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> “. . .saves the world. . .”

By January 26, 2024 6 Comments

For years I’ve been told by friends I trust that I needed to read An Interrupted Life, by Etty Hillesum, who was Dutch and Jewish, a grown-up Anne Frank living in the heart of Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. 

Both kept intense journals. Both unflinchingly recorded the richness of their hearts’ desires amid the suffocation on the streets, notebooks that, given their honesty amid the strife, offer crucial and unique testimony to the horrors.

As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more good things of life become unexpected gifts that we accept with gratitude.

The Nazis were more successful in the Netherlands than elsewhere in occupied Europe. In 1939, the Jewish community numbered 140 thousand. Five years later, less than 40 thousand remained. Some nations lost more individuals, but the percentage of loss in Holland was unequalled. Among those who perished were Anne Frank, 16, and Etty Hillesum, 29, along with both of their families. 

The journals are remarkably similar and shockingly different. After the war, Anne Frank’s father did some editing, removing thoughts he believed didn’t need to be said. No familial editor red-pencilled Etty’s diaries. An Interrupted Life is amazingly candid. 

In truth, the Hillesums and the Franks claimed Jewish identity but little else. Etty lived among Dutch intelligencia, largely unaffected by the Nazis for almost 100 pages of the diary and more than two years of occupation. When yellow stars were codified, the German presence first appears in her journal.

That task grows more pressing when her status as a member of the Joodse Raad, a Jewish council created by the Nazis to buffer relationships, grants her a unique position in the camp at Westerborg, the last Dutch stop before the death camps. Once there, Etty Hillesum lives a calling she shapes to minister to those who hopelessly watch the trains depart.

Thirty years after people recommended the I read the book, I finally got around to it when, in a variety of places David Brooks spoke highly of it: 

“One of my heroes is a woman named Etty Hillesum,” he wrote, “a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam in the 1930s and ’40s. Her early diaries reveal her to be immature and self-centered. But as the Nazi occupation lasted and the horrors of the Holocaust mounted, she became more generous, kind, warm and ultimately heroic toward those who were being sent off to the death camps.”

An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, unlike any other book I’ve ever read traces the Spirit’s willful ascendancy over suffering by way of a human being I might never have guessed the Spirit would choose to employ. At the camp at Westerbork, Etta Hillesum selflessly chooses to stay, to help those loaded into boxcars, to remind others on their way to death camps to look, once more at the azure beauty of the sky, not to let anguish and affliction becloud the immediacy of transcendent faith.

David Brooks claims his appreciation derives from a completed sense of her ability to stand amid the horrors, as he says, “what it looks like to shine and grow and be a beacon of humanity, even in the worst imaginable circumstances.”

She was a remarkable human being, a woman who determined, on her own, that a moral life began in kindness, in charity, finally in selflessness.

But then, there’s this: Might her work at Westerbork contribute to the deaths of thousands of Jews who chose not to fight but to get on the trains in passive silence and obedience? Is a refusal to fight the foundation of a righteous life amid the darkness?

Fast forward 90 years: might Etty Hillesum’s transcendence be related to Netanyahu’s “never again” commitment, a conviction to never, ever allow another Auschwitz? And is that same commitment evident in communities laid waste and 25,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, gone to their graves?

Difficult questions arise, especially during insane times like ours, and always from war itself. Easy answers don’t just blessedly appear.

It’s origins are blurred, and some Muslims claim it as their own, even though Jewish scholars say originally it belonged to them. Regardless of its origins or its exact wording, I can’t help but believe the ancient wisdom-book all claim: “He who saves a life, saves the world.”.

Etty Hillesum died, as did her family, at Auschwitz in 1944.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, this is a tough one. I hate it that it’s true, but Hebrews says it of Our Lord, that he was made perfect through his suffering.

  • Harold Gazan says:

    I am grateful for Prof. James Schaap’s essay on this anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Tragically, many members of the Gazan family (the Jewish branch) were taken to Westerbork and from there to Auschwitz. I have not read Etta Helisum’s book — I have read too much on the Holocaust. The Shoah has cast its shadow over the Gazan clan, most of which I did not discover until 45 years ago.

  • Carel du Toit says:

    A very moving and emotionally filled article. Thank you, James Schaap!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks for this, Jim!
    As one who grew up in war-torn Holland in the early 40s, this recurrent question persists in my aging being –
    why does the searing suffering through war’s atrocities lead our human society not to waging peace but to developing ever more potent means to destroy each other?
    And as people of faith, what have we learned from the Prince of Peace?

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for sharing this precious review. For me, the key question remains to be answered: “But then, there’s this: Might her work at Westerbork contribute to the deaths of thousands of Jews who chose not to fight but to get on the trains in passive silence and obedience? Is a refusal to fight the foundation of a righteous life amid the darkness?” There is a difference between “passive silence” and “refusal to fight.” We are not called to silence. We might be called to non-violence.

  • George Hunsberger says:

    Cf. Dostoevsky, “beauty will save the world,” a notion that energized Dorothy Day.

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