Last week, I was at an extraordinary evening to mark Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. The evening was organized by four women — one German, two Jewish Israeli and one Palestinian — in the spirit of Etty Hillesum, whose letters and diary of the last two years of her life are a remarkable testament of faith that Divine expression can be found in every human being. Hers is the story of how an assimilated young Jewish woman, self-aware from the start, but also self-absorbed, reached the ultimate heights of spirituality and interconnectedness, in the face of the most horrific expressions of evil. Etty died in Auschwitz at age 29 an enlightened soul.
I read Etty’s diary one Yom Kippur several years ago and was stunned by her incredible strength and wisdom. I read straight through until the end, unable to stop turning the pages until there was no more left to read. Her writing stops suddenly as her story as a physical presence in this world ended brutally, like millions of others in her time and place. But I had no doubt this woman’s words had already changed my life and had the potential to change the world.
Here is but a taste: “But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”
So when I saw the invitation to last week’s event, with quotes from Etty’s diary and letters, I knew I had to go — even though it meant driving back and forth to Jerusalem in one evening from Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live in the Galilee. And it seems I was not the only one. People attended the event from north, south and many places in between. It was an intimate gathering, of maybe 100 people, all gathered around a centerpiece on the floor of flowers and unlit candles. I wondered who would light those candles and when.
Throughout the course of the evening, we heard stories. First the organizers shared their Holocaust narratives. After each woman spoke, she lit a candle.
Michal Talya spoke of her father, who was a Holocaust survivor; his family was killed in the Shoah, and he was saved by being hidden by a Christian family. She said she grew up with the constant notion that the world was separated between “US” and “THEM.” And that it was not until she read Etty Hillesum’s diary that she understood that a message of universal love and unity could also be a result of the Shoah.
Maria-Christina Eggers, shared how being a German who works for peace has been a challenge, how people snub her because of her German nationality, how they blame her for what the Nazis did, even though she was personally not involved. Her father was a German soldier, although he himself did not work in the camps. She spoke of the Shoah as a wound in German society, a burden Germans carry generations after the Shoah. She personally has dedicated her life’s work to learning the lessons of the Shoah and spreading the message Etty discovered in the depths of human suffering and atrocities: the message that what matters more than anything is that the God is found in each and every one of us.
Dina Awwad-Srour, a Palestinian woman who is married to an Arab Israeli and lives with him and their son inside of Israel, spoke about what it is like for a Palestinian to live in Israel. She told of how the Shoah is for Palestinians inevitably wrapped up in their own suffering, as it is seen as the cause of the Nakbah. “We know that it is because of the Holocaust that we suffer,” she said. At age 27, the same age Etty began writing her diary, Dina read Etty’s diary and became an “Etty-ist”, as she calls herself. She understood that the only way the Shoah can become a source of healing instead of more suffering is if we heed Etty’s words — what she calls “Etty-ism”.
Dina went to Auschwitz to visit the place of Etty’s death, a trip that was a turning point in her life. This trip helped her understand that there is truly suffering on both sides of the conflict. Now, when she is at a checkpoint, she tries to remember that the soldier interrogating her is a human being who also suffers. “It is hard work not to hate, but I do this work every day.” But she also knows that real change will only come if the work is being done by masses on both sides of the conflict.
Then we sat in smaller circles and shared our own Shoah Stories. In my circle were: a young Israeli Jewish woman who said she had been having visions of herself in a past life suffering in the Shoah and who came across an invitation to the evening and felt drawn to it immediately; a middle-aged Jewish Israeli man who lives in the Occupied Territories and said he came to the event to help open himself up to trusting “others”; and a woman who grew up in the U.S. and talked about how being married to a man whose father is a survivor has affected her.
Like this woman, I too grew up in the U.S. and had a Holocaust-obsession as a child, devouring books like the Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Weisel’s Night. That is one reason, I assume, I moved to Israel at age 27. But I came to this evening out of a more recent desire to deepen and broaden my own lessons from the Shoah to a more “Etty-like” vision of hope and interconnectedness.
After the sharing circles, we listened to more quotes from Etty’s diary, and sang. Dafna Rosenberg, a musician from Karkur who plays for the Jewish Renewal Community, Navah Tehillah, in Jerusalem, sang a song she composed to the words of Manal Khariv:
“Between darkness and light, I will always walk
And wherever I will go
I will open a window of light
And plant the seeds of love.”
Diane Kaplan, a musician from the Galilee, sang a moving melody to these words of Etty’s:
“Wherever you happen to find yourself
be there, be there.
With your whole heart
be there with your whole heart.”
At the end of the evening, we were each asked to light a candle and share a word or two about how the evening had affected us. One Palestinian man knelt down to light a candle, and spoke in Arabic with simultaneous translation. He talked about how he too visited Auschwitz, and how it changed his outlook entirely. Now when the siren sounds on Yom HaShoah, he stands, as a human being dedicating a moment of silence to feel the pain of all human beings — even though he is usually the only one doing so in his surroundings. He feels the only hope for the situation in Israel is for us all to open our hearts to one another’s pain so we can live together in peace. When he sees a Jewish Israeli on a bus who is clearly afraid of him because he is an Arab, he wants to give to that Jew the gift of unburdening him or herself of that fear, that pain.
The general theme of the evening was that until the Shoah is met fully, head-on, together, by Germans, Israelis, and Palestinians, until this issue is explored at its depths in this interconnected triangle of pain, the conflict will go on. Like Etty Hillesum’s words, meetings such as the one I participated in last week have the potential to change the world. The question we all left with that night was: Will enough people have the courage to attempt to heal this wound from which we all suffer — together? Dina herself asked the question aloud: Will evenings like this have any effect for change? Will this message ripple out into the general society?
As Etty herself wrote: “Do not relive your feelings through hatred, do not seek to be avenged on all German mothers, for they, too, sorrow at this very moment for their slain and murdered sons. Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge – from which new sorrows will be born for others — then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply. And if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.”
As we left, we were asked to pick a card from a selection on the floor. “Etty Cards” with quotes from Etty’s diary in three languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic — that the organizers had created themselves. The cards were face down, so we could not see what we were choosing. Mine said: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others.”