The Paris Review

Feminize Your Canon: Etty Hillesum

Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.

Etty Hillesum (Photo courtesy of the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, Middelburg, the Netherlands)

In 1942, the year before she died in Auschwitz at age twenty-nine, the Dutch diarist and mystic Etty Hillesum wrote: “I have the feeling that my life is not yet finished, that it is not yet a rounded whole. A book, and what a book, in which I have got stuck halfway. I would so much like to read on.” She was in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and had decided to stay, voluntarily, at the Dutch transit camp Westerbork as a “social welfare” representative of the Jewish Council—Joodse Raad—that had been set up to mediate between Jewish citizens and the Germans. Unlike some, Hillesum didn’t expect her association with the council to save her, and she harbored no illusions about the tragedy engulfing Europe. What the Nazis wanted, she realized, was “our total destruction.” Still, she had hopes of coming through the war alive. She longed to channel her prodigious literary talent into writing Dostoyevskian novels, as well as documenting the history she witnessed. “I shall wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer,” she declared, “and my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat the story of our fate.”

Hillesum’s overriding impulse was not self-preservation but to share the fate of

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