Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum 1914-1943

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born on 15th January 1914 in her parental home at Molenwater 77 in Middelburg. When Etty was two, her brother Jacob (Jaap) was born on 27th January 1916. Four years later, with the birth of Michael (Mischa) on 22nd September 1920, the family was complete. The three children, Etty, Jaap and Mischa were raised in a family where their father spent most of his time reading books or out at work and their mother ran a chaotic household. Louis Hillesum, their father, who was a school teacher, regularly switched schools, and because of that, the family moved frequently.

After primary school, Etty went to the Deventer Gymnasium (secondary school) in 1926, the school where her father was headmaster. She followed Hebrew lessons there and in her final years at school, Etty joined a Zionist youth group. The group was founded by Eduard Kleerkoper, one of Etty’s classmates. During the meeting they discussed current affairs and politics. Etty mostly listened and kept her political opinions to herself. In 1932, following her graduation, she left her parental home in Deventer and moved to Amsterdam to study Law. She boarded with the Horowitz family at Ruysdaelstraat 32.

After living at two other addresses, Etty moved into the home of accountant and widower Han Wegerif, affectionately referred to as ‘Pa Han’ (Father Han) in her journals and letters. Etty’s brother, Jaap, was already renting a room in the house at Gabriël Metsusstraat 6. In exchange for some housekeeping and providing company, Etty received free room and board, occasionally she even received a small allowance from Wegerif. A relationship quite quickly developed between the 35-year older widower and Etty. Hans, Wegerif’s son who also lived in the house, was troubled by this relationship. The relationship lasted until Etty’s definitive departure to Camp Westerbork in June 1943

In addition to her Law degree, which she completed successfully, Etty studied Slavic languages in Amsterdam and Leiden. In Leiden she followed classes by the renowned Slavic studies professor Nicolaas van Wijk. Once a week she and a small group gathered at his house for a lecture, where the professor instructed his students in his study.

In addition to her Law degree, which she completed successfully, Etty studied Slavic languages in Amsterdam and Leiden. In Leiden she followed classes by the renowned Slavic studies professor Nicolaas van Wijk. Once a week she and a small group gathered at his house for a lecture, where the professor instructed his students in his study. Etty had a great love of Russian language and literature. She regularly refers to famous works by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in her journals, as well as to her favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. She even taught a Russian class at the University of Amsterdam. Later, to earn a little extra money, she gave private Russian lessons. The hour-long lessons were taught at Han Wegerif’s house on the Gabriël Metsustraat. One of her students was Swiep van Wermeskerken. She thought Etty was an excellent instructor, who was able to explain the most complex information in a way that made it look easy. Due to the war, Etty was unable to complete her study of Slavic languages.

In her years as a student, Etty was part of a politically liberal environment. With a number of her friends, Etty joined the Student League against War and Fascism. Etty is mostly remembered as someone who took a passive and listening role during the meetings. She took care of the coffee and created a congenial atmosphere.

“Someday I will have a journal, in which I will try to write. That is something, through which I alone need to come to terms, my private front, it will be desperate at times. It will look like a bloody massacre, in that journal, of warring and fighting words. And maybe, rising above this battlefield in some places, an occasional small story will emerge, pure as the moon, as a calming smile, rising over a restless life.” September 20th, 1942.

 20 september 1942 

Etty Hillesum biografie
Etty Hillesum - Fotocollectie Joods Museum
Louis Hillesum
Louis Hillesum - Fotocollectie Joods Museum

Louis Hillesum 1880-1943

Levie (Louis) Hillesum was born on 25th May 25th1880 in Amsterdam. He was the youngest of four children. His father, Jacob Samuel Hillesum, was a merchant and husband to Esther Hillesum-Loeza, after whom Etty was named. Louis Hillesum dreamed of becoming a violin player. Due to an eye infection, he became nearsighted. His dream career was out of reach. Following secondary school, he studied Classical Languages at the University of Amsterdam. He completed his studies and his doctoral thesis ‘De Imperfecti et Aoristi usu Thucydidis’ was approved with a cum laude distinction on 10th July 1908.

Louis Hillesum became a teacher. Teaching did not come naturally to him, which is partly why he often changed schools. His career as a teacher began in Middelburg in 1911. Three years later, in 1914, he moved to a secondary school in Hilversum. In 1916, he accepted a position at a smaller school in Tiel. In 1918 he taught in Winschoten, where he was also assistant headmaster in addition to his position as a teacher of Classical Languages. He kept these two positions when he was appointed to the Deventer Gymnasium in 1924.

Four years after his arrival at the Deventer Gymnasium, he was appointed Headmaster. He kept this position until the German occupation forced his resignation on 29th November 1940. Jews were prohibited from working in government service from November 1940 and Jewish teachers were ordered to leave.

Louis Hillesum is characterised as a clam. He was an erudite, stoic scholar with a good sense of humor. As a teacher he was strict, and described as rigid. The younger pupils feared their strict Headmaster. Arriving late or other ‘violations’ were heavily punished. It was a different story with the older pupils’ view of their teacher. He was revered for his knowledge of the classics and appreciated by them.

Riva Hillesum

On 7th December 1912, Rebecca (Riva) Bernstein married Louis Hillesum. She was born on 23rd June 1881 in Potsjeb, Russia. Riva was daughter to Hinde Lipowsky and Michael Bernstein. In her early life, Riva had already experienced the horrors of the Pogroms and raids (known as ‘razzia’ in Dutch), against the Jewish people. When she was twenty-six, she fled her homeland and arrived in the Netherlands on 18th February 1907. In Amsterdam, she lived with the Montagnu family in the Tweede Jan Steenstraat at number 21. That same year, her younger brother Jacob joined her in Amsterdam, followed by both her parents. The Bernstein family emigrated from the Netherlands to the United States a few years later. Riva did not join her family. She had since met and married Louis Hillesum.

Riva Hillesum-Bernstein is characterized as a dominant, extroverted and chaotic woman. She is said to have suffered from mood swings. One day, she could be the life and soul of the party only to descend into a sombre mood and complaints during the following days. In Deventer, people found the headmaster’s wife a strange and domineering woman. The father and mother of the Hillesum family had vastly different personalities.

Riva Hillesum
Riva Hillesum - Fotocollectie Joods Museum
Jaap Hillesum met Etty - Fotocollectie Joods museum

Jaap Hillesum

In 1933 Jaap Hillesum graduated from secondary school and began medical school that same year. First, he studied in Amsterdam, later in Leiden. The first years of study went smoothly. However, despite his first successful years, Jaap suffered from severe psychological problems. He was admitted to a psychiatric clinic on several occasions. Numerous friends from university noticed that Jaap would at times completely lose his train of thought, turning his words into an incoherent slur. Another college friend, who praised Jaap’s musicality and cello playing, described him as ‘a wondrous boy, who always lived on what one might call the crossroads between genius and madness.’

Jaap was forced to discontinue his studies, but later was able to continue at Leiden University. He managed to secure an internship at the Dutch-Israeli Hospital in Amsterdam. He worked there until his deportation to Camp Westerbork on 29th September 1943.

Mischa Hillesum

Mischa Hillesum was a musical genius from an early age. This was much to his father’s pleasure, as he himself had hoped for a career in music but was unable to pursue that dream due to his eye condition. Mischa dreamed of becoming a pianist. As a child he would spend many hours behind the piano. A family friend, Leni Wolff, who was often at the Hillesum house, was very impressed by Mischa’s extraordinary talent. One of Etty’s former classmates remembers being at the Hillesum house when Mischa, no older than four, directly inquired if he could play her something.

For the development of the musical talent of his son, Louis Hillesum thought it would be best if Mischa went to Amsterdam. Mischa had outgrown the musical world of Deventer and so he left for Amsterdam in 1932 as an eleven-year-old boy. In Amsterdam, he was taken in by the Horowitz family. Mischa attended the Vossius Gymnasium in Amsterdam where he obtained high marks. The famous pianist and music instructor George van Renesse took the young Mischa under his wing and was his tutor from 1931. Van Renesse was still a young man - he was 21 - when he was appointed head teacher at the conservatory. He thought Mischa was naturally gifted and should not be schooled too much. There was a need for some technical improvement, but Renesse wanted Mischa, as a gifted pianist, to be given the freedom to walk his own musical path.

Mischa had his debut at the age of eighteen. In the Bach Room of the Amsterdam Conservatory, Mischa gave his first solo performance. Following his hesitant entrance onto the podium, Mischa captivated the audience with his performance.

Shortly after this performance, Mischa was admitted to the ‘Apeldoornse Bosch’, a Jewish psychiatric clinic.

Like his older brother Jaap, Mischa suffered from psychological instability. During his short life, Mischa oscillated between being a musical genius and in an unbalanced and precarious mental state.

Micha Hillesum
Micha Hillesum - Foto collectie Joods Museum

Julius Spier, the ’S’ from the diaries

In February 1941, Etty met the psychochirologist Julius Spier, the ’S’ of her diaries. In March 1941, she entered therapy with him to do something about her ‘seelische Verstopfung’ (‘mental constipation’). In addition to the therapist-patient relationship, a special friendship and romantic relationship developed between them. Their relationships played an essential role in Etty’s spiritual and personal growth. Spier is also the person who convinced her to write in her diary.eelische Verstopfung ’.  Er ontstaat naast de relatie therapeut-patiënt, ook een bijzondere vriendschaps-en liefdesrelatie die in Etty’s persoonlijke- en spritiuele groei een essentiële rol speelden. Spier zette haar ook aan tot het bijhouden van een dagboek.

Julius Spier was born to a Jewish family in 1887 in the German town, Frankfurt am Main. When he was fourteen, he became an apprentice at the metal trading company, Beer Sondheimer & Co. He was able to obtain a management position within the company and worked for the firm for twenty-five years. After this period as a businessman, he decided to dedicate his life to psychochirology. He became a student of Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist and founder of analytical psychology. Spier left for Zürich. At an early age he was already interested in palm reading and now was the time to further develop that skill. Jung, who wrote the preface to Spier’s posthumously published Becoming Who You Are, was very impressed with Spier’s gift and method for palm reading and advised him to open his own practice. Spier took this advice to heart and in 1929 he opened the doors of his own practice in Berlin. Worden wie je bent schreef- was erg onder de indruk van Spiers handleeskundige gaven en zijn methodiek en hij raadde hem aan om een eigen praktijk te beginnen. Dit advies nam Spier ter harte en hij opende in 1929, in de Duitse hoofdstad Berlijn, de deuren van zijn eigen praktijk.  

Spier was married to Hedl (Hedwig) Rocco in 1917. They had two children: Ruth and Wolfgang. However, the marriage did not last, and the couple separated in 1935. After various affairs, Spier was engaged again in 1937. His fiancé was his chirology student, the Jewish Herta Levie (1916 - 2014), whom Etty referred to as ‘Die Freundin’ in her diaries.

Because of his Jewish heritage, Spier was forced to flee from the Nazi regime to the Netherlands in 1939. He settled in Amsterdam, first living with his sister at the Muzenplein and later renting a room in the Scheldestraat. In late 1940, he moved into two rooms at Courbetstraat 27, which he rented from the Nethe family. This is where Spier lived and had his chirology practice until he died from lung cancer in 1942.

Julius Spier, de ‘S’ uit het dagboek
Julius Spier - Fotocollectie Joods museum

The Jewish Council and Westerbork

Etty began her diaries on 8th March 1941, as recommended to her by Julius Spier. In the first months of diary writing, her personal growth was the central theme. She wrote about her ‘seelische Verstopfung’, love and her feelings for Spier, her womanhood, family trials and tribulations and her love for Rilke’s poetry and the great Russian writers, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. As the war progressed and anti-Semitic measures increasingly disrupted the lives of the Jewish population, Etty wrote more about the circumstances of the war. She confided to the pages her diary insights and philosophical considerations about hatred, suffering, about destiny and God. She wrote about her decision to work for the Jewish Council and her request to be transferred to the transit camp of Westerbork to share the fate of her people there. The ‘Massenschicksal’ she called it.seelische Verstopfung’, de liefde en haar gevoelens voor Spier, haar vrouw-zijn, familieperikelen en haar voorliefde voor Rilke en de grote Russische schrijvers, Tolstoj en Dostojevski. Naarmate de oorlog voortduurt en de antisemitische maatregelen steeds meer ingrijpen in het leven van de Joodse bevolking, gaat Etty steeds vaker over de oorlogsomstandigheden schrijven. Zij vertrouwt diepe inzichten en filosofische beschouwingen over de haat, het lijden, over het lot en God toe aan het papier. Zij schrijft over haar keuze om bij de Joodse Raad te werken en haar verzoek om zich te laten overplaatsen naar doorgangskamp Westerbork om daar het lot van haar volk, het Massenschicksal, zoals zij dat noemde, te delen.

At the advice her brother Jaap, Etty begrudgingly applied for a part-time position with the Jewish Council in July of 1942. Through the protection of someone, she is given a position at the offices on the Lijnbaansgracht in Amsterdam on 15th July 1942. Etty reluctantly carried out administrative work for the Council. She was also pessimistic about the role of the Jewish Council. She described the Council as ‘a piece of driftwood on the ocean after a shipwreck with people clinging on to it for dear life’. Once she was employed there, the Council reminded her most of all of a doll house. She found the work she did in Westerbork useful. At her own request she was transferred to the department of ‘Social Care for Persons in Transit’ on 30th July 1942. 

Etty was at the transit camp with a few breaks. Her status as employee of the Jewish Council meant that Etty was able to take sick leave. Following each period of leave Etty returned to the camp. She was determined to share the fate of her people. For this reason, she did not go into hiding, despite having that option. On 5th June 1943, she was finally healthy enough to return to Westerbork after her last period of sick leave. Etty travelled to Westerbork for the final time on 6th June 1943. 

On 5th July 1943, the special status given to Jewish Council employees at Westerbork was rescinded. Half of them returned to Amsterdam. Etty remained at Westerbork with the other half. She wanted to be there for her parents and brother Mischa who arrived on 21st June 1943. Etty hoped to take care of them as best she could and keep them from the deportation train as long as possible.

The Hillesum Family in Westerbork

On 21st June 1943 the Hillesum Family, father, mother and Mischa, arrived at the Westerbork transit camp. The Hillesums were arrested during one of the last razzias in Amsterdam. Jaap Hillesum remained in Amsterdam. He was still employed at the Dutch-Israeli Hospital, and he escaped a razzia in 1942. During the razzia of summer 1943, Jaap was taken and brought to the Jewish Theatre. Jaap managed to escape with the help fo some friends. He was finally taken during the last razzia in Amsterdam. On 29th September 1943, he was placed on a transport to Westerbork.

On 15th February, Jaap departed on the 82nd transport to the internment and concentration camp Bergen-Blesen. The transport comprised 773 people. Because of his position at the Dutch-Israeli Hospital, Jaap had special dispensation and was not sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.e transport dat uit 773 personen bestond naar het krijgsgevangenen- en concentratiekamp Bergen-Belsen. Jaap had op grond van zijn functie bij het N.I.Z een vrijstelling en hoefde daarom niet naar Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Shortly before the allied forces arrived at Bergen-Belsen, the camp was vacated. The last prisoners, including Jaap Hillesum, were transported on evacuation trains. On Monday 9th April, Jaap Hillesum left the atrocious conditions at the camp. On Tuesday 17th April 1945 Jaap died on the train near Tröbitz in Germany.

Three weeks prior to Jaap’s arrival at Westerbork, the train with his parents, brother and sister had departed for Auschwitz. The Hillesums remained in the transit camp for approximately two and a half months, until the deportation order which Etty writes about in her last message.

Attempts were made to get Mischa Hillesum special dispensation because of his musical talent. Mischa could then be transferred to Barneveld in the Netherlands. Specifically, two nurses, Grete Wendelgast and Milli Ortman were involved in this as well as the conductor and director of the concert hall, Willem Mengelberg. Jews with this privileged status were held in a castle, ‘De Schaffelaar’, and in the ‘Huize de Biezen’. A large number of the ‘Barneveld Jews’ survived the Nazi atrocities. Mischa Hillesum could have been one of the privileged but he chose not to use this dispensation. Mischa’s request to take his parents with him was refused, which in turn lead him to decline the ‘favour’ from the authorities. Mischa remained interned at Westerbork with his parents.

On 6th September, the deportation orders for the Hillesum family arrived. A train with 987 people packed on board left Westerbork on 7th September 1943. It arrived at its destination, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, on 10th September. Along the way, Etty wrote a final farewell message to her friend Christine van Nooten on a postcard. She tossed this out of the train shortly before crossing the German border. The Hillesum family all awaited the same fate, destruction. What happened to the Hillesums following their arrival at Auschwitz is unclear. The Red Cross writes in a report written after the war, that, with a few exceptions, survival in the conditions of the camp where the women arrived following the 7th September transport, was virtually impossible. Consequently, the exact date of the death of Etty Hillesum is unknown. It is assumed that Etty Hillesum and the women on the 7th September transport, were no longer alive after the 30th November 1943.

Familie Hillesum Leiden
Familie Hillesum Leiden - Fotocollectie Joods museum