Customer Reviews: Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork
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on August 26, 2000
Having read the reviews, I am amazed that Etty's spiritual growth managed to be felt by the reviewers despite the terrible translation. This translator not only leaves out the poetry of her way of expressing herself -- the continuing metaphors she employs to make her points -- but the translator completely misses the point and mistranslates almost on every page. For example, on page 211 of this edition, the translator has Etty telling us that Klaus committed suicide and that she must "make sure his name is taken off the card index." No, no, no. Klaus did not commit suicide and in any case, even if he had, Etty would not have worried bureaucratically about removing his name from a registry. What Etty really said was that a man committed suicide in the camp hospital and Klaus's reaction was to worry about taking his name off the registry. Because Klaus COULD NOT EMPATHIZE. Klaus hated the Nazis but he himself had the heart of a Nazi. This is what fascinated Etty -- that this man who could see the evil in others was oblivious to his own. This point is obscured by the erroneous translation.
A translator who does not understand the message is unable to translate the message. Etty's message is subtle. Her message is about spiritual growth. If the translator is not at the same level of understanding, the translation will be distorted by numerous tiny slightly wrong word choices and word order. If you liked the book in this translation, well, one can only hope that someone will translate it correctly some day. Or if you can read French, try the version "Une vie boulverse" by Philippe Noble, Editions du Seuil.
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on April 27, 2000
I was first drawn to this book by the black and white photo of Etty on the cover -- belying a woman who was thoughtful, mysterious, bohemian. Then when I saw that this was truly a book that was inspirational -- and written by someone who was herself a victim of the Holocaust -- I was indeed intrigued and purchased the book in anxious anticipation.
However, nothing prepared me for just how truly enlightening this book was to be! Etty lived in the same time period and only blocks from where Anne Frank was hiding, and had the advantage of living as a Jewish housekeeper in a non-Jewish household. Indeed she had many advantages that could have, has she pursued it, possibly spared her ultimate end at Auschwitz. However, Etty had some strong feelings, which she mentions more than a couple of times. One is that she did not see why she should be spared what so many thousands of others were having to bear. However she also dearly hoped to live past the end of this terrible era -- and she felt always certain that this dark era would end -- especially so that she would be able to tell the world something so important, and have the world listen. She would tell the world that "life is beautiful, in spite of everything." Though her life was cut off in Auschwitz in November of 1943, the book perhaps can fulfill that dear hope.
No Pollyanna or ostrich, Etty experienced her ups and downs fully. Yet she had a deep understanding of real fulfillment in and gratitude for life. Most importantly, she looked for her answers within, and while the world with out was often atrocious, clearly what she found within was a source of constant beauty and sustenance.
The only explanation I can find as to why I had not heard of her before -- and why her name is not as well known as that of Anne Frank -- was her very liberal attitudes which were no doubt especially unpopular after the war, including a very liberal attitude toward sexuality and an, albeit constructive, criticism of fellow Jews who responded to the Holocaust only with hatred and bitterness.
Etty Hillesum's life, and her reflections in this book containing her diaries and letters from a Nazi work camp, are rare and sparkling jewels indeed. I recommend this book -- especially those who are late teens through eldest adult!
Bravo, Etty.
Note: I recommend that one not skip even one page of the initial forward and preface. It is a wonderful and immensely helpful introduction into the book.
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on March 20, 2001
I found this book very difficult to get into. Like many spiritual journals this book seemed at first overly self-centered and indulgent; one page read boringly very much like the page that went before. Her sleeping around and her bizarre therapy with Spier put one off. And Etty herself felt very deeply, vehemently, passionately; reading her can be like drinking water from a fire hose. One might feel like giving up the battle, but it will be well worth your while to push on. More and more one begins to see astonishing signs of spiritual growth and maturity and then of extraordinary achievement and grace. Emotionalism passes into selfless and self-sacrificing love. She moves speedily from her first ability to say the word God to constant prayer and even to a mystical union, all the more significant for being so unrelated to any conventional religion. In the midst of ever increasing certitude about coming annihilation, and eventually amid the horrors of the transit camp of Westerbork, this young woman not only manages to preserve her sanity and keep herself from hating her persecutors, but somehow even comes to rejoice in the beauty and meaning of life. It is truly a wonder how anyone could manage to grow to such transcendent greatness of spirit in so short a time. How fortunate for us that it happened to a woman who felt so deeply, knew herself so clearly, and wrote so aptly, and whose writings from the midst of the Holocaust has survived to our time.
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on February 25, 2000
I am compelled to add my comments here because I disagree completely with those of K. Unger, the first of the reviews here. Etty's diary is not a "book" that can be reviewed the way one reviews a novel. This is an historical document--a journal and letters--and Etty's intention when writing was not to weave a narrative for some future reader, but to explore her own character--her faults, desires, dreams, and place in the world. Unger calls her "self-involved and lazy;" I would say that she is profoundly self-aware, self-critical, and attempting to create an intellectual life for herself. This intellectual life requires her to sit at her desk--reading, thinking, writing. The value of the work is that it allows us to watch as her mature self unfolds, as she struggles with both personal issues and the increasingly threatening political situation. If you come to this book prepared to allow Etty to lead you along the path she follows, a path which leads ultimately to acceptance of her fate, you will come away awed and moved by the power of the human heart and mind.
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on July 20, 1998
"I can't take in how beautiful this jasmine is. But there is no need to. It is enough to believe in miracles in the twentieth century. And I do, even though the lice will be eating me up in Poland before long."
Intellectually gifted and spiritually impelled, Etty Hillesum began her amazing diary shortly after Hitler's invasion of Holland. She continued for three years, until she volunteered to accompany the first group of Amsterdam Jews to the Westerbork camp, from which all were deported to Auschwitz where she died at age 29.
Many rich layers are revealed in the diaries and letters: snippets of Etty's daily life among friends, family, and academics in Amsterdam under the encroaching German threat; Etty's struggle with her fierce moods and strong sensuality; her love affair with a much older and most unusual therapist; and the struggle of a budding artist to find expression in words.
Above all, the diary chronicles Etty's spiritual awakening in the face ! of death. Etty's addresses God freely and spontaneously with an unconventional and wholly authentic religiosity. She calls herself "the girl who learned to kneel."
While others around her despaired or made frantic preparations to escape, Etty considered herself a witness to history and desired to fully live and record not only "the experiences they have prepared for us all" but her conviction of the ultimate worthiness of life "despite everything we human beings do to one another."
At the same time I was reading Etty's diaries, I was also reading some existentialist writers: Kafka, Sartre, Camus. In contrast to their mewlings of meaninglessness, a slip of a girl with bleeding stomach ulcers, who gave up her beloved desk and books, family, friends, and lover to sleep on straw in a work camp wrote, "I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire and it comes back to me, I can't help it, a great fundamental feeling that life is ! beautiful and yes, meaningful."
Etty was no cloudy-h! eaded mystic in denial of reality. She knew full well the horrors of her time, the fate of the Jews, the visions of "poisonous green smoke." She looked them fully in the eye and prepared herself to accept "death, even the most horrible death" as part of the experience of being alive.
Kafka wrote, "We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us... A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork is that kind of book.
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on November 2, 2001
In these trying times, this book is a gentle reminder that terrible events have the curious power to make us better (more caring, more open, more alive) people. I was utterly transfixed by Etty's swift transformation from a self-absorbed whiner to a spiritual and philosophical mystic who transcended the horrors of her time.
As a memoir of life and death during the Nazi Holocaust, as well as a chronicle of spiritual transformation, this ranks among the very best.
Though it has been five years since I read the book, I am still inspired by Etty's courage and love.
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on October 12, 1999
This book is filled with some of the deepest most meaningful words I have ever read. Etty begins her diaries "struggling for true inner freedom" (p. 55) She achieves this. She turns inward to her faith at a time when thing around her are in total despair. She is a role model for others. In her twenty eight years she reaches a point of spirituality many of us do not. Excellent book. Begining was a little hard to get into but stay with it! Her writing becomes more clear, you can learn a lot from Etty.
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on June 24, 1999
Through her journals, we watch Etty Hillesum grow from a self-absorbed intellectual into what I can only imagine spiritual teachers such as Buddha or Jesus were like. Hillesum offers a blueprint for spiritual growth, detailing the process as she lives it. In the end, in spite of a chance to flee the camps, Hillesum chooses to stay in order to help others. Hillesum was supremely human and supremely blessed with the spirit of God at the same time, and we are allowed to watch her live her beautiful truth during a terrible time in history. How can that not offer us hope?
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on April 29, 2011
I was unaware of Etty Hillesum or her diaries until I came across a reference to her in another work. Perhaps she is overshadowed by that other Dutch Jew's famous diary, Anne Frank. Regardless, this diary is one of the most rousing spiritual records I have ever read. For as we read, we watch Etty grow under the increasing sway of at first vague and uncertain religious notions and feelings, which increase in intensity as the Nazi noose tightens around her.

She is sent to a detention camp, and the diary goes on hiatus for a few months. When she returns to Amsterdam, we can read, feel, smell and even touch the transformation on the page. Suffering has fully matured her spiritual vision. She is serious and sober about God and humanity, while being patient and kind. In the face of great pain, she still believes in the essential goodness of the world, God, and humanity.
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on July 24, 2007
Etty Hillessum's diaries and her letters from Westerbork serve as an outstanding testament to the human spirit and the ability to find the sacred in the most horrific of situations. Although she was not a saint in the sense that Teresa of Avila or Juan de la Cruz were saints, she could properly be considered a mystic and a good example of a modern who had 'enlightened' insights. I find her diaries at once humane and modern in the sense of a liberated 'bohemian' who explored her sexuality and her psyche. As her diaries progress, her inner life (and oneness with God) deepens as the horrors of the realities of being Jewish in Europe during the Second World War becomes more apparent. I highly recommend this book! It will change your life!
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