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 in such a way. But events have become too overwhelming and too demonic to be stemmed with personal resentment and bitterness. These responses strike me as being utterly childish and unequal to the fateful course of events…. It is not as if I want to fall into the hands of destruction with a resigned smile—far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that they cannot rob us of anything that matters.

She does not exactly “find God,” but rather constructs one for herself. The theme of the diaries becomes increasingly religious, and many of the entries are prayers. Her God is someone to whom she makes promises, but of whom she expects and asks nothing. “I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves…. Alas, there does not seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

Etty describes her lovers with candor. On the first page of the diary, she reflects: “I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away.”

At the time she was living with, or at least sharing the bed of, her landlord, a man in his sixties. But she was on the brink of a new affair with another man much older than herself, and her portrait of this extraordinary person, enriched in entry after entry as she came to love him more deeply, is an unforgettable literary feat. Julius Spier, who was fifty-four when Etty encountered him, was a German-Jewish refugee. He had been a banker and a publisher before becoming, after training analysis under Jung in Zurich, the founder of “psychochirology.” Spier read palms, using palmistry as the foundation for his own strange and liberating brand of analysis. He also practiced therapy by wrestling with his patients, grappling with them, and forcing them to the ground (or sometimes, as with Etty, being floored himself), a technique whose strongly sexual connotations he in no way rejected.


In Amsterdam, as elsewhere, Spier had assembled around him an ashram of adoring disciples. For Etty, he radiated wisdom and compassion, and yet her own moods about him continually change. The wrestling seems at first exhilarating and sexless, then—as he deliberately arouses her while insisting that she must not fall in love with him—as a bewildering outrage. When she finally wins him as a lover, she is satisfied but realizes that it is the man’s mind and soul, rather than his body, that she needs. At moments, Spier is described as an entrancing, experienced sensualist; at others, as a rather fat elderly man with false teeth. But he remained for her a liberator. It was not merely that the “magical personality” for which he is remembered steadied and calmed her. Etty learned the self-abnegation that became her creed in the last months in part by overcoming her own possessiveness about Spier, and by recognizing that this was a man she must share with others. As the months passed, as the movements of Jews were steadily restricted and the Yellow Star introduced, and the deportations to Westerbork began, Etty and Spier watched the black cloud of catastrophe moving inexorably across the disappearing landscape toward them, and sought to prepare themselves for whatever might lie within it.

Julius Spier escaped the gas chambers. He died suddenly in September 1942. But his work with Etty was already over; she had already volunteered to go with the first transport of Jews to Westerbork, and from now on her courage and resolution never failed her. The diary soon ends, but is supplemented by a group of long and brilliant letters from Westerbork to friends. They are almost unbearable to read; Etty had to help sick women and children pack and dress warmly when the summons came for the next transport to the destination in the east. The trains were loaded and sealed on a siding in the camp itself.

At times, Etty grasped at the illusion that this was something that she might survive, that with Rilke, the Bible, and Tolstoy in her rucksack and “the pure lambswool sweater knitted by a friend” on her back, she would somehow come through. But there were also terrible moments. One day she looked at the faces of the guards on the latest train to arrive at the siding—“I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me.” As the weeks passed, Etty understood calmly that she was in Hell. And she recorded every cry, every tumult as the hospital huts were emptied once more in the middle of the night. “The wailing of the babies grows louder still, filling every nook and cranny of the barracks, now bathed in ghostly light. It is almost too much to bear. A name occurs to me: Herod.”

It was a religion of action that Etty discovered. As she had put it, she tried to help her God by helping those around her; so important did her strength become that the Jewish camp leaders tried desperately, but vainly, to have her exempted when her name finally came up for the next train. A friend watched her go. “And there she stepped on to the platform…talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way, full of sparkling humour, perhaps just a touch of sadness but every inch the Etty you all know so well.” The Bible and Tolstoy were safely in her rucksack when they closed the doors on her. Later, farmers near the German border found a postcard she had thrown out of the train. It read: “We have left the camp singing.”

Those who were spared instant death at Auschwitz, in the “selection on the ramp,” were not always luckier than those who were driven directly to the gas chambers. The fate of the prisoners reserved for medical experiment by Dr. Mengele and his colleagues, especially the fate of the children, remains a deep scar on the memory of the human race. The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm is the story of what happened to another special group of Jewish children selected at Auschwitz for the attentions of Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer, whose “clinic” was housed in the concentration camp of Neuengamme, on the outskirts of Hamburg.


Nobody can become inured or immune to the truth of what was done by the Nazis inside or outside the camps, but it is possible to become in a way familiar with the style of bestiality, to know enough to be less than surprised by fresh revelations. But the tale of these children is so disgusting, so pathetic and futile, that—after reading the book—one finds it difficult to look calmly in a mirror or to watch the human species going about its casual concerns in the street.

The facts, briefly, are these. Dr. Kurt Heissmeyer, an ambitious but secondrate physician, was assistant director of the SS “health center” at Hohenlychen, a retreat to which senior SS officials often went for quiet holidays, weekends, and discussions. Using these connections, Heissmeyer obtained leave to carry out human experiments on the hypothesis that pulmonary tuberculosis could be treated by the implantation of additional tubercular nodes. This theory, advanced before the war by two Austrians, had already been thoroughly discredited. Heissmeyer, however, whose knowledge of medical research was minimal, was convinced that he would win immortality and wealth for himself by finally demonstrating the truth of the implantation theory, using the unique opportunity of experiments on living human subjects offered by the concentration camp system.

Twenty Jewish children, between the ages of five and twelve, were accordingly selected and assembled for him from the Auschwitz transports and elsewhere. Most of them came from Poland, but others came from Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Italy. They were brought to Neuengamme, where Heissmeyer had already begun his “research”; adult prisoners, mostly Russians, were infected with tuberculosis, observed and examined over a period, and then killed for dissection. These early efforts were conducted with something sketchily resembling scientific method (there was a control group of healthy patients, as well as a main batch of prisoners already suffering from tuberculosis), so that by the autumn of 1944, Heissmeyer was faced with conclusive evidence that his treatment did not arrest or reverse the disease but made it worse. Aware that his entire theory had collapsed, Heissmeyer nonetheless decided to carry through the program as planned, and the twenty children arrived at Hamburg at the end of the year.

There were ten girls and ten boys. Three Polish nurses and a woman doctor who had accompanied them on the train from Auschwitz were hanged almost at once, and one of them, who was pregnant, was dissected because the camp commandant, Obersturmbannführer Max Pauly, who had five children of his own, wanted to see what a human fetus looked like in situ. The children were then all innoculated by having infected sputum rubbed into cuts made in their skin. Their medical records and Heissmeyer’s X-ray photographs have survived, and show that all the children became ill. Early in 1945, Heissmeyer had the children’s axillary glands cut out of their armpits: the glands themselves and the healing process in the children were carefully recorded, and some photographs showing the children, naked, their bodies twisted to show the scarring to greater advantage, are reproduced in this book.

All this, it should be recalled, was taking place in the final months of a war that had patently been lost, when Allied troops had already crossed the frontiers of the Reich. Hamburg itself was in ruins, but Neuengamme continued to function “normally” until March 1945, when a Swedish Red Cross mission was permitted to enter the camp and arrange the evacuation of all Scandinavian prisoners. (The story of this mission took place in a moral twilight of its own. When Neuengamme became a collection point for all Scandinavian prisoners, the Germans demanded Swedish assistance in transferring other prisoners to make room for them. White Red Cross buses, securely locked, were then seen on the roads of Germany taking loads of helpless human beings from Neuengamme to what frequently turned out to be their death in other camps like Bergen-Belsen.)

In early April 1945, with British troops approaching Hamburg, it was decided that the twenty children—now bedridden—should be eliminated. The operation was supervised by the chief camp physician, Dr. Trzebinski, and Obersturmführer Arnold Strippel, commander of the Neuengamme auxiliary camp; Dr. Heissmeyer had meanwhile vanished. The children were taken by truck, with two devoted Dutch prisoner-orderlies who had attempted to care for them, to the basement of a school on Bullenhuser Damm in Hamburg. The children were shut in an air-raid cellar, clutching their toys and some food, while a set of ropes was slung over a pipe in the boiler room. The orderlies were killed first. Then the children were made to strip, and Trzebinski gave them each a morphine injection—a deed of “compassion” which he made much of at his subsequent trial. An SS man named Johann Frahm then took the children, one by one, inserted their heads in the nooses, and pulled their bodies violently downward so that the rope would tighten. The work took most of the night, and when it was over those who had carried it out were given cigarettes and whiskey.

The cover-up did not succeed. In 1946, the British tried and hanged several of those responsible, including Max Pauly and Trzebinski. Arnold Strippel, who had a long career of savagery and sadism in many camps behind him, was caught in 1948 and served twenty years in prison. On his release, he received no less than 121,500 marks in compensation for loss of pay and other deprivations, and settled in Frankfurt in circumstances of some comfort; the leniency showed to him became, however, an international scandal, and at the end of last year the Hamburg public prosecutor finally laid charges against Strippel for the Bullenhuser Damm murders.

Heissmeyer seemed to have vanished altogether; it was supposed that he might have been killed in the last days of the war, or might have decamped to South America like his more famous colleague Dr. Mengele. Far from it. In 1959, he was discovered in Magdeburg, in East Germany, where he was practicing as a lung specialist under his own name. He had really done very well for himself; he ran the only private tuberculosis clinic in the German Democratic Republic, and all his three children had houses of their own. At his trial, a procession of patients testified to Dr. Heissmeyer’s skill and his tireless concern for the sick, and several claimed to owe their lives to him.

The Magdeburg trial revealed that Dr. Heissmeyer still found genuine difficulty in understanding what he had done wrong. In spite of the evidence of his patients, it became clear that he was as ignorant medically as he had been twenty years before. Asked why he had not used guinea pigs for his experiment rather than human beings, he replied readily: “For me, there was no basic difference between human beings and guinea pigs.” Then, realizing that this might sound a trifle stark, he softened his answer by adding: “Between Jews and guinea pigs.”

In passing sentence, the court attributed this remark to Heissmeyer’s “fascist orientation.” A more interesting comment came from Heissmeyer’s defender, the advocate-extraordinary Dr. Wolfgang Vogel, who is famous today as the intermediary between East and West Germany in the freeing of political prisoners and the exchange of imprisoned spies. Vogel observed: “It was not his concern to participate in the Final Solution of the Jewish question. He was only concerned with having free rein in his pseudo-scientific obsession, which had so ruined his medical ethos that he didn’t think twice about equating people with rabbits. This obsession, though he may not admit it, can be explained by his determined quest for academic honours.”

Heissmeyer was sentenced to life imprisonment, and died in jail at Bautzen a year later. His final statement really defies comment, unless one may observe that, dangerous as Zyklon-B cyanide gas and gamma radiation may be to human survival, they are less fatal than sheer, arrogant stupidity.

He told the court: “The fact remains—healthy people were made ill. I am aware of that. If, then, twenty years later, I am nevertheless unable to feel remorse—and this is probably what is asked and expected of me—then it is because twenty years I have not been inactive. Moreover, I expect that if one is to judge fairly, one should weigh the bad deeds against the good, and this might perhaps prove that I helped more patients than I did not. Add to this my conviction that I did not intend anything bad with these experiments and did not commit anything bad, if one disregards the concentration camp.”

This Issue

July 19, 1984