Part II: Williams on Two Eccentric Female Philosophers, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum

The second eccentric “outsider” Williams discusses is Etty Hillesum, who, like Simone Weil, was also of Jewish origins.  Hillesum grew up in Holland and during the German invasions was arrested and eventually died at Auschwitz.   Like Simone Weil, her family was secular; yet unlike Weil, she had a wild youth, which she describes in detail in her wonderful diaries.  Williams, having read some of her diary entries, describes her as “full-blooded.”  Increasingly, however, she felt unsettled by a certain lack in her intellectual and emotional life.  As has sometimes happened with other famous figures who have endured grave suffering, during the most severe period of Gestapo activity in Amsterdam, Hillesum begins to discover God.  She already had an interest in religion, and reads, for example, Augustine and Dostoevsky.  However, she comes to realize that simply reading about them and nothing more is not sufficient.

In Hillesum’s case something more, something that she didn’t quite understand was happening to her, and she describes in her diary a new desire to kneel.  This is significant for her own story, because she describes herself as having been one who would never kneel.  But now she felt that the most appropriate response to whatever it was that happening to her was to kneel.  She wasn’t sure to whom she was kneeling, yet it was something she was compelled to do.  As Williams explains, “she sensed that there was something that had such a claim on her that she had to express with her whole body what that claim is. Actually, the fact that she had been a very sexually active young woman and had thought a great deal about the body, she felt that she had to use her body to express her faith.”

Hillesum reads from her own Jewish tradition and from the Christian tradition, and she senses increasingly that something or someone has a claim on her life.  After her arrest and while waiting to be deported, she writes that she has come to realize that in this world someone has to take responsibility for God.  “That is, someone in the middle of the horrors of the Gestapo destruction in Holland-somebody has to live as thought the Gestapo was not controlling the universe.  Somebody has to live as though things are just different, and she says that someone unfortunately seems to be me” (rough quote of Williams’ commentary).  So Hillesum becomes burdened with the idea of taking responsibility for God-that is, living in such a way that God becomes credible.  And that is precisely how she lived in the deportation camp and at Auschwitz.   In some of her last diary pages which were crumpled up and thrown out of the train, she writes, “and we left the camp singing.”  Williams’ then highlights the notion of “making oneself a sign of God in a godless world.”  Then he adds, “you can see that that is about your body, not just about what you say but putting your whole self on the line, as when you kneel down you are expressing a wholeness in response to God.” Thus, even in the midst of something as horrible as Auschwitz, one can by becoming a sign of God “make God real.”  This recalls what Williams said in his first lecture about Nyssa and prayer and reconciliation.  It also sits well with the 17th century idea of “landing where you are” (discussed in his second lecture).  Williams sees Etty Hillesum as “a powerful and unconventional 20th century version” of just such a landing.  Sadly, she died at the very young age of 27 at Auschwitz.  Like Weil, Hillesum was never baptized and no one is quite sure where she stood at the end of her life with regard to the Christian faith.    Nonetheless, in the last years of her life, she lived the Gospel in a way that would perhaps put most modern, Western Christians to shame.  Interestingly, among the people whom she met at Westerbork, which was the holding camp which people were sent before being shipped to Auschwitz, were two Jewish, Carmelite nuns both members of St. Theresa’s reformed Carmelite order.  One of these nuns was the great Edith Stein, who was of course one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century.  Stein also died in Auschwitz because she refused to separate herself as a Catholic from her Jewish brothers and sisters.

These are Williams’ “outsiders,” all of which, as he says, are “challenging, quirky, strange figures.”  Before transitioning to discuss the monks, Williams ends with a great line and an image that has made me smile for several days:  “I sometimes fantasize about that particular corner in heaven where 20th century, Jewish, women philosophers get together.  Simone Weil, Etty Hillesum, Edith Stein, Gillian Rose, Rosa Luxemburg, and Hannah Arendt.  And my goodness that would be a hard place to eavesdrop.”

4 thoughts on “Part II: Williams on Two Eccentric Female Philosophers, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum”

  1. Hey Cynthia,

    These two posts are very appropriate for Holocaust remembrance day, which I think was just this past Monday. I think I’ll be drawing from some Hillesum’s diaries for a term paper, so thanks for introducing me to her. I appreciate Hillesum’s point that it is with our bodies that we make ourselves signs of God in a godless world and ‘make God real’, or experienceable. In its own distinct way, the point seems to resemble Romans 12:1,2. Hillesum’s life certainly illumines Paul’s exhortation to present our bodies as living sacrifices.

    Take care,


  2. Hi Mel,

    Thanks for dropping by! I too want to dig in to Hillesum’s diaries. I really enjoyed the way that Williams brought these two figures into dialogue with the Christian tradition. There is so much that we can learn from them.

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi Cynthia,
    I really enjoyed these last two posts about two lesser-known thinkers who suffered into truth. Best wishes.

  4. I also recommend Rachel Brenner’s Writing as Resistance (University Park: Penn State Press, 1997). She looks at four women confronting the holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, and Etty Hillesum.

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