Tuesday, 4 May 2010
Persephone Reading Week : An interrupted life
The Persephone book that nearly turned into a DNF, I struggled to engage with Etty Hillesum's An interrupted life. A collection of diaries and letters, the subject matter intrigued me - Hillesum was a Jew living in Amsterdam in the 1940s, and thus well-placed to observe the impact of German occupation and the policies against the Jews. She worked for the Jewish Council from 1942, and went to Westerbrok, a concentration camp for Jews, which was the "last stop" before Auschwitz, to work with those who were about to be transported.
But the diary which she began in 1941, aged 27, annoyed me from the start. It seemed to involve a lot of pontification about her own thoughts and feelings; rather than the historical account that I had anticipated, it was more an exploration of her heart and soul. She had a rather weird relationship with Julius Spier, the founder of psychochirology, and much of the journal reflects on that.
I was on the point of giving up on the book when things started to get more interesting. The balance in the diary moved away from the focus on her personal life and feelings and more historical detail was included as Hilesum began to fear for the Jews and their situation. Suddenly politics and the wider world became much more important to her.
The second part of the book comprises the letters that Hillesum wrote whilst at Westerbrok - whilst the conditions at this camp were in no sense like those at Auschwitz, it was still somewhat horrific. I found these letters to be hugely interesting - I did not know about the existence of Westerbrok and it was fascinating to read about life on the inside, although it was not a "feel good" read. Hillesum was lucky in that she was able to make a couple of trips back to Amsterdam, but she could not escape transportation and was sent to Auschwitz in September 1943 and died two months later.
Hillesum was only a year older than me when she started writing these diaries; ultimately I was impressed by the maturity that she exhibits in the diaries and letters, and the way in which she rarely displays fear about the situation. I am not sure that I would have remained so self-possessed nor able to acknowledge and write with such composed detail about the state of affairs that she and the other Jews faced in 1940s Holland.