Sunday, May 15, 2016

Long road to finding Etty Hilversum

This road started last August when Piper, who writes the Comptonia blog, encouraged various readers to go to Twitter to follow a drawing series, and take part in it.  Which I did, after a few minor struggles to learn Twitter, open an account, then fix the settings I'd got wrong and so on.  And I found a site that has a lot of what I want to see, aside from a community of artists I am in regular touch with now, and a community of sheep farmers in the Yorkshire dales likewise.

I found that Anne Lamott posts there regularly, with all kinds of wise and funny tweets, from one of which I was directed to Henri Nouwen, a contemplative writer I'd never heard of, but got a lot out of (his book Home Tonight, mainly), which in turn led me to Etty Hilversum, and I really think this journey was foreordained in some way.

She, and, again, I had barely heard of her, is one of the most luminous and profound writers, so worth discovering and studying.  I read her diaries, which are very dense and inward, to the point of being tiring to get through, since she was talking to her inner self, not an audience.

Then I went on to her letters, which are a wonderful jewel of a find.  Written to many friends in Holland not yet in the camps, during the worst of the WW2 Nazi occupation of Holland, they chronicle her own internment on Dutch soil,  the inevitable and terrible cattlecar transport to Poland, to Auschwitz, from which she did not emerge.  

We see through her eyes the crushing series of greater and greater restrictions put on the Jewish population culminating in the mass arrests and removal to camps, then transport to Poland. 

Even knowing that all this was going to happen, she writes cheerfully and in much more accessible language than in the diaries, for her reader,  tempering her prose to the person intended, apologizing for asking for small favors to help her frail parents.  Heroic. 

All her family perished with her.  She was 27, but in that short life packed more meaning than you can readily take in.  Amazing wisdom and the capacity to find joy even in the most terrible of fates, always  concerned to take care of her aged parents and her young brother, always able to stay ready for experience.  She had a total zen sense of life, in that she believed that heaven and hell are present always in every moment.  She lived that belief, rarely losing her good humor, sick, starving, cold, but undaunted, a social activist to the end.

She was difficult to read, but I felt I owed it to her and all the other Jews suffering then, to at least give it my attention now and get knowledge and direction from it, and to honor the writer.  And to note that sadly, this kind of history is not all in the past.

It was in a way, a literary duty, like reading Foulks' Birdsong, set in WW1,  about, among other things, the battle of the Somme, and the life if you can call it life, in the trenches,  equally agonizing reading.  I owed it to my dad who was there, and all the other young kids fighting in the trenches and not making it home, or making it home as a shell of the people they had been. 

So, odd though it may seem as a recommendation to suffering, I do recommend Hilversum, a brilliant intellectual force extinguished too soon, as not just a book to read, but guidelines to a life elegantly lived, too. 

The poetic coda, her last letter, thrown out from the train as they left for their sad destination, was found and mailed by a farmer, so the friend she'd written to in fact received it and understood the significance of it.

Bear with me if you have known about her for years, but I only just made the discovery and wanted to share, in case you didn't know of her.  For me it's the kind of writing that forms a watershed in the reader's life, falling into before and after.  It changes who you are.

It's great art, like many paintings and sculptures, that is not just an experience to have, but one that changes who you are and how you see the world after.


  1. how eloquent, Liz, and profound. Obviously this moved you deeply, and I can understand why. I read Anne Frank's diary years ago when I was a young woman, just young enough to relate to it but not old enough to be able to imagine the horror she was facing.
    sometimes I hear of a book for the first time, and the next thing you know, it's right there in front of me. I'll keep my antennae up for this one. A remarkable young woman, indeed.

  2. Such heartache in these histories. I myself would not have likely been a Nazi target but I often wonder would I have been brave enough to stand up for these people had I been there at the time. In addition I'm haunted by those who were charged at Nuremburg trials stating they were only following orders.

  3. So glad you found Etty Hilversum. And I know what you mean about your road to this author seeming preordained...I can look back at some simply mind-boggling connections and experiences tracing a path through many years of my life. Helps me remain calm about what appears to be chaotic randomness, since the chaos is quite possibly a vision limitation on my part.

    (p.s. I see you subscribe to Piper's belief about Comptonia. I don't blame you; she can be very convincing. You should have seen her assuring my dog-sitting niece that, "at home we always sit on the couch and watch tv and eat snausages" even when 1) we didn't have a couch, 2) nor a tv, and 3) I had never heard of snausages.)

  4. Quinn, it's not the first time the animal's name has replaced the human's. My son Mike is used to being called Duncan! Sorry, but you know my heart's in the right place even when my mind wanders.

  5. No worries! I once asked a friend about the training problems she was having with her horse. Except I substituted the name of her adult son.
    I only mentioned it in case one of your readers happened to follow your link to my blog, and found Confusion ;)


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