After Passover and Easter, in the midst of a pandemic none of us could have expected or prepared for, there is a remarkable woman who can give us vision and stability, who can help us to do good despite all the terror due to the Covid-19 virus. She speaks from another time of dread, the Holocaust.
You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, “I shan’t let them get me into their clutches.” But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms. I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with You. I shall have many more conversations with You. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You, and I shall never drive You from my presence. (12 July 1942)
The lines above come from diaries and letters Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) wrote from the Westerbork internment camp. While the conditions there were better than at the concentration camps, Westerbork was a place of terror and despair. Anyone there had already been rounded up. There was but one way out: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other camps with their gas chambers and crematoria.
In her letters, despite the surroundings, there is life. She writes affectionately to her mentor and sometimes lover, psychologist Julius Spier, dying of cancer. We hear the observation about the recently arrived Jewish converts to Christianity, priest and nuns, that they continued to pray at Westerbork in the wooden barracks, in the mud and hunger, as much as in a monastery or “anywhere on this earth where God, in these troubled times, feels like casting his likeness.” Etty stared into the face of indescribably human cruelty and death. She had never been observant. Only in her later 20s, under Spier’s influence, had she ever thought about God, read the scriptures or considered praying.
I think that I can bear everything life and these times have in store for me. And when the turmoil becomes too great and I am completely at my wits’ end, then I still have my folded hands and bended knee. A posture that is not handed down from generation to generation with us Jews. I have had to learn it the hard way…What a strange story it really is, my story: the girls who could not kneel. Or its variation: the girl who learned to pray. That is my most intimate gesture, more intimate even than being with a man. After all, one can’t pour out the whole of one’s love over a single man, can one? (Saturday night, 10 October 1942)
Her diaries contain graphic reflections on sexual encounters as well as questions about Rilke, the Bible and St. Augustine. There are doubts but astonishing expressions of faith in God and humanity. A gifted student though her grades were not the highest, she completed both undergraduate and law degrees but did not practice. Etty was volatile, passionate, complex, suffering from depression, personal insecurity and career frustration. Yet when everything fell apart, a remarkable compassion for those around her emerged.
Etty’s life was not extraordinary, just one among the thousands of other Dutch Jews caught up in the Holocaust. But as someone coming to a reflective life, her perception and distinctive voice come through in the diaries and letters. It was necessary for her to describe minutely the process by which she learned to pray and became aware of God’s presence. She came to see it as her duty to keep alive the God’s reality where all the violence annihilated belief.
To come closer to God meant growth in awareness. Learning to pray was part of a larger transformation. Though ordinary, she became extraordinary in being able to look at the camp guards, the disease and death, and the likelihood of her own death without hatred for her captors and without rage against God (though that too would have been possible) but with the conviction that she had “to give God shelter,” a place even in hell.
Here Passover connects with Easter, the line in the Creed depicted in the resurrection icon. “He descended into hell.” Christ blasts open the gates of Hades. He takes by the hands Adam and Eve and behind them, those who died before he came—the prophets, David the king, John the Baptist, the parents of his mother Mary and of John, his father Joseph and innumerable others. We are to see ourselves, Adam and Eve’s children, in the crowd he leads from death into life. Pascha is the Greek for Passover—an Exodus.
We think of God as the one who gives shelter, but his friends do the same for him and for each other. Christ is welcomed in the kingdom of death, hell, by his family, his people. God shares our suffering, our pain. That we as creatures could do something for God is a reality often obscured by piety. Even more overlooked is that we can become God for others living around us. Etty Hillesum knew all this.
Thus the startling idea that dominates her letters, that she is to give shelter to God in the camps and that no matter the horror, and in turn she is held in God’s embrace. She becomes God in her care for the frightened people around her. Is this the reaction any rational person would expect to all the degradation and brutality of some human beings to others? In such a place, as Rowan Williams says, God had become homeless, in need of shelter. Etty became that home and shelter, a pattern for us, now.
*Source: Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2002.
Rev. Dr. Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Religion & Culture at The City University of New York-Baruch College and a priest of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.