Etty Hillesum: A life Transformed

Author: Patrick Woodhouse

Publisher: London: Continuum

Publication date: 2009

Number of pages: 160

Reviewed by: Roshi Patrick

On March 9, 1941 a 27 year old Dutch Jewish student living in Amsterdam began her diary which was kept right up to her death in Auschwitz in 1943.  The diary is published with her letters as Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941 -1943 by Eerdmans Publishing.   It is a remarkable book and in itself it certainly worth reading the 800 pages.  My own copy is well used and  has passages underlined on more than half the pages.  It is above all a remarkable account of the last few years of a remarkable human being in the most horrific circumstances.  Patrick Woodhouse’s  little book is an excellent commentary on her life demonstrating the way in which this hedonistic and somewhat immoral by religious standards young woman’s life is totally transformed into someone who comes to recognise that God lies at the centre of her being out of which she must live her life.  in spite of all the atrocities that are going on against even family members and friends he discovers that she cannot hate.   She is helped in her exploration by Julius Spier, a psychotherapist within the Jungian tradition.  Spier encouraged her and all his pupils to take time every morning for withdrawal, for reflection, for listening.  Etty began this as what she referred to as “the Buddhist quarter of an hour.”  She found it hard to do with a lot of “clutter ever present” but she let the aim be “to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view.  So that something of ‘God’ can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too.”   She began to become aware of the dangers of thinking too much and remarks, “Thinking gets you nowhere….you have to make yourself passive then and just listen.  Re-establish contact with a slice of eternity.”  Her life was transformed with a redirection of her erotic energy that was so destructive for her in her early years to be something that was creative and life-giving to others as well as herself.  In many ways she comes to have much the same experience of God as the great martyr Bonhoeffer whose writing speak of a God who is vulnerable in the world.  In the 1960’s Thomas Merton wrote eloquently of the necessity of a journey inward and Etty forcefully bears witness to that in her own life.  Etty is someone who encourages us in this essential task and  we will find both her own writing and this book helpful in orientating our own life towards the Christian task of inner transformation.