During the second world war there was a relatively unknown diarist called Etty Hillesum who had a unique and beautiful style of writing. She spent a great deal of time in the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork where she suffered with her fellow Jews and had to watch train after train full of human beings , including babies, women, the elderly, sick and infirm, get sent to Auschwitz and an "unknown destiny". Etty was also a deeply spiritual person and this love of religion colours her writing and elevates her soul in order that she can cope with what she sees. I found a tragic yet beautiful passage as I was reading her letters the other day and I found the part where she talks about the entrance of some Catholic-Jewish religious in Westerbork. She tells how "There was a remarkable day when the Jewish-Catholics or Catholic-Jews arrived, nuns and priests wearing the yellow stars on their habit."* She describes how one priest had not been out of the monastery for fifteen years "yet his gaze remained unwavering and friendly above the brown habit, as if everything was known, familiar, from long ago"*
Etty had no reason to write this way, most of the people she was writing to had no interest in the Catholic clergy. There is no bias in what she writes yet she is able to convey a beautiful serenity. I think we know it, I think she recognised it as the serenity of grace. Grace in a place where, as you can read in the rest of Etty's letters human suffering is abundant and devastating. Yet together human beings went on , whether Catholic or not just hoping and trying to bear what was happening. She continues that a man tells her:
"he saw some priests walking one behind the other in the dusk between two barracks. They were saying their rosaries as imperturbably as if they had just finished vespers at the monastery"*
I love this idea because it is proof that faith does not die when the sense of humanity in those around you does. People may be persecuting you, may be harming and destroying life all around you but you do not give up. You hold on and Etty asks in her beautiful mystical way :
"And isn't it true one can pray anywhere?"*
This I will try to remember next time I feel that internal call to prayer but tell myself I will pray later when I am less stressed, distracted or busy. Surely these people must be our models for prayer.
Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30th 1943 aged 27. She was proudly Jewish and in the course of the last years of her short life had become a proud lover of God. She took her Talmud and Bible to Auschwitz with her.
*All quotations were taken from Letters from Westerbork, Etty Hillesum, Grafton Books, Uk 1987