‘Free is the realm of the soul’, part 1

Diary of Etty Hillesum (1914-1943)

‘Free is the realm of the soul’, part 1

One need not hide one’s unrest and sadness, one must carry and endure them, but one must not surrender so completely to them, Etty Hillesum, Het verstoorde leven. Dagboek van Etty Hillesum [An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork], Uitgeverij Balans 2014

wrote Etty Hillesum on June 11, 1942. It is a wonderful quote from her war diary, which certainly applies to a time of crisis, both then and now.

Not far from where Anne Frank wrote her world-famous diary about going into hiding in Amsterdam during the Second World War, another Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum, worked on her Jewish diary at the same time. That, too, would become a worldwide bestseller 35 years after the war. There, in the mansion at Gabriël Metsustraat 6, where Hillesum lived for six years, she wrote at her desk in the front room of the second floor a beautiful Dutch account of her inner growth and of the complex but extremely recognizable feelings a sparkling Jewish woman in her late twenties was confronted with in wartime. She takes a self-critical look at her actions and writes openly about her sexuality as well as about her spirituality, about the struggle with her desires, her detachments and especially about her increasingly strong contact with

that very deepest thing in me that I conveniently call God.

The diaries are an impressive testimony of a joyful and at the same time painfully lived growth to inner liberation. This series of loose fragments is, of course, strongly coloured by the macabre background of threats and ruthless persecutions in her immediate environment, from which she too cannot escape. On 30 November 1943, Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz.

It was not until the 1980s that Etty’s work was published. It immediately attracted national and international attention. However, her posthumous discovery barely fully reflected the depth of her experiences and considerations. The press initially portrayed her as an ‘unorthodox’ woman who was both intellectual and sensual, in those years apparently still a combination that made a woman unorthodox. But gradually there came more and more understanding and admiration for her mind power in this anti-Semitic era, for the depth of her thought world and for the scope of innermost feelings. Not only that; in many excerpts from her diaries one recognised ready-made life lessons for which social frameworks had only grown forty years later. And her highly personal inner search for the inalienable values of life – apart from any ecclesiastical connection – also provided an answer to the individualisation and breakdown of factions that took place at a staggeringly fast pace in the eighties.

This initially only ‘unorthodox woman’ was only made more important over the years and grew in the rear-view mirror to become ‘the saint of the Museum Square’ and a fixed value in Dutch literary history. Etty Hillesum’s work was translated into dozens of languages 75 years after the war. And her birthplace Middelburg is now home to a study centre that illuminates her works from a variety of angles.


At the beginning of her diary, Etty Hillesum reveals her life program:

I promise you that my whole life will be a striving to achieve that beautiful harmony and also that humility and true love, which I feel the possibility of in my best moments.

Actual love stands here in opposition to the love that stems from egocentricity, which desires and has expectations. Actual love, however, is not built on reciprocity but on humility and therefore has no expectations. Actual love is love of, for and through the soul. But in the plight in which she finds herself, her soul still meets many pitfalls:

I do not yet have a basic melody. There is not yet one fixed undercurrent. The inner source from which I am fed always silts up and moreover: I think too much.

But the more intense and humiliating her experiences become, the stronger her insights and soul strength grow:

To humiliate, two are needed: the one who humiliates and the one who one wants to humiliate, and above all, the one who lets himself be humiliated. If the latter is lacking, so: if one is passively immune to any humiliation, the humiliations evaporate into the air.

Gradually she is no longer a spectator of her growth process, but happily identifies herself with her spiritual maturation, which she formulates expressively at ‘the best place on earth’, her writing desk. This search for her ‘deepest deep’ takes a central place in her life and she does not allow herself to be deterred from it by anything, not even by her eventful, subtly described path of experience with two male love partners, along which she travels almost synchronously.

I will always prefer a sloppy desk, full of books and papers, that is mine alone, to the most ideal and harmonious marriage bed.

The desk as the place where the mystery is for her, the place where we learn more than we are. It is involuntarily reminiscent of Lao Zi:

The wise man always lives in the right place.E. Nooyen, Mysteriën van Tao en de Daodejing, p. 100, Rozekruis Pers, Haarlem 2016

In the end, she can soberly bear witness to real love and the flame of her soul’s fire burns through all enmity. She observed a Gestapo officer who harshly reprimanded her, and was able to conceive understanding and impersonal love for him.

For that is the only way to keep faith in mankind and in the future…


Etty Hillesum has been extremely well-read from an early age and is supported in her quest by numerous well-known books, poets, writers and philosophers, whom she almost affectionately calls her ‘noblest spirits’. In random order: the Bible, Vestdijk, Van Eeden, Verwey, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Rilke, Jung, Schubart, Buber, the evangelist Matthew, the apostle Paul, Thomas à Kempis and Francis of Assisi. She quotes them, appropriates in many cases their soul world and almost imperceptibly introduces us into her spiritual Pantheon in such a way that we are – it seems as if – out of place and time.


She had the Bible, as it were, always next to her on the desk. Matthew was clearly her most beloved evangelist. The more the time approached for the dramatic end of her stay in Amsterdam, the more Matthew became for her a focal point of Christ’s wisdom and consolation in her dark world. This resuming of Matthew must therefore have been a support for her in her increasingly dire situation.

Therefore I say to you, be not concerned for your life, what ye shall eat and what ye shall drink, nor for your body, with which ye shall clothe yourselves; is not life more than the food and the body more than the clothing?

Be not then anxious for the morning, for the morning will take care of his; each day has enough of its own evil. Matthew 6:25

She also quotes Paul, with the well-known phrase:

And what good is everything to me if I don’t have Love. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:3 

She applies this sentence to the arrival of her father, Louis, the next day.

A treasure of a theory to make yourself feel comfortable and noble, but for you a quail at the smallest act of love in practice. No, this is no small act of love. It’s something very fundamental and weighty and difficult. To love your parents internally. That is to say, to forgive them for all the difficulties they have caused you, if only by their existence: to bond, to loathing, to the burden of their own complicated life, added to your own difficult life.

Through her father, who was a classicist and rector at the gymnasium in Deventer, the cradle of the Dutch spiritual renewal movement De Moderne Devotie (The Modern Devotion) also called the “Devotio Moderna”, Etty may have traced the Dutch monk Thomas à Kempis (1380-471). His book De Navolging van Christus (The Imitation of Christ), the most read book in the world after the Bible, is said to have made him the figurehead of that primeval Dutch movement. Etty quotes Thomas as follows:

The more a man has become undivided in heart and inwardly simple, the more and the higher he will effortlessly understand because he receives the light of knowledge from above. 

In other words, the interior should not be fragmented and focused on many things outside of itself but concentrated on one goal: the one-pointed hearing of God or the gnosis.

Father Louis was harshly expelled from office by the occupying forces at the beginning of the war because of his Jewishness, and when he was forced to step down, he gave a moving, historic speech to all his students and colleagues. He ended this with the words of the Deventer foreman of the Modern Devotees, Geert Groote:

Voor alle dingen dunct mi goet, dat ghi geestelike blide sijt.

(For me it is above all that you rejoice spiritually).

Here is a striking spiritual parallel with daughter Etty. She, too, tries to preserve her inner freedom and cheerfulness against all oppression. Both of them derive that tingling cheerfulness from a powerful soul life. And whoever lives from the soul, knows that the light shines in the darkness, they both testify. This is where the famous first sentence from The Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, first composed in Latin 1418-1427  imposes itself:

He who follows me does not walk in darkness.


To be continued in part 2

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Date: August 9, 2020
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Michel Boucly via Pixabay

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