‘Free is the realm of the soul’, part 2

Etty Hillesum and Rilke saw Russia as their second homeland

‘Free is the realm of the soul’, part 2

To part 1

The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is very dear to Etty’s heart. She regards him as a permanent travelling companion, a companion for life who always offers consolation. She makes this clear to a friend who has gradually become less enthusiastic about him:

You cannot ‘turn your back’ to Rilke if you have read him really well. If you don’t take him with you for the rest of your life, there’s no point in reading him at all.

She may have had the following quote from Rilke in mind:

There’s no such thing as a beginner’s class in life,

it’s always the hardest thing to do that is requested right away.

She quotes him from Briefe an einem jungen Dichter  Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a young poet, Penguin Books Ltd 2016, which can be explained as letters to a young soul. In reality Rilke wrote these letters to a young, ambitious poet who had asked him for advice.

Feelings are pure when they unite and lift you up; unclean is the feeling that only illuminates one side of your being and thus distorts you. Everything that makes you more than you have been in your best moments so far, is true. Any intensification is good if it is present in your whole blood, if it is not misty or cloudy, but joy in which one can look inside, clear to the bottom. Do you understand what I mean?

A little further on we find a text that must have appealed enormously to Etty Hillesum:

Have patience with everything in your heart that has not yet come to a solution.

Try to love the questions yourself when rooms are not accessible to you,

and like books written in a completely foreign language.

Do not look for answers that cannot be given to you,

because you wouldn’t be able to live them.

It’s about living everything.

Live your questions now.

Maybe one day you’ll live the answer, unnoticed.


A striking parallel between Etty Hillesum and Rilke is that they saw Russia as their second homeland. With Etty this is not so surprising. She had a special bond with Russian literature because of her Jewish-Russian maternal origins and because of her study of Slavic in Leiden and Amsterdam. She also spoke a little Russian from home and was experienced by her fellow students as a ‘typical Russian woman’: sometimes exuberant, sometimes troubled; sometimes warm and sometimes aloof; sometimes very devoted and sometimes chaotic.

Etty’s predilection for Russian culture leads to striking connecting lines, for example through the lesser-known Russian author Walter Schubart (1897-1941), quoted by her. He wrote the book The coming European man in which he is critical of developments in Europe and compares them with the situation in Russia. The European has become (too much) a businessman, the Russian is a soul man. Among Europeans, common interests are a binding factor; the Russians are linked by humanity. It is typical of the Prometheus culture – the Western culture – that it considers things more substantial than souls. Europe is the seat of professionalism; Russia is the homeland of the soul. Thus an absolutely definitely incomplete representation of Schubart’s thinking patterns.

Some of Schubart’s texts have been paraphrased by Etty, for example this one:

More terrible than the divine judgment is the judgment that mankind that has secluded itself from God, holds on to itself.

Through Schubart’s text, Etty seems to mean that the West has lost its relationship with God and is therefore falling into materialism and egoism. As a result, the West has also lost its binding power within society. The Russian man is diametrically opposed to this and possesses a self-evident bond with God in his soul.

It is worth mentioning that this book by Schubart must have been read intensively by Jan van Rijckenborgh, one of the founders of the International School of the Golden Rosycross. In the copy we had in our hands, his ex libris is in the front and large pieces of text are underlined with pencil and ruler. Van Rijckenborgh does this especially for paragraphs about the western ‘Prometheus man’. There are no similarities with the quotations from Etty Hillesum. It is not inconceivable that Schubart’s The coming European man inspired him when he came up with a title for a new standard work in the spiritual school: The Coming New ManJ. van Rijckenborgh, The Coming New Man, Rozekruis Pers, Haarlem 2017

Etty was very fond of her teachers of Russian. When the slavist and Dutch specialist Nicolaas van Wijk, whom she admired, suddenly died, she was completely upset. The Russian Orthodox farewell service was the only church service she ever attended and it made a great impression on her. Yet she felt confirmed in her conviction that her way had to be her individual way and separate from any group. Undoubtedly, she will have found solace in Rilke’s words:

And as we speak of loneliness again, it becomes increasingly clear that this is essentially not something you can sort out or neglect. We are lonely...

She had a special bond with her new teacher Bruno Becker, by whom she was allowed to join the advanced class. Becker? Wasn’t that the man who came to the Netherlands from St. Petersburg in 1913 to make it clear in excellent sixteenth-century Dutch that the philosopher and theologian Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522-1590) had falsely fallen into oblivion in the Netherlands? He had become a warm advocate and pioneer of the Coornhert study in the Netherlands. He gave Coornhert the inseparable predicate: ‘apostle of perfection’.

Coornhert was Becker’s life’s task and for economic reasons he joined the teaching of Russian. Etty always looked forward to his lectures, in which he made high demands on her and named her after Russian custom with her first name and her father’s first name: Esfira Lyudwigovna.


The realm of the soul knows no boundaries! Etty Hillesum effortlessly takes her readers there. It is certainly not only about contemplation, prayer, spiritual sunbathing or meditation. She realizes: everything only really gains value through action, which is beautifully expressed by the word dabar, which in Hebrew means both word and deed. On October 13, 1942, she wrote,

If these insights, which I gather behind my desk in my dealings with the noblest spirits, do not penetrate into the smallest things of everyday life, if nothing of the great awareness of human values… permeates it, then this spiritual life has no meaning.

She was a tireless seeker of God. But where searching becomes finding, she realized that God only allows himself to be found when it comes to pure act of life in clear action. Her perhaps most beautiful quote leaves nothing to be desired in this respect:

You can’t do anything yourself, my God. It is up to us to give you hands and feet and act accordingly.

This brings us very close to that unique text by a male counterpart of Etty Hillesum, the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965):

God doesn’t want us to believe in him.

doesn’t want us to debate him,

doesn’t want to be defended by us –

He only wants to be realized by us.

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Date: August 9, 2020
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

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