Victory of the Spirit

“Once upon a time, it was Hitler, or Ivan the Terrible, the Inquisition, wars, earthquakes, plague or famine. The important thing is to deal with the pain and to keep a small corner of the soul completely intact no matter what happens.” (Etty Hillesum)

By Anat Schneider | | Topics: Holocaust
Photo: Isaac Harari/FLASH90

Etty Hillesum (Public Domain)

Etty Hillesum’s spirit broke out and accompanied us for a significant part of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day.

Etty was a Dutch Jewess who perished in the Holocaust at the age of 29 at the Auschwitz extermination camp. During the war she wrote diaries that were buried only to be unearthed 40 years later. They have been published in every language possible. In her diaries, Etty gives voice to the insights of a young woman inside an extermination camp. She knows where she’s going. She knows she’s going to meet death soon. And yet she retains some happiness and is thankful. She suffers no fear, she’s given up being afraid. The title of the book is The Sky Inside Me.

These diaries recount the terrible days of the war as they unfold her spiritual journey through during the terrible days of the conflict.

Etty studied psychology and was a friend of the German psychologist Julius Shapir, who was one of Karl Jung’s students. In her writings one can really feel Jung’s influences on her mood and her way of thinking. The diary entries are fascinating for their inner sincerity and the emotional upheavals she goes through, both because of her love and attraction to Julius and because of the state of the war. What’s amazing about the diary is that as the situation of the Jews gets worse and the way to freedom closes, as the end draws closer, Etty finds in her soul existential joy and the ability to make the most of the moment. Even in the most difficult places as she faced extinction, severe and brutal suffering, the cruelty of loss, the depths of inhumanity. That’s exactly where very great faith sprang forth.

Suffering is everywhere, whether in private, or for a people like Israel, or a collective and global tragedy all over the world. It never ends.

Etty’s words have become an inspiration throughout the world. That despite the difficulties, suffering and despair we can always find a sane corner in life.

Through her diaries we connect to the good that always exists. Through her diaries we understand that there is no suffering in vain, but rather for the purpose of growth and development.

I stand in amazement at her writings and realize how petty I am in the face of her miraculous and unconventional ability to live in the shadow of pain and fear dealing with daily survival and still be able to give birth to such lofty insights.

Etty Hillesum’s words highlight the spiritual capacity of man, and the endless need for the transcendence of the spirit over matter.

Here is one of the most beautiful quotes from her diary: “I have a lot of faith, and am grateful that life is so beautiful, which is why this is an historic moment: not because I have to go to the Gestapo soon, but because life still seems beautiful to me.” (Etty Hillesum).

That is the victory of the Spirit.

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