After the Terror,
I Return to Etty Hillesum
Patricia Adams Farmer
"Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me."
—Etty Hillesum, July 1942
Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew, an intellectual and writer, who died in Auschwitz in 1943. All quotes taken from An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943
I return to you, again and again, especially when humanity collapses into fear after the atrocities of terrorism. Like now. Paris. Lebanon. Syria. Tel Aviv. The young faces of victims. Grief, fear, trembling, bleak presentiments. You, of all people, understand.
"Mortal fear in every fibre. Complete collapse. Lack of self-confidence. Aversion. Panic." —Etty Hillesum, November 10, 1941
During times like these, it is as if the very Soul of the world stretches out across the universe in cosmic mourning. We share in the shock, the brutal searing of goodness; it feels like a frigid, howling wind that penetrates what few layers of protection we have managed to put on.
"And finally: ought we not, from time to time, open ourselves up to cosmic sadness?" —Etty Hillesum, March 21, 1942
You know about “cosmic sadness,” don’t you? You know intimately about Terror, dear Etty, and about the great fear that penetrates our souls in times like these. But you were, unlike me who sits in safety, at the very center of that Great Evil. And yet, against all odds, you blossomed. Auschwitz may have claimed your body, but nothing could touch the beauty of your soul as witnessed in your diaries—that intimate portrait of an expanding soul. For that, I am grateful. You, like your young counterpart Anne Frank, who penned her own diary only a few blocks away from you in the beleaguered city of Amsterdam, are part of that Great Feeling that gives me faith in life again. And beauty, especially beauty. Like the birth of things, of children, plants, opening buds.
"The jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days, its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as ever it did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You, I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine. And I shall bring You all the flowers I shall meet on my way, and truly there are many of those." —Etty Hillesum, July 1942
Etty, you have taught me that we can either bloom alongside the forebodings or drown in black, muddy pools of fear. You understood that fear is pernicious and contagious; it can shrivel the soul.
"We go too far in fearing for our unhappy bodies,while our forgotten spirit shrivels up in some corner." —Etty Hillesum
And now, all around me in my country, I see souls shriveling in panic: a small, mean, irrational, contagious reaction. We close our doors to refugees and splash upon large groups of people a dark suspicion. But perhaps if we, in this time, could nourish our constricted souls within the dark and tender womb of God, perhaps we could find your liberating, expansive vision:
"I had a liberating thought which surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: if there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people." —Etty Hillesum, March 15, 1941
We need your voice, dear Etty, now more than ever. I need your voice. Thankfully, because of your courage and your diaries, you are always there for us. You teach us how to widen out when everyone around us shrinks back. Perhaps it has something to do with your spiritual moorings, perhaps because you do not see God as an all-powerful brute who plays about in the world like a despotic puppeteer, but more like a vulnerable Beauty, a tender blade of grass "thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds."
"Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last."—Etty Hillesum, July 1942
Such a large soul as yours, dear Etty, a soul burgeoning with divine love and divine care, does not simply bloom overnight, especially in these dark times. It takes time . . .
"Yes, we need patience. Our desire must be like a slow and stately ship, sailing across endless oceans, ever in search of safe anchorage. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, it will find a mooring for a moment."—Etty Hillesum, March 17, 1942
And yet, with all your inner blossoming—or because of it—you chose not to passively adapt to evil, but to be engaged in the world with a sense of ongoing rebellion.
"We human beings cause monstrous conditions, but precisely because we cause them we soon learn to adapt ourselves to them. Only if we become such that we can no longer adapt ourselves, only if, deep inside, we rebel against every kind of evil, will we be able to put a stop to it." —Etty Hillesum, March 21, 1942
Now, with you by my side, my own soul feels more spacious and liberated from fear:
"And now I shall venture out upon this day. I shall meet a great many people today and evil rumours and threats will again assault me like so many enemy soldiers besieging an inviolable fortress." —Etty Hillesum, September 15, 1942
And so the beauty of your soul now ventures across the universe, across the years, so large and luminous.
I am grateful.
Patricia Adams Farmer is a writer inspired by Whitehead's process philosophy. Visit her website: patriciaadamsfarmer.com.