Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum (historical background)

by Prof. Klaas A. D. Smelik

Professor for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Director of the Etty Hillesum Research Centre (University of Ghent, Belgium)

(For information about Roman Kroke’s project on this topic, please click the menus right from the white arrow)

Esther “Etty” Hillesum was born on 15 January 1914 in Middelburg in the Netherlands. At that time, her father, Levie “Louis” Hillesum (*25 May 1880 in Amsterdam), was teaching classical languages there. He has been described as a small, quiet and unobtrusive man, a stoic, scholarly recluse with a great deal of humour and erudition. Louis Hillesum’s Jewish identity was important to him. At the same time, he was highly assimilated in the wider Dutch society – he worked, for example, on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. His wife, Riva, was born on 23 June 1881 in Potchev, Russia. Following a pogrom, she fled to Amsterdam, where she married Louis Hillesum in December 1912. Etty described her mother as a lively, chaotic, extroverted and dominant person. The relationship between mother and daughter was a difficult one. Riva Hillesum-Bernstein also bore two more children: Jacob “Jaap” (*27 January 1916 in Hilversum) and Michael “Mischa” (*22 September 1920 in Winschoten). Jaap studied medicine. He was intelligent, wrote poems and was attractive to women. Already as a child, his brother, Mischa, exhibited striking musical talent. Around 1939, he was treated for schizophrenia, but, even after his release, he continued to be extremely unstable.

Etty Hillesum spent her childhood years in Middelburg, Hilversum (1914-1916), Tiel (1916-1918), Winschoten (1918-1924) and finally then Deventer, from July 1924 onwards. Unlike her younger brother, Jaap, who was an extremely gifted pupil, Etty’s marks were not particularly worthy of note. At the grammar school in Deventer, she also studied Hebrew and, for a time, she attended the meetings of a Zionist youth group. After finishing school, she went to Amsterdam to study law. In March 1937, she took a room in the house of the accountant Hendrik “Hans” J. Wegerif. Wegerif, a widower, hired Etty as his housekeeper, but also began an affair with her. It was in this house that she lived until her final departure for Westerbork in June 1943. During her university years, Etty Hillesum moved in left-wing, anti-fascist student circles, and was politically and socially active without belonging to a political party. She sat her master’s exams in Law in 1939 at the University of Amsterdam. In addition, she studied Slavic languages at Amsterdam and Leiden. Due to her exclusion from university because of her Jewish background, she was unable to complete her studies in this field.

Etty wrote her diaries largely in Wegerif’s house at Gabriel Metsustraat 6, where a student by the name of Bernard Meylink also lived. It was through Bernard that, on Monday, 3 February 1941, Etty met the psychochirologist Julius Spier. Spier was born in 1887 in Frankfurt am Main (DE). In 1927, he had withdrawn from business life to dedicate himself to the study of chirology, the science of handreading. Spier had undergone a two year training analysis with C. G. Jung in Zurich, and, following Jung’s recommendation, opened a psychochirology practice in Berlin in 1929. In 1939, he had fled to Amsterdam where he established a new practice and gave lectures. The largely chance encounter with Spier proved formative for the course of Hillesum’s life. She was immediately impressed by his personality and decided to go into therapy with him. On 8 March 1941, she drafted a letter to Spier in an exercise book, and began her diary the next day, probably following Spier’s advice and as part of her therapy. In her diaries, Etty referred to him as “S.”. For Etty Hillesum, the importance of keeping a diary went far beyond being a part of her therapy; it allowed her to realize her literary ambitions. Although she was his patient, Etty Hillesum also became Spier’s secretary and friend. Spier had a considerable influence on Etty Hillesum’s spiritual development; he taught her how to deal with her depressive and egocentric tendencies, and introduced her to the Bible and St. Augustine. When he died from lung cancer on 15 September 1942, Etty’s resilience gave her the strength to deal with his death.

On 15 July 1942, Etty Hillesum took up an administrative position with the Amsterdam Jewish Council. However, she performed this work with the utmost reluctance because she had an extremely negative opinion of the Council’s role. Only two weeks later, therefore, she resigned from this position and applied for a transfer to the Department of “Social Welfare for People in Transit” at the Westerbork Transit Camp. Her request was granted and she took up her position as a social worker on 30 July 1942. Etty’s first stay at the camp did not last long; on 14 August 1942, she was already back in Amsterdam. Sometime around 21 August she returned to Westerbork, but an illness forced her to go home on 5 December 1942. It was not until 5 June 1943 that she had recovered sufficiently to be allowed to return to the camp. Perhaps unexpectedly Against expectation, Etty was very keen to get back to Westerbork and resume her work, to provide some support for the internees as they prepared themselves for deportation. It was for this reason that Etty consistently turned down offers to go into hiding. She said that she wished to “share her people’s fate”.

Etty’s departure from Amsterdam on 6 June proved final, for, on 5 July 1943, she herself became a camp internee. She wished to remain with her father, mother and brother Mischa, who had, in the meantime, been brought to Westerbork. Efforts were made to obtain a special dispensation for Mischa on the grounds of his musical talent. However, Mischa insisted that his family also be granted this status in order to be able to accompany him to the special camp at Barneveld. When his mother made a written request for these privileges to Hans Albin Rauter, the highest-ranking SS officer in the Netherlands, Rauter was so enraged that he issued the order for the immediate deportation of the entire family. On 7 September 1943, the Hillesum family left the camp in a train destined for Auschwitz. Only Jaap Hillesum did not go with them; at the time, he was still in Amsterdam. He arrived in Westerbork in late September 1943 and was deported to Bergen-Belsen in February 1944. He died towards the end of the war during one of the “death-marches”. Father and Mother Hillesum either died during transport to Auschwitz or were gassed immediately upon arrival. The date of death given was 10 September 1943. Mischa died on 31 March 1944, probably in Warsaw. According to the Red Cross, Etty Hillesum was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 30 November 1943.

Before her final departure for Camp Westerbork, Etty Hillesum entrusted her diaries to Maria Tuinzing. She asked her to pass them on to the writer and friend of hers, Klaas Smelik, my father, with the request that they be published if she did not return. In 1946 or 1947, Maria Tuinzing turned over the exercise books and a bundle of letters to Klaas Smelik but all his attempts to have the diaries published in the 1950s proved fruitless. He finally handed them over to me. In late 1979, I approached the publisher J. G. Gaarlandt with a request to publish Etty’s writings. This led to the publication of Het verstoorde leven (‘An Interrupted Life’) in 1981, and, in 1986, to the publication of all Etty Hillesum’s known writings in Dutch. An English and a French translation were made of this Dutch edition – and an Italian version is currently in preparation. Parts of the diaries and letters have been translated into German.

Further Information:


The Spider and its Web (2009-2019)

Illustration series by Roman KROKE

In 2009, Kroke illustrated the diaries of the Dutch Jew Etty Hillesum (1914-1943). It was a commissioned artwork for the documentary film The Convoy by André Bossuroy (2009), sponsored by the European Commission and the Jewish Foundation of Belgium. Amongst others the movie was shown on Europe’s cultural channel ARTE . Kroke’s illustration series The Spider and its Web comprises 10 illustrations, each of them accompanied by citations from Etty Hillesum’s diary as well an annotation in which the artist explains the concept behind the illustration. This work has been published in English, French and German (available on,, and

On the basis of his illustrations to Etty Hillesum’s diaries Roman Kroke realizes workshops in cooperation with schools, universities, museums, foundations etc.

Prof. Klaas A. D. Smelik

Professor for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Director of the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, University of Ghent (Belgium)

“When I first saw Roman Kroke’s illustrations to Etty Hillesum’s diary, I was greatly impressed by their emotional impact. Kroke had also succeeded in capturing the substance of Hillesum’s message through his choice of subjects as well as his annotations to the illustrations. Kroke’s work reflects a deep understanding of Hillesum’s diaries. The use of illustration to approach the topic is unprecedented and constitutes a unique way of reflecting Etty Hillesum’s thoughts. Kroke’s artistic interpretation of Hillesum’s writings is noteworthy for the solid research on which it is based and thus lives up to the particular responsibility demanded by this topic. His work demonstrates a marked sensitivity towards the history of the Shoah in general.

Therefore, I ordered a complete edition of Kroke’s illustration panels for the Etty Hillesum Research Centre at the University of Ghent and translated his annotations to the illustrations into Dutch. Since then, his work is displayed as part of a permanent exhibition at our Institute. In November 2010, I invited Kroke to present his illustrations to a wider public at an international Etty Hillesum Conference in Middelburg, Etty Hillesum’s place of birth. His lecture received much appreciation from the conference participants, and demonstrated his passion and skill as an artist, as well as his precision as a researcher.

The publication of Kroke’s artwork in The Spider and its Web is a significant contribution to the sharing of Etty Hillesum’s writings with future generations and the upholding of her spiritual legacy. Kroke’s work also fosters reflection on the question of how we can work towards the peaceful coexistence of people from different cultural, religious, political or ethnic backgrounds. In so doing, he illuminates Hillesum’s fundamental view on the “dark powers” in each of us – an aspect of the human condition she repeatedly urges us to remember, particularly during those times when we are faced with injustice done by others.”