Beads and Books: Lessons from a Holocaust Victim

Today’s post is the beginning of a new series called Beads and Books. These days I am reading so much good stuff on prayer, prayer beads, being still, etc. that I want to share with you. I’m hoping this will open up a dialogue between us as you share your favorite books as well.

The book I want to share today is Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork. My current favorite writer, Robert Benson, referenced this book at one point and, obedient Robert Benson disciple that I am, I decided to read it. I will be forever thankful that I did. Etty’s book is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. Ever. Definitely one of my top ten books of all time. It is absolutely stunning.

Etty was a Dutch Jew during World War II. An aspiring writer, this book is a combination of her journal (written from her apartment in Amsterdam), as well as letters she wrote from Westerbork. Westerbork was one of the transit camps where Jews were held before being sent to the extermination camps. Many editions of this book include only the journal, however, I highly recommend the edition that includes both. The journal and letters together form a complete picture of Etty’s life from 1941 to 1943, when she was killed at Auschwitz at the age of twenty-nine.

Etty’s deep faith is the most striking element of this book. As it begins, the Nazis occupy Amsterdam and for the most part, the Jews are still free to go about their daily lives. But over time you see how the Nazis take over, segregating the Jews into ghettos and loading them into trains bound for concentration camps. Throughout this, Etty’s faith in a just and loving God remains steadfast. As a result, Etty is able to:

  • pray for the German soldiers:
    • “I knew at once: I shall have to pray for this German soldier. . . we understand that German soldiers suffer as well. There are no frontiers between suffering people, and we must pray for them all (p. 156).”
  • release hate:
    • “All I really wanted to say is this: we have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn’t even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies (p. 211).”
  • feel safe no matter where she is or what is happening:
    • “I don’t feel in anybody’s clutches; I feel safe in God’s arms, to put it rhetorically, and no matter whether I am sitting at this beloved old desk now, or in a bare room in the Jewish district, or perhaps in a labor camp under SS guards in a month’s time – I shall always feel safe in God’s arms (p. 176).”
  • recognize that each of us has a responsibility for peace in the world:
    • “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 (p. 218).”

Etty was clearly well-respected in her community and moved in some of the influential circles. This afforded her many opportunities to hide from the Germans or leave the country. As a member of the local Jewish Council, she was able to delay going to Westerbork. But Etty declined these offers. She wanted to go to the camp.

Did you catch that? Let me say it again: Etty wanted to be sent to a concentration camp.

Can you imagine?!?

She explained this was because, “It still all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful. And I believe in God. And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call “horror” and still be able to say: life is beautiful (p. 226).” Etty recognized the extent of the suffering in the camps. She knew people would give up hope and possibly even give up their faith in God. Etty wanted to be with these people and witness to God’s comforting presence. As she wrote, “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds (p.231).”

On the day Etty and her family members were loaded into trains bound for Auschwitz (where they would be killed), Etty wrote a quick postcard and threw it out the window. The card read, “We left the camp singing (p. 360).”

This is why I find this book so stunning. I pray that I would have even an ounce of such grace and gratitude and peace of mind in the face of unspeakable horror. Or in the face of a scary diagnosis, or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job. I pray that, surrounded by darkness, I would be able to say, “Life is beautiful. Thanks be to God.”

It is possible. Such deep faith is not just for the saints. It is available to every one of us, fed by prayer, pure and simple. It is fed by time with God, talking and questioning and listening and wailing and being quiet. It is fed by that joy we talked about the other day, recognizing God’s presence everywhere.

Whether you have prayer beads or not, I hope you will take time to pray and feed your faith. And may you be able to say with a quiet confidence, “Life is beautiful. Thanks be to God.”

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