wonderful writer. She already was. Her candour and compassion paint a fearsome picture of Westerbork, where every week trains would carry off another thousand men, women, children, babies, grandfathers, stretcher-cases .... And Etty's own courage helps the reader, as so often it helped the victims, to face such horrors squarely. At the end of this intensely moving book, what you remember is her shining integrity, and her steadfast conviction that "All that matters now is to be kind to each other, with all the goodness that is in us."

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