Have you ever heard of Etty Hillesum?
She is one of the lesser-known, but brighter-shining figures of Holocaust history. A Dutch Jew in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, her spirituality and ethics were deeply influenced by Russian literature and Christian theology.
I have recently been reading some of her diary entries, written just months before she was deported to Auschwitz and eventually murdered on November 30, 1943. She was only 29 years old.
When she and her family were forced onto a train from the Netherlands to Auschwitz in September of 1943, Hillesum quickly wrote these lines on a postcard and threw it from the train to be recovered:
“The Lord is my high tower. In the end, the departure came without warning… We left the camp singing… Thank you for all your kindness and care.”
Her journals portray a person whose very life was a prayer in the midst of a hostile world.
As she prays to God from the Westerbork concentration camp where she was detained before her transport to Auschwitz, she clearly perceives both the beauty and terror of the world, and is somehow lifted into true life.
“All I want to say is this: The misery here [the concentration camp] is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire..."
And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world."
Life is indeed glorious and magnificent—even as it contains brutality, war, oppression, pain, and alienation.
How can this be?
How can we both see the dark reality of the world, and yet exert our imagination to envision an alternative of flourishing, justice, freedom, and love—and even walk with a spring along the barbed wire?
Hillesum’s words, written written by a victim of a genocide in which numerous self-identified Christians participated, express a central aspect of what Christian spirituality ought to be: through prayer and a life of following Jesus, we might “give space” to God, to borrow a phrase from Rowan Williams. In ourselves and in the world we are creating “a habitation for God.”
In yet another truly amazing moment from her journals, she writes of her choice not to go into hiding, but rather to stay and serve those in the Westerbork concentration camp:
"At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness and I prayed, 'Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.' That is what I want to be. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp."
These sobering words raise the hairs on the back of my neck. They depict a person so clearly attuned to her vocation as “the thinking heart” of her community. They humble me. And they inspire me in my own work and aspirations, faint echoes of Hillesum’s heroic faithfulness though they may be.
So, friends, would you pray with me and my colleagues at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, as we seek through our work to be thinking hearts creating a habitation for God in our world?
Together, we might start with these words of Etty Hillesum, which indeed create a habitation for the Lord amidst the darkness of the world:
“You have made me so rich, oh God,
please let me share out Your beauty with open hands.
My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue.
Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp,
my feet planted on Your earth,
my eyes raised toward Your Heavens,
tears sometimes run down my face,
tears of deep emotion and gratitude.
At night, too, when I lie in bed and rest in You, oh God,
tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.”
I remain grateful to you, my friends, for your support and encouragement in all its shapes and forms—especially in prayerfully creating a habitation for God in this world. And I hope you find a deep well of inspiration and light in Etty Hillesum’s life and writings.
To learn more about Etty Hillesum, I commend to you her unabridged writings: Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943 (Eerdmans, 2002).