Letters from 'the kingdom of night'

Cunningham, Lawrence S.

LETTERS FROM 'THE KINGDOM OF NIGHT' THE LEGACY OF ETTY HILLESUM LAWRENCE S. CUNNINGHAM ¦ remember certain movie advertisements announcing that no patron would be seated during the last half...

...I am with the hungry, with the ill treated, and the dying every day...
...nearly thirty years her senior, she goes to the Jewish council to see if she could follow him to Poland were she to marry him and he were to be deported...
...Why did not the Allies bomb the trainlines to Germany to stop the transports...
...What is more compelling is her basic sense of the reality of God and the possibility of being "located" within that transcendent reality...
...The family was a cultured one...
...Her father, a provincial college teacher, was not devout...
...The sense of tragic inevitability triggered by the scant inLAWRENCE S. CUNNINGHAM is professor of religion at the Florida State University, Tallahassee...
...She wonders, without remorse, at the demands of her body, her erotic phantasies, her desire for closeness...
...Indecision about which books to pack for her trip to the East or what shoes 316: to take (remember those piles of shoes in the old newsreels of the liberated camps...
...She left careful plans for the survival of her diaries and letters so that future generations would be able to read her testimony...
...Hillesum, a student of Slavic languages who read Pushkin and Dostoevsky in Russian and her favorite, Rilke, in German...
...can make one weep...
...Every person knew the awful fate of Oedipus...
...Etty Hillesum prayed on a rough coconut matting rug in her bathroom...
...Every atom of hate unleashed on the world made it all the more inhospitable and less livable...
...she lived with one man and carried on a physical affair with the aforementioned therapist/lecturer...
...In Holland itself the noose was slowly constricting around the necks of the Jews...
...From the train window she threw out a postcard which was mailed by a Dutch peasant...
...To which she replied, "Yes, Christianity, and why not...
...the yellow star was obligatory...
...they were spiritual soulmates...
...Wildly in love with a crackpot therapist (who did Jungian-inspired palm readings...
...Jaap did not survive repatriation to Holland when the death camps were liberated...
...I judge Etty Hillesum not only to be a luminous witness to those terrible years but an authentic voice of the spiritual life...
...formation on the jacket (I was reading the Washington Square paperback of the diaries published in 1985) took on terrible specificity while reading the earlier entries of the book...
...Her brother Mischa was a piano prodigy...
...What demonic turn of events made it necessary for a small group of Jews to determine and facilitate the deportation of the Jewish people (the so-called Judenrat question...
...Some months before her death, Etty was speaking to an old friend who was a Communist activist: "a dogged old class fighter," as she describes him in her diary...
...In retrospect, we can specify the end of the journey more exactly: the town of Osweicim, known more familiarly by its German name of Auschwitz...
...She told him of her conviction that one had an obligation to turn inward and destroy every impulse in us that we hate in others...
...Etty, in short, is much closer in spirit to many serious young persons who combine brilliance and spiritual depth with a zest for life...
...From where did these ideas come...
...But what we say is fruitless because we already know what will happen and, once again, Oedipus is blinded and Desdemona is dead...
...The surprise ending is a staple in literature and film but there is another genre of literature in which the reader knows from the opening paragraph how things will turn out...
...Both were intellectuals...
...Etty Hillesum's spiritual life had a direct simplicity to it: there was a God with whom one could communicate even when the communication seemed to be one-way...
...That act of kindness personalized a force which she saw as abstract and which she vowed not to hate because of the fruitless loss of energy in such reactions...
...Weil an accomplished student of philosophy (she finished ahead of Simone de Beauvoir at the Ecole...
...there is room for everything in a single life...
...few, one suspects, would care to emulate her life or pray to be granted her virtues...
...She ends that entry with the conviction that a few people must survive in order to be chroniclers of this peculiar age...
...She had some inkling that more than deportation was involved...
...It was that latter sensation I experienced while reading Etty Hillesum's diary, An Interrupted Life...
...Her friend sputtered in reply that attitude "is nothing but Christianity...
...Jaap, the youngest brother, a skilled scientist and doctor...
...Quite the contrary...
...She was young and the diaries end in 1943...
...As far as I can determine that is the closest she came to Christianity in any formal way...
...they could not patronize the greengrocers of the city...
...Etty's background breathes kultur with scant echoes of the Christian piety of her native Deventer or close ties with the life of the synagogue...
...their bicycles were confiscated...
...The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head...
...From 317 her relative (and temporary) safety she wonders in horror at a "world sown with a million corpses and in twenty-seven years I have never seen a single one...
...but it is hard to think of two more dissimilar personalities...
...318...
...Etty's parents and Mischa died in the camps...
...Did one need to peek at the italicized postscript of the book to know that she disappeared in a swirl of Zyklon B gas on November 30, 1943...
...Late one Saturday evening she catalogues some of the indignities of the Jewish laws but is quick to add, "I find life beautiful and I feel free...
...Seen through Etty's eyes, her mother is almost a stereotypical yenta...
...There is nothing dark or apophatic about her relationship to God...
...LETTERS FROM 'THE KINGDOM OF NIGHT' THE LEGACY OF ETTY HILLESUM LAWRENCE S. CUNNINGHAM ¦ remember certain movie advertisements announcing that no patron would be seated during the last half hour of a showing...
...indeed, it would make it redundant...
...When she writes out the content of her prayers, the diary reveals a person free of sentimental cant...
...they were forbidden to ride the trams of the city...
...She does not see them as "sin...
...In 1942 she voluntarily went to the internment camp at Westerbork (her letters from there have recently been published: Letters from Westerbork [Pantheon, 1986]) to serve those who were under arrest...
...Such statements could sound pollyannish if there was not a persistent current of prophetic foreboding in these pages...
...Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum were victims of a common destiny...
...Weil in a nursing home in Kent (England) of pulmonary problems exacerbated by her fastings (in solidarity with her compatriots in occupied Europe, she said) while Etty disappeared into what Wiesel has called "The Kingdom of the Night...
...Like the crazed woman of Elie Wiesel's Night she also had prophetic visions brought about by the suffering and deprivation: "I often see visions of poisonous green smoke...
...To peek at the final chapter to discover that the butler, in fact, had done it, would spoil the reading of the book...
...At the same time, she finds time to read the Bible each day (she mentions a careful reading a kind of lectio divina of both Saint Matthew and the Psalter), she feels driven to prayer, and a half-articulated desire for the ascetic life...
...For belief in God" was not a conventional term for Etty Hillesum...
...The letters she wrote in the last months of her life in Holland anticipate by decades the questions and accusations of those who can now look with historical hindsight at those awful days...
...In a striking passage, set down shortly before she was to be sent to a transit camp, she writes how she wants her slender pen to be a hammer and her words hammer strokes "with which to beat out the story of our fate and of a piece of history as it is and never was before'' [my emphasis...
...By contrast, Etty loved good food, the intimacy which springs from hot cups of coffee and intense conversation, the beauties of nature, and the mysteries of love...
...the BBC broadcasts spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the East...
...The power of Sophocles's drama came from the reaction of the viewer who watched, in helpless horror, as the king asked questions, made statements, assayed certain strategies which were all bringing him, with inexorable force, to an inevitably tragic end...
...How did apparently cultured people (the commander of the transit camp was one of those seemingly common Nazi lovers of music and children) turn into moral monsters...
...One cannot read Etty Hillesum without thinking of another Jewish intellectual: Simone Weil...
...don't do that...
...Part of the power of such experiences comes from our tendency to say, as we watch events unfold, "Don't say that...
...The most extraordinary revelation in this diary is the interweaving of Etty's frank erotic drives and her parallel search for what can only be called an authentic spiritual life...
...Prayer welled up from a deep need but it was not a compulsive sort of pleading...
...While at Westerbork she was able, because of her work with the Jewish Council, to travel back and forth to Amsterdam...
...Her own writing was conceived to be a testament to outlast her...
...She was not sure how everything would end but she knew in her bones that what was happening was a unique calamity in the history of things...
...This ended on September 8, 1943 when the entire family was "transported...
...As the classic Greek dramatists understood, this can be an excruciating situation for the viewer/reader...
...Did she know the final (I underscore final) destination of those Jews who were being sent East...
...The purpose of that gimmick was to indicate that the ending was so clever or so unexpected that the viewer had to see the film from the beginning in order to enjoy its full impact...
...In another place she resolves to pray for a German soldier who had shown kindness to a friend as she was getting on a train for deportation...
...Nonetheless, and this is the source of her diary's power, she immediately adds: "I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window...
...On November 30 she died at Auschwitz...
...Finally, both died in the latter half of 1943...
...The most poignant question of all was posed to Etty by a misshapen old Jewish woman who asked her with apparent sincerity if Etty thought God would forgive her doubts given the horrible times in which they lived...
...Weil's spiritual vision was so fiercely unremitting and so demanding as to give the ordinary person reason for pause...
...The jacket blurb told me that these were the writings of a young Dutch Jewish woman penned between 1941 and 1943...
...And, as if to insist on the point, she then adds: "For belief in God and for a miserable end...
...a witness to what she and her family and friends had lived through...
...Poland...
...they were obliged to be off the streets by eight in the evening...
...the German nun Edith Stein in the Dutch Carmel at Echt...
...Both were interested in the ascetic life (although Hillesum pales in comparison with Weil in this regard), and both found God as if by grace: something forced them to their knees...
...I believe in God and I believe in man and I say so without embarrassment...
...She was twenty-seven when she began these diaries and had already a full love life...
...directions for compulsory registration for deportation were in force...
...Nor was God some stark alternative to the ugliness of life around her...
...it said that they had left the camp "singing...
...It is easy to admire Simone Weil for the great soul that she was...
...In conversation with her friends she says that children will be taught about yellow stars and ghettos and terror at school and "it will make their hair stand on end...
...a Jewish bank handled (we presume with exemplary efficiency) the sequestration of their financial holdings...
...She lived and died a Jew but her insights into Jesus and the entire prophetic tradition are profound and clear...
...The remembrance of that rough texture would be like a talisman for her when she wrote later of her prayer experiences...
...Her prayer was intimate and closely linked with a basic sense of thankfulness that is almost Franciscan in its tenor...
...One could be reasonably sure of meeting an Etty in this life while a Simone Weil (like a Pascal or a Kierkegaard) is a rare grace in culture and one not easily approached...
...It happened to Simone Weil in the chapel of the Portiuncula in Assisi in 1937...
...Etty Hillesum's desire to be a chronicler was an authentic one...
...Where were the voices of protest...
...As her editor notes, her religious life was pretty much self-constructed...
...She was a Dutch Jew (Anne Frank in her Amsterdam garret...
...Readers of detective fiction expect the same kind of effect...
...Pathways in the parks were forbidden to them...

Vol. 114 • May 1987 • No. 10


 
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