My Friend Etty and Our Friend God


Etty Hillesum 1914-1943

Today I finished reading a book which has profoundly affected my soul, my very spirit.  I may devote some of my blog space to thoughts on her writing over the next few weeks.  Here is the first of my musing.  

“We left the camp singing…”

These were the last written words of Etty Hillesum on her way from Westerbork to Auschwitz in the fall of 1943.  That I may sing on the way to my death would be life’s greatest accomplishment and could only be achieved with a great knowing and peace of the love of God.  Etty was a well educated, 27 year old Dutch Jew in Amsterdam and her story begins in 1942 in her small flat where she tutors Russian and enjoys the company of friends.  Her journals and letters reveal her dealing with finding God in the midst of growing struggle.

Somehow the way I am feel this morning about Etty, as I finish reading her diaries and letters, is how I imagine my Creator must feel about each of us as we suffer the trials and live the challenges of life.  God knows the end from the beginning[1] yet he still laughs with our laughter and weeps with our weeping.

It seems I have been reading Etty Hillesum’s,  An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork[2] all summer.  That may be partly due to my habit of slow reading but I think it has more to do with me not wanting to let go of this young woman who I felt such friendship for.  You see from the beginning of the book I knew her end.  I struggled to finish the last few letters over two weeks because I did not want to see her, feel her, enter that train and move toward her death.

God knows from our beginning where we will end, just as I did with Etty and I, with much reserve, dare to say this gives me some insight into God’s deep love for each of us.   God wrote the end first, but still loves us, and struggles with us through the life set before us.  His purpose is higher than ours and we cannot see the end, perhaps with good reason.  For me it is hard to see the purpose in such loss, such suffering, but if it is like the suffering of Christ, then it is I who gain from it.  I gained much from the short account of Etty’s last two years of life and so if there be any good from the evil of the holocaust, I have found some for myself.  While that doesn’t seem like enough purpose for her suffering I cannot measure with the creator’s gage.

From the first lines I marked on page nine of the book, I was caught in Etty’s life and felt we had some invisible link through the years.  I so identified with her struggle to find words to support the feelings she had.  Etty said, “At times I can suddenly see a subject clearly and distinctly, think my way through it, great sweeping thoughts that I can scarcely grasp but which all at once give me an intense feeling of importance.  Yet when I try to write them down they shrivel into nothing, and that’s why I lack courage to commit them to paper – in case I become too disillusioned with the fatuous little essay that emerges. “

She died nine years before I was born but I feel I have known her.   I have known her little desk she loved so much.  I have walked the cobble stone streets of her life and through the mud with her at Westerbork.  I have loved the sight of the geranium in the window and of the lupine in the field.  I can feel the cold air on her hand as she slipped that last postcard through the boards of the train as it left Holland.

I too have known great loss and questioned God.  I have seen great miracles in the everyday of life.  I have begun to understand the vanity of “things” and seek to let go of what I can, sorting through life’s treasures, so the only ones I will carry are those which are eternal.

Etty says, “I know for certain: I shall never be able to put down in writing what life itself has spelled out for me in living letters.  I have read it all, with my own eyes and felt it with many senses.[3]

As I move forward in my studies to take on the role of a spiritual director I cannot help but feel less and less able to offer wisdom and courage to those who may seek my support.  Each line I read in the books which cross my desk reminds me of how very inept I am at reaching into souls with words that might offer the serenity of God.

Etty’s description of our duty in life gives me some hope I may be able to carry out this task.  She says, “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.”

As I journey forward it is my prayer that I will continue to reclaim peace in myself and reflect it toward others.
[1] Isaiah 46:1021st Century King James Version (KJ21) 10 …”declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done…)
 [2] Hillesum, Etty; An interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, with a foreword by Eva Hoffman, Holt Paperbacks, New York 1996
[3] Page 210 par. 1


About Peggy Guiler

You just never know what show up on my blog. As the name implies it is about the stuff of life just like Spilt Milk. Everyday events spark thought and contemplation. Special events in the community, the country or the world may strike a cord and get me talking. Sometimes it's about people in my life or circumstances, sometimes about my garden, sometimes about a book or a political issue. Always it's about something I am passionate about. In my business, River of Hope Enterprises (, I work as an "Certified Coach" (International Coach Federation), a trainer, consultant and speaker. and as a spiritual director. I also drive a school bus to keep the wolf from the door while I build my business. I love the kids on the bus (most of the time). My family is grown and I have three grandkids who thrill my heart but I don't get to see any of them very often. Circumstances of life have made "family" difficult. My son died by suicide at age 16 in 2000 and the strain on our family relationships since has been huge. Mental health is a field where I worked for almost 22 years and where I still do some consulting and training. That combined with my own battle with depression and my son's death weave together to form some of my greatest soap box items: suicide intervention, suicide bereavement and peer support in mental health are right on the top of my list. Social justice is an underlying passion. Keeping the wolf from the door as a single parent was full-time work and my career path as a journalists was augmented with cleaning contracts, cooking, retail clerk, and bartending. I have known hard work and am grateful for the experience and perspective it has given me. A firmly grounded faith and a passion for learning has now taken me toward a new field as a Spiritual Director and I am soon adding to that a license to marry people. As I move toward retirement I am very aware that I have to keep working so I chose to do things which will meet my modest financial needs and also my love of supporting people in their life journey. Woven into all of this is my love of writing. Trained as a Journalist, and having worked in the field as a freelance news writer for many years, I have a great love for writing. This blog is a new beginning for me. As I hone my skills and begin to form a daily discipline of writing I hope it will lead to more writing in the future.
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2 Responses to My Friend Etty and Our Friend God

  1. maddy says:

    We are all inept in our support of others Peggy, but I think you are less inept than most of us, and I hope you find that peace.

  2. Anonymous says:

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