Smelik: Etty

Klaas A.D. Smelik, ed., translated by Arnold J. Pomerans. Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941 - 1943, Complete and Unabridged. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Etty has absolutely nothing to do with the White Rose. She was an older version of Anne Frank, and like the more famous Anne, also Jewish-Dutch. Or rather, a Dutch woman who happened to have been born into a Jewish family.

I've included it here, however, because this is how an anthology of diaries and letters is supposed to be done. Klaas Smelik, whose father deeply loved Etty, did not try to hide any of that young woman's flaws.

Etty aborts a fetus because she cannot see raising a child in Nazi Holland? Not one word of the description of the self-abortion is deleted. She yearns for an affair with the much-older Julius Spier? Her fantasies are included in their entirety. She sleeps with the man whose household she keeps? Her love for him and simultaneous self-loathing ring clearly in her diary entries.

The young woman's internal struggles over joining the despised Judenrat to gain special advantages, her identity issues (Jewish? Dutch? Or is her mother's Russian side winning out?), inner religious debates (most of which she resolves by writing, "The Jew Paul said that...") - it's all here. There are no pedestals, no haloes, no heroic depictions.

Etty is simply Etty, who she is, who she is becoming, what she sees, what she deals with. When she refuses to go into hiding because that would mean the Nazis have won, you understand her reasoning and feel like cheering. As she and her friends put together makeshift concerts - her emotionally unstable brother is a virtuoso pianist - and try to force themselves to keep going to the local Jewish theater, you applaud their tenacity. And when she declares that even as the Nazis have made forests and parks off limits to Jews, it does not matter, because anywhere there are three trees along a street, she can pretend it's a forest... Well, this is one woman you find yourself wishing you could have known personally.

By the time Etty dies at Auschwitz on November 30, 1943, you mourn her death as you would mourn the loss of a friend. You know this young woman. She does not die as a stranger or celebrity, but as someone whose deepest, darkest secrets have been put out there for the whole world to read. For you to read.

Scholl heirs need to look at Etty's legacy and understand that their senseless censorship of Hans and Sophie's diaries and letters has done the siblings no great favor. That censorship may have "cleaned up" Hans and Sophie's lives and eradicated their shortcomings (and in so doing, whitewashed the Scholl family's existence as a whole).

But that does not mean that the censorship did them a favor. Those infamous ellipses meant to clean up the siblings' reputation also removed their humanity. Hans and Sophie have been reduced to two-dimensional paper dolls. When you read Smelik's "complete and unabridged" record of Etty Hillesum's life, you begin to understand what we have lost because of Inge Scholl's - and her heirs' - unrelenting censorship.

I also found myself wishing that Etty could have met Sophie Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Traute Lafrenz, and Willi Graf. Just picturing the five of them chatting made me smile! Perhaps in an alternate universe...

A final word of appreciation to Eerdmans for publishing this book in the United States. Eerdmans has a reputation for publishing very conservative, evangelical texts. This book is anything but. Etty does not convert to Christianity, does not even consider conversion, though she absolutely adores the "love chapter", I Corinthians 13. She feels no remorse for her abortion. There is no shame in her affair with either Julius Spier or Hans Wegerif. Her general attitudes are far removed from the usual conservative, evangelical milieu that Eerdmans targets.   

Yet they - along with Novalis Publishers in the UK and Canada - put out this tremendous volume that features true spirituality, a spirituality not connected to organized religion by any stretch of the imagination. Eerdmans is to be highly commended for taking this risk and not insinuating their values onto Etty's.

With high commendation as well to Arnold J. Pomerans, whose translation rings true.

(And dankeschön to Dr. Helen McConnell for giving us this book and sharing its treasure!)

(c) 2004 Ruth Hanna Sachs. All rights reserved. Please contact Exclamation! Publishers for permission to quote.