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Review: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43


Pages: 430
Original date of publication: 1982
My edition: 2010
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: September 2011, Persephone shop

I’ve been putting off and putting off writing a review of An Interrupted Life, mostly because I wanted everything to sink in and also because I really didn’t know what to say about this wonderful, albeit heartbreaking book. There I go again, using clich├ęs to describe this book, but I loved it from start to finish.

Etty Hillesum was born in January 1914 in Holland and lived in Amsterdam working as a translator of Russian and Russian teacher. Even still she aspired to be a writer, and kept a journal to that effect during WWII. As a Jew, Etty’s life became increasingly circumscribed by the restrictions placed upon her; she was later given a job as a typist in the Jewish Council, an organization that sought to mediate between the Nazis and Dutch Jews. Etty later volunteered to help accompany Jews to Westerbork, a detention camp that was the last stop to Auschwitz; and eventually ended up in Westerbork herself.

Etty’s journals and letters cover the period of November 1941-summer 1943, several months after she met Dr. Julius Spier, a Jungian psychoanalyst who figures largely in her journals as both a friend and mentor. Etty was outgoing and social in real life, yet her journals show a rich internal life as well, one in which Etty was given to a lot of introspective thought. Etty was well read and intelligent, and she had knowledge of not only literature but of psychology as well (she is constantly reading Jung and Remarque throughout). Every single page of her book is filled with insights both from her head and about the world around her. She was skilled at questioning herself, of criticizing what she knew. As the diary progresses, therefore, we start to see how Etty embraces her self-doubt and fears. The result is an acceptance of what she knew would happen to her eventually.

At one point she wonders if it was escapist of her to look so much into herself when the outside world eclipsed individuals’ lives; her answer was no. I think one of the most powerful lessons of Etty’s diary is that she thought it was important for people to look inwardly, to wage the war within first. Even at Westerbork, her writings about life in the camp are matter-of-fact, rational. As an effect of insights like this and many others, Etty’s diary is electrifying in its intensity. I thought the diary portion of this book was much stronger than the letters she wrote from Westerbork; her letters are more trivial and give you less of a sense of who Etty was.

This is Persephone no. 5.


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