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The sign on the stone

Etty Hillesum and that book of life offered "to those who are not able personally to read»

Teenager, fragile, insecure and sickly, this is Etty Hillesum in the opening pages of her diary, a personality that looks for but does not find herself, forced to deal with her existential and historical reality that, looming up, dominates her and threatens to engulf her. This slight creature, who will remain such until the end of life, becomes a complete woman who faces the dark moments of Nazi human squalor. How was she able to change? What is her path as a woman? Are there clues in the Diary making it possible to detect this journey, which is both obscure and flowering? In my opinion, yes, there are.

The meeting with the chiropractor Julius Spier marks a turning point for the comprehension of the self of  the young woman and indicates to her a practicable path that, on reflection, settled in her mind but did not find the expressive outlet: writing. An exercise and a gift, completely feminine, which reveals different facets: cathartic, creative, reflective, of the retreat into one’s consciousness. Always, however, in openness and a growing dialogue, assisting also the dialogue with the Other that Etty calls God: not in a confessional sense that is completely foreign to her, not in an ethical sense, but in a purely human one which touches that ground common to all beings that have entered into historical existence.

A cathartic step is enlightening: "Come on, then! It is a painful moment, almost insurmountable: I must entrust my repressed soul to a stupid sheet of lined paper. Sometimes the thoughts are so clear and transparent in my head, the feelings so deep, yet I cannot put them into writing. It must be above all the shame. I feel very awkward; I do not have the courage to show things letting them flow freely out of me. But it will also be necessary, if I want to direct my life to a reasonable and satisfactory end "(Diary 1941-1942, edition edited by Klaas AD Smelik, Adelphi, 2012, p. 31).

An inhibitor block, located in the profoundest depths, that precisely hand written paper with her writing will dissolve. "From an intellectual point of view I am so trained as to be able to evaluate and express everything with clear formulas. When it is a matter of life's problems, I can often seem like a superior person, and yet within, I feel caught in a tangled ball, and despite all my clarity of thought sometimes I am nothing more than a poor little woman full of fear '( p. 4).

The pages that follow are not written under the inspiration of a dazzling creative impetus, but are a distillate of tiring introspection and an even more exhausting delivery to words and paper. "I must take care to keep in touch with this notebook, that is to say with myself: otherwise it could go wrong, I could lose myself in every moment, even now I feel a bit like this, but maybe it's just fatigue" (p. 82).

The note book becomes one with herself that unfolds in history and allows her to move from one phase of her life to another, more mature, more aware one: a combination of construction and draught. From the bottom you can see the bubbling back to the surface of what bubbles up and emerges. "I still cannot write. I want to write about the reality that lies behind things, but this is still out of my reach. The only thing that really interests me is the atmosphere, you could say the "soul", but the essence still eludes me (...) if you refer directly to the so-called soul, then everything becomes too vague, too amorphous."(pp. . 127-128).

The plot is deep, inescapable: history that is manifested in events, in things, and spirit that pulsates in search of what sustains all, the soul understood as the vibration which is woven within everything and gives it all meaning. Etty seems very close to her Jewish ancestors when they left their mark of an event on stone and handed it on to the great chain of generations. The young woman is a sculptress of words and a sculptress of herself, an expert in the art of removing, rich in ways that gradually dismantling, make the masterpiece leap to the foreground. "Undoubtedly I must begin to model small figures in the large block of uncut granite that I carry inside myself, otherwise in the long run I will be crushed by it. If I do not search for and find my congenial style, I'll wander in the darkness and chaos, it is something that even now I feel is a high risk "(p. 128).

Paradoxically, removing, prying off with a blunt chisel, carving a wound in the stone, gives life and brings to light that book of life that she wants to offer "to those who are not able to read personally." She certainly knows how to read, a gift granted to her by God, but she is still doubtful about the other gift: "Would you grant me also that of being able to write?" (P. 790).

Etty is passing from adolescence to a mature and self-confident woman with suffering that is maturing her, both in her thought, and in her writing - that is gradually becoming more and more transparent - and, above all, in everyday wisdom. She understands that suffering should not be avoided "where it imposes itself on us, we should not try to avoid it. It imposes itself on us at every step, and yet life is beautiful. It is a point of arrival, because there has been an intermediate stage. "You suffer more playing hide and seek with pain and cursing it. Of course I thought about all this in a very different way "(p. 281). Gripping onto reality, now led by a chisel that knows how to strike only in the right place without destroying the stone.

Slowly, the sculpture of the person takes concrete form; it does not exist only in the mind. The commitment is constant, relentless in analysis, constructive in the apparent destruction and elimination. What is the foundation? "In recent times, very slowly, a great assurance is growing in me, a really great assurance. A feeling safe in your hand, my God, I do not happen so often to feel separated from the deep current hidden within me. And when I am passionate and euphoric it is not a forced or foolish feeling, but it is based on the certainty with regard to the existence of that current. And I'm not even more banging up constantly against the sharp angles of the day anymore."(p. 299).

The girl who could not handle passions, feelings, eccentricities, and who lived at full speed, now is a woman who holds on to herself and, therefore, holds on to history, which gives her checkmate, defeating with her secure weakness the devastating fury of Nazism and the Holocaust. "God, I thank you for the great strength you give me: the inner core from which my life is controlled is becoming stronger and more cardinal. The many conflicting impressions that come from outside harmonise now, in a wonderful way, with each other. The inner space is able to accommodate more and more, and the many contradictions do not take life away from one another, and do not hinder each other. (...) I dare say with some conviction: in my inner realm peace dominates because it is ruled by a powerful central authority "(p. 335).

Moments of discouragement are not lacking for this woman who sees herself as a little woman, burdened by the strain of hardships in her consumption of herself in the service of others; hardships which are however soon overcome by interior anchorage. Every type of dreariness seemed to surround her, envelop her and crush her “when the light within you has been extinguished, or, to put it boldly, when God has for a moment abandoned you." A situation of human misery, of dereliction that strikes you and causes suffering, which, however, is followed by "an unexpected interior impetus", and the bodily gesture of kneeling down in the deep night in the middle of the room transfigures reality. "On awakening to the grey morning it was no longer a piece of paper, but it had regained its usual spaciousness" (p. 325). Then "all blocked channels are opened again and they pour out into the great Ocean."

There are unified in Etty, making her more and more mature as a woman, two strained relations that inhabited her and caused her distress and self-doubt: "The artificial distinction between study and "real life"." Now she finds herself harmonized "Now I am really “living” behind my desk. Study has become a "real" experience of life and is no longer just something that concerns the mind. At my desk I'm completely immersed in life, and I transport into "real life" inner peace and the balance that I have conquered within my heart".(p. 336).

When the young woman still allowed herself to be transported by the waves of adolescence and the desk had become an excuse for not facing reality, "because the many impressions puzzled me and made me unhappy," there was only one solution: "take refuge in a quiet room." A moment of anesthesia, of unreal detachment, which then reverberated with an even greater force of bitterness upon her whole person: body and spirit, mind, and the relating self.

The chisel, digging and removing splinters of stone, led her to discover the originality of  creation: "Now this “quiet room” inside of me, so to speak, I always carry with me, and I can withdraw myself into it at any moment, whether I find myself in a tram full of people or in the midst of the confusion in the city" (p. 233). From this place all her female compassion can break out and spread out over the crudeness and evil as a peaceful and healing gift.

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