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A portrait of Etty Hillesum, circa 1939.

Nov. 30 marks 75 years since the murder of Esther “Etty” Hillesum.

If you can’t place the name, read on. She’s well worth getting to know.

With the gunshots at the Pittsburgh synagogue still ringing, today seems appropriate for introductions.

Etty Hillesum died at Auschwitz in 1943. She left behind a collection of her thoughts and letters. Today, she’s regarded as a spiritual giant who, for years, has been hiding in plain sight.

Czarek Sokolowski, Associated Press
Visitors from around the world passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei "Work Sets You Free" sign over the main gate at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, just hours before solemn ceremonies to mark 65 years since the camp was liberated by the Red Army. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

As a young Dutch woman, Etty cloaked herself in the Russian classics and the Bible. Her home life was turbulent and unbearable. Her later years were even more so. And yet, to the end, she was able to draw from a deep well of serenity and compassion.

Her ability to show grace amid unthinkable cruelty leaves us shaking our heads.

Some have said the main role of religion is to help us understand suffering.

Others say religion’s role is to teach us to transcend suffering, to use it as a springboard into the sacred.

Etty Hillesum is in the latter camp.

Her journals and letters depict someone who has overcome the world. And since she’s better at explaining the workings of her heart than I am, let me quote a few lines lifted from “An Interrupted Life,” a collection published after her death.

I offer only a taste.

The book itself is a banquet.

On prayer:

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.

On enduring:

We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.

On evil:

Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.

On attitude:

As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more the good things of life become unexpected gifts that we accept with gratitude.

2 comments on this story

In October 1943, Etty Hillesum was put on a train for Auschwitz. She was 29. In a final gesture, she jotted some thoughts on a postcard and hurled it from the window of the train. The card fell into an open field where two farmers would later find it. She surely thought those words were lost forever. Instead, they are discovered daily by readers around the world.

Her last written words were these:

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. We left the camp singing.

Thank you for all your kindness and care.