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Books and management (III): Etty Hillesum: the strength of a hopeful look


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María del Pilar Saiz Cerreda |

Professor of Degree in language and Spanish Literature

"One herself hardly even realizes that she has become marked by suffering...for life. And life is still, in essence, so pleasantly good." This is how Etty Hillesum expressed herself in a letter written to her friend Maria Tuinzing on September 2, 1943, five days before she was deported from the Westerbork concentration camp (Holland) to Auschwitz, where she finally died on November 30 of the same year. She was 29 years old and had many projects to carry out. Life seemed to smile on this young woman belonging to the Jewish bourgeoisie of Amsterdam.

A law graduate, she was studying psychology and Slavic languages when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Her life took a radical turn and, faced with the madness she had to live through, far from being paralyzed by fear, she made a courageous decision: she put herself at the service of others, first accepting to work in the Cultural Section of the Jewish committee (financial aid to the deportees), and a few weeks later she went to work as a volunteer in the Westerbork concentration camp. During this period, writing becomes for her a vital activity that will accompany her until she is allowed to do so, until the very day she has to board the train of death. She writes her diary and letters, letters in which an overwhelming personality emerges in full force, facing life with a deep and hopeful optimism, at the antipodes of cowardice and apocacy.

In these letters, through her words, we feel Etty live. They are not empty words, but words full of meaning. If words are, to paraphrase Marc Fumaroli, the traits of the self that are deeply imprinted in the soul of the friend, Etty's words will not only be imprinted inside us, but they come to question us. Etty's letters translate a life, they are life lived with intensity and life made word. They are a testimony that is engraved with fire in our hearts, because they are born from a heart that knows how to give a reason for everything it lives and feels. That is why Etty is "the thinking heart of the barracks". She senses that time is running out and never tires of repeating to her various correspondents that, in spite of the fact that time and time again she sees the lowliness of human beings, "this life is wonderful and great". Only from this perspective is it possible to consider the future: "to every infamy, to every cruelty, we must oppose a good dose of love and good faith, which we must first find within ourselves. We have the right to suffer, but not to succumb to suffering. And if we survive this epoch unharmed in body and soul, above all in soul, without resentment, without bitterness, then we will win the right to have a voice when the war is over".

Etty's lucidity in these circumstances never ceases to amaze and brings us the echo of those words written around the same time by the writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his famous book The Little Prince: "You can only see well with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye". Etty conceives her existence and the existence of each person "as something precious, particular and non-transferable", as Octavio Paz expresses in El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). This deep conviction illuminates her life from the depths of her being and is projected outwardly in a positive and joyful look at herself and the world. 

But there is no trace of naivety or unrealistic utopia in his words. On the contrary, his belief and faith in the beauty, grandeur and inviolability of life are gradually crystallized at contact of misery, decadence, fear and horror, and are transformed into an optimism firmly anchored in hope, which will always manifest itself through contrasts. Yes, in the face of fear, he brings out all the strength of his inner self with small acts of courage, as when he accompanies the sick in the barracks. In the face of ugliness, he is able to see beyond and discover beauty where most are prevented: the light of the sunset, the flight of birds, the colors of spring in flowers, the gift of moments of friendship in the countryside. In the face of the hatred, violence and brutality that is being exercised on all the prisoners in the camp, she does not hesitate to pour herself out and to give all the love and affection to others that she is capable of. Faced with the loss of humanity in the camp, she does not dehumanize or animalize herself, but above all, she knows how to be grateful. And so she says goodbye, with a deep gratitude on her lips, serene, very whole, radiating fullness.

Etty will always be the beacon of light that shines in the darkness and lights our way: "It is the only way I can live now: love for the most tormented fellow human being without preferences [...]. And when this idea imposes itself on me at a time when there is no consolation, I can go on, but not with a substitute life like the one that most people lead here in a concentration camp for Jews in the middle of a world war.... No, nothing like that. I really mean a hopeful impetus, joy, conviction and a vague assumption of belonging, which exist and which, deep down, make life meaningful".