Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum – Interrupted Lives

Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum – Interrupted Lives

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In February of this year, it was seventy years ago that Anne Frank died in a concentration camp. In March of this year, Anne’s last close living relative died, a cousin who had been dedicated to keeping her legacy alive. Anne’s story will survive – in the form of what has become the most famous diary of our time.

As a tribute to Anne, I decided to re-read her diary, and in the process, I came across another Holocaust-era diary, which I highly recommend: Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life. In many ways, Etty was the young adult counterpart to teenage Anne. Both women lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Both were Jewish, but while Anne and her family went into hiding, Etty refused to do so and continued to work as long as she could. Both were aspiring writers, and both kept diaries spanning two years, Anne’s from 1942 to 1944, Etty’s from 1941 to 1943. In both diaries we see the growth of these two spirited individuals as they come to terms with what is happening around them.

Anne’s diary tells the story of a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl hiding in an attic with her family. For two years the family hid in the “Secret Annexe” with another family, and Anne recounts the trials of hunger, boredom and the ever-present fear of being discovered, as well as what it’s like to be cooped up inside with all these people who bicker and quarrel with each other.

Anne’s diary entries are addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. Whenever the grownups would give her a hard time, which was often because Anne was a spirited young girl, she would turn to her diary, “because Kitty is always patient”.

In the fall of 1944, the family was discovered and sent to a concentration camp where Anne, her mother, and her sister died. Her father, Otto Frank, survived, and when the war ended in 1945, he returned to Amsterdam where friends had kept Anne’s diary, which Otto later published. Thus, Anne’s wish – “I want to go on living even after my death” – came true. What a testament to the power of the journal!

Anne’s diary ends when she is fifteen years old. Etty was 27 when she began her diary and 29 when she died in Auschwitz. During the two years in which she kept a diary, she grew into an extraordinary woman full of self-awareness and compassion. Again and again she wrote that despite everything, “Life is beautiful and meaningful.” In the face of all the madness around her, Etty showed such serene acceptance and lack of bitterness or hate. She also had the ability to savor the few sweetnesses in life that were still afforded her as a Jewish woman in occupied Holland.

With incredible insight Etty put her situation into historical perspective, saying, “Suffering has always been with us, does it really matter in what form it comes? All that matters is how we bear it and how we fit it into our lives.” And Etty bore her suffering with grace. While on the train carrying her to her death, she wrote these words on a postcard, which she then threw from the train: “We left the camp singing.”

Etty was a promising young writer who wrote out of “inner necessity”. As she put it, “I must make sure I keep up with my writing, that is, with myself, or else things will start to go wrong for me: I shall run the risk of losing my way”. For Etty, writing was a way of staying close to her authentic self.

But writing isn’t always easy. Etty had doubts about her ability and had to remind herself that “you don’t put things down on paper to produce masterpieces, but to gain some clarity. I am still ashamed of myself, afraid to let myself go, to let things pour out of me; I am dreadfully inhibited, and that is because I have not yet learned to accept myself as I am.”

I was deeply inspired by “An Interrupted Life” and Etty, who, along with Anne Frank, was such an intelligent, sympathetic woman living during devastating times. Both diaries speak to the incredible strength of the human spirit.

“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: 

to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, 

and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, 

the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.” 

– Etty Hillesum

As I was reflecting on these words of Etty’s, I was struck by the idea that journaling can help us “to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves”. In fact, I think this is why I keep a journal.

Prompt: In what ways can journaling help us “to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves”?

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