Etty Hillesum’s surrender to God can also be seen as resistance to the dehumanisation and destruction of the Holocaust – she bore witness during the actual occurrence of the horrific events. As Meins Coetsier points out in his study of her life and writings she struggled to preserve the human through writing and dialogue with a transcendent Other, God. She shows us how she attuned herself to the flow of life and chose to bear witness to its Beauty amid a nightmare of senseless brutality and doom.
Coetsier uses the idea of “the flow of presence” taken from the work of the philosopher Eric Voegelin as a way of catching changes and shifts in the way that we respond to the divine presence. It helps us understand what is taking place in a soul undergoing dramatic breakthroughs and rapid advances in the spiritual life – in this case in the midst of a social period of overwhelming collapse into lethal disorder. So for Etty the experience of surrender to God to Truth was not about dogma or teachings but the experience of an orienting force within the soul.
Etty remained immersed in the real world while being aware of its deeper mystery that is carried in and revealed by the flow. She was fully conscious of factors beyond human control but knowing that she could not escape her fate in the darkness of the concentration camp she embraced her life in that place.
She writes, ‘I sometimes feel I am in some blazing purgatory and that I’m being forged into something else. But into what?’ Sent to the camp at Westerbork with the first group of Jews she returned:
I am reminded daily of the fact that a human being has a body, too. I had thought that my spirit and heart alone would be able to sustain me through everything. But now my body has spoken up for itself and called a halt. I now realise, God, how much You have given me. So much that was beautiful and so much that was hard to bear. Yet whenever I showed myself ready to bear it, the hard was directly transformed into the beautiful. And the beautiful was sometimes much harder to bear, so overpowering did it seem. To think that one small human heart can experience so much, O God, so much suffering and so much love… I accept everything from Your hands O God.
Surrendering to God she writes:
‘I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that richest and deepest part in which I repose, is what I call “God”… My life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, and to God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other, God to God.’