My Best Historical Friend

On November 30th, my best historical friend, Etty Hillesum, perished in Auschwitz.

If you have never made friends with someone in a book, your life is incomplete.

Etty used to say this of Rilke and now I say it of her: “[S]he inhabits my life.”

Between the ages of 27-29, Etty, a Dutch Jew, kept a diary through which she demonstrated her incredible openness to reality and profound spiritual audacity.

So struck and edified by her, I travelled to Ghent in Belgium to the Etty Hillesum Research Centre (EHOC) a few years ago in order to meet Professor Klaas Smelik who, with great effort and the dedication of his life, ensured the publication and translation of her works.

Etty awakened me to a sense of my own mortality, a deeper gratitude for the miracle of living, and a hunger for the values that don’t perish from the world with our deaths.

Here are a couple of my favourite quotations of hers:

“Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed.”

“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.”

To learn more about Etty and to listen to an academic conference presentation I gave about her in 2014, click here.

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