Etty Hillesum: A Story Of Spiritual Transformation

Look at Etty Hillesum’s entry in Wikipedia and you’ll see that her occupation is listed as ‘writer’.  In actuality, she was so much more than that; anyone who has read her diaries, or secondary sources based on them, would be strongly inclined to bestow upon her the moniker of ‘mystic’ too.  Such mysticism was inextricably linked to her life-circumstances, which consisted of much adversity and ultimate disaster in the indescribable horror of Auscwhitz.

Prior to reading Patrick Woodhouse’s book ‘Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed’ I had read only short extracts of Hillesum’s writings. What I had read impressed me as spiritually mature and a profound insight into an individual who had succeeded in transcending the appalling conditions Nazi Germany had imposed on the Jewish population of Amsterdam. And so I wanted to read more, but rather than immediately diving in to Hillesum’s translated diaries, I decided to try Woodhouse’s book first.

Etty Hillesum

Woodhouse painstakingly pieces together Hillesum’s life from a dysfunctional childhood, through integration and the emergence of some form of order out of chaos. As her personality developed, Hillesum embarked upon a spiritual journey; as she discovered her true self, she discovered God.   It was this relationship that carried her through a life beset with unimaginable difficulties and turmoil, ending with death in a Nazi concentration camp. It was through the grace of God, and a life of prayer, that Hillesum was able to transcend the despair and cruelty that threatened to engulf her. It was this relationship that taught her that hate was a ‘sickness of the soul’ and it should be put aside at all costs, even although the reasons to hate grew stronger and stronger each day.

Woodhouse succeeds in weaving together the strands of Etty’s life. And so we see her as a deeply spiritual, although not religious, person who connects profoundly with her inner-self and with God.  Here he quotes from her diaries:

“Quite suddenly I had the impression that I wasn’t alone, that there were two of us.  I felt as if I consisted of two people who were squashed tightly together and felt so good and so warm as a result.  I was in such close touch with myself, full of inner warmth, and felt utterly self-sufficient….I discovered with no small satisfaction that I got on very well with myself”.  

That Hillesum’s mysticism was grounded in the reality of everyday life with its struggles and disappointments speaks very directly to us in our modern age, and that is one of the reasons why Woodhouse’s book is so important.  Hillesum’s growing spiritual awareness was not grounded in any formal religion, although it had a distinct non-institutionalised Christian flavour; her faith was experiential rather than academic and as such it was possessed of an intensity that is difficult to fully describe.  Moreover, Hillesum’s journey of transformation is a reminder to the modern reader that a spiritual awakening is a transformative event (or events) and is a deeply personal experience.

‘Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed’ was a pleasure to read; Woodhouse’s style is engaging and the end-result is a book that is touching, powerful and thought-provoking in equal measure. As such, it is one of those books that will benefit from multiple-reading; there is so much to discover and re-discover in its pages.

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