Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times

The search for meaning and faith.

Spiritual Maturity: The Case of Etty Hillesum Part 2

Etty enters the calmer reaches of faith development.

Persecution leads to improving self-awareness
As revealed in her diaries and letters, Amsterdam Jewess, Etty Hillesum, made remarkable progress towards spiritual maturity while living under Nazi occupation during World War II.

The situation for Amsterdam Jews worsened during 1941. The so-called Nuremberg Laws were introduced and enforced. Jews had to wear a yellow star, and they were not allowed in certain shops and public places, or on public transport. Food was scarce and rationed. By late June 1942, Jews were not allowed to leave the city. Large scale round ups began and they were sent to camps, notably Westerbork, over a hundred miles from Amsterdam.

Etty Hillesum
In early September 1941, Etty wrote, "I am unhappy again". She describes withdrawing to sit in a corner, head bowed, "Absolutely still, contemplating my navel so to speak, in the pious hope that new sources of inspiration would bubble up inside me." Etty says her heart felt ‘frozen' and her brain ‘squeezed in a large vice'. "What I am waiting for whenever I sit huddled up like that", she adds, "Is for something to give, for something to start flowing inside me." Her faith is at work here, the source of courage and hope she needs to provide her with the strength and will to persist.

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She is eventually rewarded; her heart and mind are unlocked. Etty's next report of a similar experience has a different quality. "Now I sometimes actually drop to my knees beside my bed, even on a cold winter night. And I listen to myself, allow myself to be led, not by anything on the outside, but by what wells up from deep within. It's still no more than a beginning, I know. But it is no longer a shaky beginning, it has already taken root."

‘Something happened' to Etty between those diary entries, just a few months apart. She has learned to meditate, and literally to get on her knees and pray. She did not record it as one single moment of awakening or epiphany, but a gradually increasing awareness of divine influence, associated with profound gratitude and a natural and joyful sense of submission. One day she wrote, for example, "The only certainties about what is right and wrong are those that spring from sources deep inside oneself. And I say it humbly and gratefully... ‘Oh God, I thank you for having created me as I am'." Humility and gratitude, like faith, courage and hope, spring naturally and involuntarily like this from the soul, from the true, spiritual self.

Emotional maturity
Etty Hillesum soon enters the calmer reaches of the integration stage of faith development. The barrier between everyday personal ego and spiritual self is dissolving, allowing the two to merge, banishing the dissonance between them, resolving ambivalences, healing the split.

The emotional maturity resulting from this reunion involves no remaining confusion, no doubt, no anxiety and no compromise, only commitment. Anger, guilt and shame have been revealed as ego-bound and counter-productive, therefore redundant. The sorrow is real, and often sharp, yet only for the plight of others, including her enemies and persecutors. Identification with suffering humanity has become the principal source of meaning and purpose for Etty, resulting in a near-total disregard for personal safety and well-being in the service of others. Self-sacrifice is experienced not as hardship but joy.

A woman apart
The Nazi persecution that Etty Hillesum experienced, and the accompanying knowledge that her life was likely to be short, sets her apart from most people of today. She was different from others in her own time as well.

People less well advanced along the spiritual path often find the spiritually mature difficult to understand and accept. Some feel particularly threatened and react negatively (until perhaps later won over by wisdom and kindness). The wise, with their selfless and compassionate perspective on things, are often unfairly deemed mad or bad, misrepresented and marginalized, even martyred.

Etty was included among other victims of extreme Nazi intolerance, and not singled out for separate treatment. As she learned to pray, and to conquer her reticence to speak and write the name of God, the see-saw tension within, the doubts and shame, subsided. She discovered the strength and courage she needed to face both personal loss and the mounting challenges of Nazi persecution that were unfolding around her and drawing close. The timing was exquisitely fine. Calm and inner resolve protected and prepared her for increasing external destruction and chaos.

Memorial at the site of Westerbork Camp
Etty knew the perils she was facing. At the end of June 1942 she wrote about her parents, sixty miles away, "I am aware that there may come a time when I shan't know where they are, when they might be deported to perish miserably in some unknown place... The latest news is that all Jews will be transported out of Holland through Drenthe Province (the site of the Westerbork camp) and then on to Poland... The English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone in Germany and the occupied territories".

Commenting on this, Etty demonstrates her strength of character, her willingness to face the facts, and her ability to retain hope. "Even if we stay alive, we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I don't think that life is meaningless... I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another, I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful."

Etty refused to consider attempting to flee the country or go into hiding. She wrote, "Everyone who seeks to save himself must surely realise that if he does not go another must take his place... Ours is now a common destiny." She has taken on a universal identity, identifying not only with Jews, but with all who are poor, weak and oppressed. She expresses compassion for many of the Nazis too, victims also of powerful forces. She simply refuses to hate.


Copyright Larry Culliford


Quotations are taken from An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941 - 1943. Trans: Arnold J Pomerans. London: Persephone Books, 1999 (Reprinted 2007).

Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).

Larry Culliford, M.B., B.Chir. (Cantab), M.R.C. Psych. (UK), is the author of the Psychology of Spirituality and a psychiatrist in Sussex, England.

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