On the 15th July 1942 the Westerbork internment camp in Holland became another frontier in the Nazi campaign to destroy the Jewish people of Europe. Dutch born Jews and German-Jewish refugees were sent to Westerbork before they were corralled into trucks bound for Auschwitz.
The Dutch people had been living under Nazi occupation since the invasion of 1940. They endured deprivation, oppression and fear. Many witnessed and experienced the barbarism perpetrated by their occupiers.
However there were people who showed immense courage to resist the evils of the Nazi regime in spite of facing grave personal danger. Miep Gies was one individual out of numerous others who provided shelter for Jews, including Anne Frank and her family.
Anne Frank`s precocious gift as an insightful writer is well recognised, whereas the equally prodigious insights of Etty Hillesum seem barely acknowledged in comparison. Hillesum was a young Dutch Jewish woman who worked as secretary, advocate and counsel for her fellow internees at Westerbork. Her family were scholars and although they were of Jewish heritage they were mainly secular in their traditions.
However her original perception of her religion changed when she was sent to the camp, but in an unexpected way. Many people placed under such extreme duress would doubt the existence of God, but in Etty`s case it was the opposite. It lead to complete spiritual transformation.
She prayed and read holy texts to find a degree of wisdom that was absent. She also read philosophy and poetry. She was particularly enamoured and then inspired by the work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Rilke was renowned for the profundity and mysticism of his verse. Rilke once wrote,
“Don`t take my devils away, because my angels may flee too.”
Etty`s journey towards enlightenment was captured in her diaries and exercise books. She wrote,
“There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried underneath. Then He must be dug out again. I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.”
It was remarkable that someone could experience so much suffering and still believe in God.
Her imagination and empathy revealed through these words contrast starkly with the inhumanity of the Nazis. Etty Hillesum would lose her life in Auschwitz in 1943. However her legacy as a thinker survives to this day.