In Hell

The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm: The SS Doctor and the Children

by Günther Schwarberg, translated by Erna Baber Rosenfeld, by Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Indiana University Press, 178 pp., $17.50

Etty Hillesum was a young woman, a Dutch Jew, who lived in Amsterdam. She was twenty-six when the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands took place. In the spring of 1942, the mass deportations of the Jews began, at first to the huge transit camp of Westerbork in eastern Holland. From there, that summer, the sealed trains began to leave for an unknown destination in Poland, which in fact was Auschwitz. Etty Hillesum went to Westerbork in July 1942 of her own free will, to work in the camp hospital. Her turn for the transports came on September 7, 1943. She died at Auschwitz on November 30 that year, although it seems to be unknown whether she was sent to the gas chambers or perished of disease and hunger. Her entire family died there too, with the exception of one brother who survived Auschwitz but died on the way back to Holland.

This is only a frame of a portrait. Etty Hillesum was an intellectual who wanted to be a writer. She kept a diary from 1941 onward, but the diary is at first hardly at all and later only indirectly the story of the destruction of the Jews in Holland. It is about herself and her relationships, initially about friends and lovers and then, increasingly, about her own very individual vision of a God. Etty came from a gifted, scholarly family in Deventer, studied law and Slavonic languages at the University of Amsterdam and then applied herself to psychology. By the time the journal begins, Etty had almost completed one major subjective struggle; she had become an independent and sexually liberated young woman, with only residual doubts about her own rather startling style of life, only spasmodic anxieties about the position of men and women. The diaries themselves record a second struggle, as Etty Hillesum in a sense abandons herself to find herself. The notes and entries are at first concerned with expanding her own sensibility, with rhapsodic accounts of emotions and sensations, with injunctions to herself to put more effort into her own self-realization as a writer.

Gradually, the tone changes, as the Nazi noose is drawn steadily tighter around her and her friends and as it becomes apparent that some sinister fate—its true nature unknown to her, although there are horrifying flashes of intuition—is being prepared for them all. Etty’s interest in her own fulfillment becomes a search for the right attitude to adopt in the face of doom, an expedition to find selflessness. The inner strength which, in the end, she finds is not just passive acceptance. Certainly, she rejects resistance, as she rejects all invitations to escape or hide. It would be impossible, for instance, to learn from her diary that Amsterdam was the only German-occupied city in Western Europe in which Jews organized themselves to fight physically on the streets against their persecutors.

My acceptance is not indifference or helplessness. I feel deep moral indignation at a regime that treats human beings …

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