Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church; Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, speaks at Morning Prayers on Jan. 27, 2020. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
A reading from the letters of Etty Hillesum, September 7, 1943.
Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower.’ I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing, Father and Mother firmly and calmly, Mischa, too. We shall be travelling for three days. Thank you for all your kindness and care. Friends left behind will still be writing to Amsterdam; perhaps you will hear something from them. Or from my last letter from camp.
Goodbye for now from the four of us.
Etty Hillesum was the author of an extraordinary journal in which she recorded both the terrors of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and her own deepening spiritual life. She wrote the letter I’ve just read on a postcard and threw it out the window of the freight train that took her and her family to Auschwitz. The card was found by some farmers and posted eight days after she wrote it. Etty Hillesum was a person of tremendous energy and creativity, alive to the world around her and within her, to whom others were drawn in love and friendship, around whom community took shape. She was the kind of person the world needs in every age, in every time and place. She died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943 at the age of 29.
Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp where Etty Hillesum was murdered, along with more than a million others. Today is a day to remember the past and mourn the incalculable losses inflicted on our world by the Nazi regime—but also a day to take stock of the present. We are living in a time of rising violence against Jewish communities—the Tree of Life synagogue and the attack on the rabbi’s house in Monsey, New York being only the most well-known of a startling number of such acts over the last few years.
I think we’ve all wondered at some point how we would have responded in times like Etty Hillesum’s. Would we have resisted the destruction of norms and the rising violence of fascism then? Are we resisting now? What is the distance between where they were and where we are, as violence against Jewish communities increases, and neo-Nazis march in our cities, and students with visas get turned away from our country at the airport and sent back where they came from with no explanation? One of the most haunting lines in Etty Hillesum’s postcard is this: “in the end, the departure came without warning.” The terrors of history often happen suddenly, or they seem to—but it’s probably more accurate to say that they happen out of public view for a while, affecting the most vulnerable, and then they escalate.
The historian of authoritarian regimes, Timothy Snyder, worries that Americans have seen liberal democracy as our inevitable future for so long that we are unprepared to respond to the possibility of an authoritarian future. It’s not enough to believe that all will be well, he insists. We have to practice shaping the society we want and resisting the kind of society we do not.
Some of the practices Snyder recommends are grounded in the public sphere: defend institutions, be active in voluntary organizations, don’t obey in advance. Other practices of resistance are grounded in private life. For example, he urges us to make eye contact and small talk with the people we encounter in the course of our daily lives. Because in all the places where tyranny has emerged, he notes, what the people who survived remember years later is how their neighbors treated them. When people under threat saw their neighbors averting their eyes or crossing the street to avoid meeting, they felt more afraid. And with good reason—because someone who is isolated in society is easier for an authoritarian regime to harm than someone who is known and seen and held in community.
Hannan Arendt taught that tyranny is marked by the destruction of the boundaries between public and private life—making the cultivation of a robust private life an act of resistance and a source of our ability to act in the public sphere. Snyder urges us to go places we have never been before, make new friends, and enlarge our community; to resist expressing ourselves with the slogans and phrases that everyone else is using, even those with whom we agree, and to cultivate fresh ways of saying what we mean. Read fiction, read the Bible, read history, he says, and think with them about the world in which we’re living. Be as courageous as you can.
These are spiritual practices, grounded in attention to what is happening around us and inside us. As Etty Hillesum’s own life shows, a rich inner life combined with life in community can help us keep connected to our convictions. Simply understanding ourselves to believe one thing or another will almost certainly not be enough to stay true to those beliefs. We need communities in which to practice keeping our commitments alive and accessible.
A university could be such a community. A church, too. Etty Hillesum flung her postcard from the train to Auschwitz like a message in a bottle; to be able to read it today, in 2020, is a blessing and a challenge. Let’s look around, as she did, to find others with whom to practice being the people, and the society, we hope to become.