Rachel Feldhay Brenner's Writing as Resistance: Four Women of the Holocaust is a work which evokes the question of the meaning of the self as asked-and answered- by the life and death of Anne Frank, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, and Etty Hillesum, in the context of the inhumane, utterly destructive event of the Holocaust.
The Self in Relatedness
Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, Edith Stein, Simone Weil
by Dolores E. Brien
Rachel Feldhay Brenner's Writing as Resistance: Four Women of the Holocaust (1) is a work which evokes the question of the meaning of the self as asked-and answered- by the life and death of Anne Frank, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, and Etty Hillesum, in the context of the inhumane, utterly destructive event of the Holocaust. While their innermost lives remains ultimately an unfathomable mystery, what we know of Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil and Edith Stein seem to reveal the development of the individual self as it strives for what both Hillesum and Stein-as well as Jung- called "wholeness." They experienced that such wholeness or totality of self could only occur through a consciousness that enlarges to that of the greater consciousness. "When a summit of life is reached, when the bud unfolds from the lesser the greater emerges."
"The self," Jung wrote, "is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of the conscious mind." The self can be described as the archetypal unifying principle of the fully realized and integrated individual personality. Without positing the existence or nature of God (which he claimed was outside the boundaries of psychology), Jung spoke of this self as a God-image because it is a transcendent symbol of totality. It is only in this totality that the fulfillment of the individual personality is truly realized.
In his seminar on Nietzsche's Zarathustra Jung also said, "The self is relatedness." "Only when the self mirrors itself in so many mirrors does it really exist. . . You can never come to your self by building a meditation hut on top of Mount Everest; you will only be visited by your own ghosts and that is not individuation. . . .Not that you are, but that you do is the self [My italics].The self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationships." (January 29, 1936, p. 795) At least two other times during these seminars Jung used the symbol of Mt Everest to make the same point: that individuation, because it is a process of differentiation, requires relationship. "One only can individuate with or against something or somebody."(Nietzsche seminar, June 13, 1934, p. 102.)
The self, Jung seems to be saying, exists only by being reflected in the reflections given off by others; the self, therefore, has no existence in and of itself. Secondly, since the self cannot be realized in and of itself, it can be said to exist in only in what it does. There is no self without others and no self without action and since we cannot act in a void, it implies connection in some way with others. A few days earlier on January 22, 1936, he had also said "No individual can boast of having the self: there is only the self that can boast of having many individuals." The self is distinct from, "does not coincide with" the ego. "Also, it is not this individual, but a connection of individuals. So one could say the self was the one thing, yet it is the many."
In the case of these four women, the unfolding of the true self did not occur in the safety of the analytic room, but in conditions intended to strip the self of every vestige by which it could define itself as a "self."
Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, Edith Stein, Simone Weil
Thirteen at the time she began her diary, Anne Frank writes of the more than two years she and her family, together with another family and a family friend, spent in hiding from the Gestapo. In it she describes vividly what it was like living in the "Secret Annex" under conditions of confinement, increasing physical hardship and with the ever present fear of being discovered. But the diary is even more astonishing in its record of Anne's personal growth, despite her worst premonitions of ultimate destruction, from a bright, sassy child, sharply observant of human foibles into a loving, compassionate individual. As they had feared, their hideout was discovered and they were transported to the concentration camps. Along with her sister Margot, Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen of starvation and typhus just one month before the liberation. She was not yet sixteen.
A fellow classmate with Simone de Beauvoir at the Sorbonne, Simone Weil taught philosophy in secondary schools in France, but spent much of that time, organizing unemployed workers. She eventually quit teaching and for a year worked as an unskilled laborer in a French factory until poor health forced her to quit. She later went to Spain to fight at the side of the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. In 1942 she fled with her parents from France to America to escape the fate of the Jews in Europe but only after being promised that she could then to go England to join the Free Forces organized by DeGaulle. Although a Jew by birth, Weil considered herself to be a Christian. In her "Spiritual Autobiography," she reveals that she always thought of herself as a Christian and that she had a mystical relationship with Christ. She refused, however, to be baptized into the Catholic Church for to accept its dogmas would be an affront to her intellectual integrity. She died at the age of 34 in London, of tuberculosis exacerbated by her self-destructive determination not to eat anything more than what was available to those who suffered under the Nazis occupation in Paris. She is widely recognized today as an important radical political and philosophic thinker.
Edith Stein was a student of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. After receiving her doctorate, she converted to Catholicism and in 1936 become a Carmelite nun under the name Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued her scholarly work in Cologne for five years until, in fear for her safety, her community had her transferred to the Carmelite Convent in Echt, Holland. But in 1942 she and her sister Rosa (who had also become a Catholic) were arrested and sent to the transfer camp of Westerbork and from there to Auschwitz were both perished. As they were taken away from the convent, she is reported to have encouraged her sister with the words: "Come, Rosa. We go for our people." She died at the age of fifty in Auschwitz the year before Hillesum was transferred there.
We know little of Etty Hillesum beyond what she reveals in her diary and her letters gathered together in An Interrupted Life,(2) first published in English more than forty years after her death and from the introduction and notes provided by the editor Jan G. Gaarlandt. Born in 1914 in The Netherlands, she took a law degree at the University of Amsterdam and then enrolled in the Faculty of Slavonic Languages. From her diary we know that she was studying Russian, translating Dostoevsky's The Idiot and earning some money by tutoring in Russian. She lived in the home of a widower, Han Wegerif, his 21 year old son Hans, and other boarders. Originally having been invited by the elder Wegerif to live there as a housekeeper, she soon became his mistress.
Hillesum began her diary in March 1941 just after she had begun analysis with Julius Spier, a German Jew, who had studied with Jung in Zurich. Spier was also the founder of psychochirology, the study and classification of palm prints. (Jung wrote an introduction to his book, The Hands of Children). Spier was not only her analyst, but her spiritual mentor and eventually her lover.
In July 1942 Hillesum volunteered to be deported to Camp Westerbork. Originally built for some 1500 Jewish refugees from who fled Germany before the war, now thirty to forty thousand Jews were kept at Westerbork awaiting their final destination, death in the concentration camps. At Westerbork she worked in the hospital. As an employee of the Jewish Council she was also sent back to Amsterdam on business for the Council some dozen times. She used these occasions to deliver messages and to pick up whatever supplies she could for her fellow inmates. Her last diary entries are dated October 8 and 9. The last sentence reads: "We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds." She died in Auschwitz November 30, 1943.
Self-Actualization through resistance
Brenner's book is based on her study of the autobiographies of Edith Stein and Simone Weil and the diaries of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum who also wrote letters from the transit camp Westerbork. According to Brenner the very writing of these personal narratives constituted an act of resistance because they affirmed the moral and spiritual integrity of the individual in the face of the inhumanity which willed their annihilation. These intelligent, well-educated women knew very little about Judaism. They were daughters of assimilated, secular Jews who had adopted the humanistic and ethical ideals of the Enlightenment. As such, they held fast to a belief in the brotherhood of all in equality and liberty and in the moral responsibility of the individual towards society as a whole. Their resistance represented an intense personal struggle to remain faithful to the moral values of Western humanism in the midst of an inhumane situation which had repudiated these values. At no time, Brenner points out, did they seek to renounce or withdraw from this culture in which they had been raised but which had cruelly betrayed them. Rather, what they sought to do was to reestablish the ethical and spiritual values which they believed were still valid and which still offered meaning in a world gone mad with hatred and unalleviated brutality.
The understanding these women had of their individual selves mirrored (to use Jung's phrase) the highest ideals of Western, secular, humanistic culture in which they were raised. From these ideals came the conviction that as individuals they were responsible not only for themselves but for others and beyond, for the world at large. They were determined, therefore, to confront the cruel circumstances in which they found themselves not by seeing themselves as defeated victims but by becoming better and more responsible human beings. The work of "ethical self-actualization," or "ethical self-development" as Brenner phrases it or as Hillesum puts it, "the process of maturation," would be the means by which they would hold back the terror and despair of their situation.
Their writings attest to their strenuous efforts not merely to hold on to, but to strengthen even in the face of certain death, their intellectual and moral integrity and their responsibility towards others. They were strict self-disciplinarians, noting every lapse in measuring up to their ideals. Instead of giving up, however, they resolved each time to be firmer with themselves and to renew their efforts to be faithful to these ideals. It was in the fulfillment of this moral task they would maintain their personal dignity and self-respect in circumstances which sought to deprive them of every vestige of their humanity.
The unchanging core of the self
Brenner asks how was it possible for these women to think they could resist their persecutors solely by the strength of their moral resolve without any hope of or intention of escaping their fate? For help in answering this question, she turns to the philosophical work of Edith Stein on the human personality, particularly Stein's study of empathy which was the subject of her doctoral dissertation completed under the guidance of Edmund Husserl.
According to Stein there is in every person a "kernel" which contains "the unchangeable true content of personality, representing the value world of the person." These values such as goodness, love of neighbor, or self-sacrifice are givens and are not subject to laws of cause and effect. They are contained, however, only in potentia which means they can either develop and grow or be hindered and stunted depending on the pressure exerted by circumstances outside the person. Stein held that this unfolding of the person was what gave meaning to life. "In other words," explains Brenner, "progression towards actualization of the individual's 'true content of personality,' of her 'value world,' defines the purpose of human existence."
If one follows Stein's idea of the human personality the individual self is an entity in its own right, which requires, nevertheless, the possibility of growth towards fulfillment. The self may reflect back as in a mirror the culture which helped to form it, as these four women reflected the Western liberal humanism which helped form their personalities. If it were mirror only, however, given the disintegration of that culture and that culture's failure to abide by its own values, the self too might be expected to disintegrate, succumbing to despair in defeat. But the self is more than mirror, other than what it also reflects. The validity of this idea of the self is borne out by in the lives of these women, who refused to surrender their ideals in the face of their culture's abandonment of them and in the face of their own acknowledged failures to live up to those ideals.
Hillesum wrote that it was important in the face of such suffering to take oneself seriously, to remain, as she put it, "your own witness, marking well everything that happens in this world, never shutting your eyes to reality." "We human beings," she also wrote, "cause monstrous conditions, but precisely because we cause them we soon learn to adapt ourselves to them. Only if we become such that we can no longer adapt ourselves, only if, deep inside, we rebel against every kind of evil, will we be able to put a stop to it. Airplanes, streaking down in flames, still have a weird fascination for us-even aesthetically-though we know deep down, that human beings are being burned alive. As long as that happens, while everything within us does not yet scream out in protest, so long will we find ways of adapting ourselves, and the horrors will continue."
Brenner points out the vigilance with which these women scrutinized their own lapses in humanness. Hillesum admits that in her fury at the Germans she deliberately wanted to hurt her German friend Kthe. She is sympathetic to Kthe's love of her country, "But sometimes I can't bear the thought that she cannot share my hatred-I want to feel at one with my fellow beings even in that." At the same time she feels terrible shame made all the worse by her inability to keep herself from "cursing and swearing at the Germans." Hillesum's determination to face reality unflinchingly included the reality of her own moral failures which seared her soul and prompted her to change, to be better than she knew she was.
As Brenner rightly warns, those who see these women with the aura of sanctity around them do them a grave injustice. They were keenly conscious that they were not exempt from the same moral stresses and lapses they witnessed in their fellow human beings. This did not prevent them, however, from picking themselves up each time with renewed intention to "become better" than they were. This was a personal responsibility not only to themselves, but to their people and beyond, to the world. Only in that striving for moral rectitude in the midst of unbelievable moral chaos was there any hope for humanity. In her own struggle to develop as a fully realized person, Hillesum wanted to avoid what she called "living the accidental life" and instead to accept her own destiny. That she was ready to do so she took to be a sign of her maturing. "Now", she said, "I have a right to a destiny. It is no longer a romantic dream or the thirst for adventure, or for life, all of which can drive you to commit mad and irresponsible acts. No. It is a terrible, sacred, inner seriousness, difficult and at the same time, inevitable."
Far from being "anima women" as described by Esther Harding, whose sense of self is entirely dependent on and defined by others, they were that virginal type which Harding defined as "she who is one- in- herself." This "virginity" has nothing to do with whether a woman is actually sexually experienced or not. (Etty Hillesum certainly was.) Rather, it denotes, wrote Harding, "a quality, a psychological attitude, not a physiological or external fact." These women belonged to themselves and only because of this were they able to achieve true relatedness with others.
Empathy and relation to the other
This self development with which these women were preoccupied was very similar to the individuation process of Jungian psychology. Its distinction perhaps is in the emphasis they gave to the ethical aspects of their personal growth. The evolution of the self could not be separated from and was, in fact, in Brenner's word "imprinted with the consciousness of the outer world." (28) The only valid way to assess how one had grown, had matured was "...through the individuals interaction with others, and only through acts performed in relation to other human beings...." Jung had written as well, "Not that you are, but that you do is the self. The self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationships." The self is realized only in how it acts towards others, towards the world.
Brenner believes that the importance these women gave to personal relationships with others was essential not only to their individual growth but to their ability to affirm their moral integrity in the face of their certain death. As a theoretical frame of reference she again draws upon the work of Edith Stein and the phenomenologist Max Scheler who was a professional colleague of Stein. According to Scheler there is no personality (or self as Jungians might say) without the other being always present to it (even if that other is absent.) In this sense the person as collective is already present in every individual. He claimed that ". . .the essential character of human consciousness is such that the community is in some such sense implicit in every individual, and that man is not only part of society, but that society and the social bond are an essential bond of himself." This connection of self to others is the source of "all morally relevant acts." It is possible, says Scheler, because of the intuitive capacity of human beings for "fellow feeling."
Edith Stein's idea of empathy is also essential in this context. As Brenner explains it, Stein sees the "I" as a "living body," which is not only capable of sensing, thinking and willing, but which is also connected to the world outside and which also connects the "I" to that world outside. Although it is inseparable from "the living body" the "I" can experience the "living body" acting independently. My "I" is able to split itself into "observer" and "observed." This is because it is capable of remembering. The "I" that remembers, however, is not identical with the "I" that is remembered and so there is a simultaneous experience of sameness and distinction. "Because I can imagine myself from 'the outside' as a 'living body,' I can also see the other, who is outside me, as a living body. The other is not me, but she is like me; her experience can never be mine, but it can be like mine. This recognition of the typologically familiar experience of another "I" generates the sense of empathy." There is both sameness here (the other experiences her I as I experience mine), but also of difference (my experience is not the same as her experience). This constitutes an "empathic experience" of the other which enables me to "to evaluate the other against myself, to contrast the other person's moral constitution with my own." Of course, there is the possibility that we can deceive ourselves about what we think we are perceiving, but the corrective for this, Stein believed, was in our ability to evaluate ourselves through empathy. It is necessary, according to Brenner, to understand the essential connection in Stein's thought between empathy and the "kernel" of the human personality. "Only through the empathic encounter with the other can I see myself as I am from a detached point of view and thus make progress in the actualization of my 'kernel.'"
What some may find too abstract is made poignantly real by a passage Brenner chooses from Anne Frank's diary to illustrate the point being made-that the development of the self depends on the interaction with the other in empathy. Frank is troubled by remarks from her friend Peter and sister Margot which imply she is strong and they are weak. Should this influence her she wonders? Can it be right not to follow one's conscience? She cannot understand how one can say one is weak and not fight it, " to train your character." The perception the two had of Frank inspires Frank to reconsider her own values. At the same time by trying to "think what the other person is thinking" (which she finds admittedly very difficult) she also is able to understand better where they are coming from. She is changed for the better in the process and the relationship with the other two is also improved.
Empathy as Reciprocity and Receptivity
As Brenner explains it, Scheler's "fellow feeling" and Stein's "empathy" represent a kind of symmetry or reciprocity between the self and others. This is clear in the passage from Frank's diary discussed above. But as Scheler's view developed, he posited a relationship of the self and others which was not based on reciprocity but on a kind of receptivity. In this view, love is the value which transcends all other values and implies an absolute and unconditional acceptance of the other, without expectation of any return. This relationship with the other is asymmetrical. My concern is only for the other and not for myself.
Simone Weil, according to Brenner, is an exemplar of the self in "total receptivity." For Weil the recognition of "sameness" between myself and the other does not lead to an understanding of the other as it did for Stein, but rather leads to a rejection of the other through unethical and unjust acts. Why? Because we want to avoid affliction and suffering. Fear of being similarly afflicted leads one to dissociate oneself from the other and this in turn leads to unethical behavior towards that other. To love the other unconditionally therefore, it is necessary to renounce the self unconditionally. Only in this way can one get "to the sort of attention which can attend to truth and to affliction. . .The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention is love." (As quoted by Brenner, p. 37.)
While Frank seems to exemplify the approach of "reciprocity" in her relationships, Hillesum is closer in her thinking to Weil and the idea of "receptiveness." Hillesum struggled to free herself from human attachments, so as to leave herself free to give herself entirely in altruistic love for her fellow Jews and for all of mankind. Much of that struggle focused on her acknowledged feeling of possessiveness toward her analyst and lover Julius Spier. She was torn between wanting to give herself totally to him and of liberating herself from him. But the outcome of that struggle was the conviction that she should not commit herself to anyone so that she would be free to love everyone with a love that was disinterested, that sought nothing in return.
There was a reciprocity neverthless as Brenner points out. Hillesum knew she had gained a maturity and sense of personal growth as a result of her having freed herself from her possessiveness of others. "The freedom that Hillesum found in her 'self-giveness' to the other's needs turned into a source of empowerment at the time of terror." (45) But this takes nothing away from the extraordinary self-giving that enabled her to give more "attention "to the sufferings of others than to her own.
Brenner's view is that Hillesum exemplifies Weil's ideal of the "impersonality of love, love as "the perfection of anonymity." One should not go too far in linking Hillesum with this ideal which represented the extreme of Weil's intention to obliterate herself, or as Brenner says "de-create" herself. (And indeed, Brenner does not do this.)Hillesum's sense of self strengthened even as it was purified by her intention to give herself entirely to others. Yet this "anonymity of love" is strikingly present in Hillesum's passionate rebuttal to her friends who had urged her, unsuccessfully, to save herself by going into hiding. She angrily called their arguments "specious," for everyone trying to save himself, she wrote, when there were those huge numbers disappearing.
I shall always be able to stand on my own two feet even when they are planted on the hardest soil of the harshest reality. And my acceptance is not indifference or helplessness. I feel deep moral indignation at a regime that treats human being in such a way. but events have become too overwhelming and too demonic to be stemmed with personal resentment and bitterness. These responses strike me as being utterly childish and unequal to the fateful course of events.
[I]t doesn't really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main thing is that so many thousands have to go. It is not as if I want to fall into the arms of destruction with a resigned smile-far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable, and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately they cannot rob us of anything that matters. But I don't think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding, because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp. And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses.
And if God himself should feel that I still have a great deal to do, well then, I shall do it after I have suffered what all the others have to suffer. And whether or not I am a valuable human being will only become clear from my behavior in more arduous circumstances. And if I should not survive, how I die will show me who I really am.
Hillesum refuses to make herself an exception to the suffering of the Jews under the guise of having an important work to do to justify her attempting to save herself. She refuses to value her life above the life of any of her fellow Jews. In this sense, indeed, her love sought to be anonymous although it was hardly impersonal. What she can do for the Jews, she can as well do for them in the camps. In fact, she did carry out her intention by ministering to her fellow Jews, despite her own failing health, in Westerbork, the transit camp to which Dutch Jews were sent before being transported to the concentration camps. Her letters sent from Westerbork document for the world to know the suffering of those imprisoned there, the worst of which was the sure knowledge that they were heading for annihilation.
Yet she is a woman, by her own testimony, who will always "stand on her own two feet" in the "hardest soil of the harshest reality." This is not a woman whose "I" has been intentionally obliterated in the service of a transcendent love. It is an aware self, a purified, altruistic self, yet conscious of having retained its dignity and moral perspective in the very worst circumstances.
Ironically, Weil who sought the total annihilation of her ego in the service of love and who wrote of the "impersonality" of love and "the perfection of anonymity" indulged in fantasies of dramatic self-sacrifice. She proposed, for instance, to organize a unit of nurses who would be sent right in the line of battle to aid the wounded and dying . Of course, she would be among them, but it seemed an insignificant consideration to her that these nurses would surely lose their lives in a courageous, symbolic but utterly impractical adventure. She had an impulse to destroy herself in total sacrifice, but as Brenner points out "she did not want her death to go unnoticed."
That Weil wanted to share in the suffering of the poor and despised is certain. Her essays, letters, and notebooks attest to her absolute commitment to them, however, unrealistic her schemes were. What is ironic, however, is that Weil chose to give the "attention" of her self-sacrificial love to her fellow Frenchman while consciously excluding the Jewish people. As Brenner shows, Weil, a Jew, dissociated herself from the Jewish people, their sufferings and destruction. She must have known about the Holocaust but she chose to ignore it. (3)
The self embracing the many
As the daughters of assimilated, secular Jews, Frank, Hillesum and Stein, like Weil, knew very little about Judaism. (Brenner notes that Weil, as an avid student of ancient Greek, Hindu and Buddhist culture, could have learned about Judaism but would not. As a Christian she denied the historic development of Christianity and therefore the significance of Jewish history.) Unlike Weil, Hillesum and Frank identified themselves without reservation with the Jewish people in their suffering.
Stein, who became a Catholic and had taken vows as a Carmelite nun, went to her death in conscious communion with her fellow Jews. Her autobiography, "Life in a Jewish Family," was written in order to counter anti-Semitism by educating young Germans in what Jewish life was really like. Written after her conversion to Catholicism and her entry into the Carmelite order, Stein ends her autobiography with her receiving her doctorate in philosophy. She has been criticized by Catholics for not including an account of her conversion and her subsequent life as a Carmelite. But her decision to end her autobiography with the experience of her life as a Jew was done intentionally because she wanted, above all, to describe Jewish life for those who were ignorant about it.
Stein's autobiography also represented, Brenner believes, her desire to achieve "inner wholeness." She refers to Stein's idea of the "kernel" and the unfolding of the human personality as being dependent on the empathic the present "I's" of the past "I" as "one and the same." For Stein wholeness could not be achieved without integrating her Jewish and Christian identities.
From Hillsum's diaries we learn that she was engrossed in Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky whom she was translating, she read St. Augustine, reflected on the gospel of St. Matthew and the letters of St. Paul, was studying Symbols of Transformation by C.G. Jung with whom Spier had studied. She seems to have been inspired most of all by the poet Rilke judging by the frequency with which she cites him and who have seems to given her, along with Spier, the spiritual nourishment she craved. In the midst of her recurring fantasy of being able to remain by her lover's side in order to save him, she exclaims "I am so glad that he is a Jew and I am a Jewess."
Against their critics who questioned Frank's Jewishness- and by implication the Jewishness of Stein and Hillesum-Brenner asserts they were, after all, put to death because of their Jewishness and quotes Frank: "We are Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, with a thousand duties. . .If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is all over, then Jews instead of being doomed, will be held up as example. Who knows, it might be even our religion from which the world and all the peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason only do we have to suffer now. We can never become Netherlanders or just English or any nation for that matter, we will always remain Jews, we just remain Jews, but we want it, too... (100).
These women identified with the Jewish people in the full knowledge that they too would be destroyed. Although Weil alone was unable to do this, all four, in consciously accepting as their own the fate that of a particular group of people, believed that by that very act they were helping to redeem the times.
The limits of "self-actualization"
Brenner observes that the humanistic ideal of "self-actualization," which these women relied on to help them maintain their dignity and moral integrity in the face of persecution was, in part, a psychological strategy. In the end this strategy was not adequate to their desperate situation. They believed that by constantly working at becoming better human beings they could resist succumbing to the degrading victimhood willed upon them by their persecutors. It was, says Brenner, an act of what she calls "lucid self-deception, " a game, however serious and sincere in attempt, whose underlying purpose was to hold back despair. These women knew and did not hide from themselves that they were doomed. To take their attempts at face value, she warns, is to trivialize the real nature of the Holocaust. We have to be aware of "the enormous odds against which they were trying to "re-form their psychological selves" To do less than that is to avoid recognizing the depth of their own fear and despair which their compassion for their fellow sufferers did nothing to mitigate.
In Hillesum's diary there are passages which support Brenner's insistence that we understand the anguish these women experienced which their courageous efforts at "self-actualization" could not alleviate. Hillesum often expressed her "love of life" which not even the worst circumstances could force her to abandon. But this "love of life" had its limits, even for her. Having become pregnant, she talks to the unborn child with uncharacteristic ferocity. "I shall fight patiently and relentlessly until you are once again returned to nothingness and then I shall have the knowledge that I have performed a good deed, that I have done the right thing." She is convinced that having the abortion will save, not destroy a life. To save someone from this terrible world, she will leave it "in a state of unborness...rudimentary being that you are, and you ought to be grateful to me. I almost feel a little tenderness for you." She writes of her fear of "hereditary taints"-her brother Mischa had a history of mental illness-and so vows that "no such unhappy human being would ever spring from her womb." But she also has no desire for a child, she lacks a maternal instinct. "I explain it like this to myself: life is a vale of tears and all human beings are miserable creatures, so I cannot take the responsibility for bringing yet another unhappy creature into the world." She continues with this surprisingly callous claim: "I have earned some immortal deserts: I have never written a bad book, and I have not added another unhappy being to those peopling this sorrowful earth."
There seems to be an element of rationalization, in her reasoning about not wanting to bring a child into the world of which she was not unaware: "I explain it like this to myself...." Yet we cannot underestimate the fear under which she and her fellow Jews lived and their common awareness that they were to be destroyed. That this was to be her ultimate fate as well of this she had no doubt. What shocks us is the vehemence of her decision, revealing a depth of despair that she did not always allow herself determined as she was to believe that "life is good" no matter what evil was willed against her and her fellow Jews.
Towards the transcendent self
In the end, the faith these women had in their ability to stave off fear and despair through moral steadfastness and through self-sacrificing compassion for others was not enough to sustain them. In one of her letters from Westerbork, Hillesum writes that she is helping babies and their distraught mothers prepare for their deportation to the concentration camps. What else can she do? she asks. "I could almost curse myself for that. For all we know that we are yielding up our sick and defenseless brothers and sisters to hunger, heat, cold, exposure, and destruction. . . . .What is going on, what mysteries are these, in what sort of fatal mechanism have we become enmeshed? The answer cannot be that we are all cowards. . ..We stand before a deeper question." (Cited by Brenner, 106).
Brenner sees that "deeper question" of the "fatal mechanism" "is that of a world in which the possibility of choice did not exist." To have a choice implies that something might be affected by such a choice. But the Holocaust exposed the absolute futility of such an expectation. These women did not avoid this bitter reality, but neither did they surrender their ideals in the face of it. As they recognize they cannot help themselves or others, the "deeper question,"-as Brenner herself suggests- is their relationship with God as the reality which transcends the wretched, hopeless human situation.
Each of these women sought and found a relationship with God which gave meaning to her suffering and that of her people, but each in her own way. Edith Stein drew strength in uniting herself with the passion and death of Christ as symbolized in the Cross. "I was almost relieved to find myself now involved in the common fate of my people. . . .I spoke to our Saviour and told Him that I knew it was His Cross which was now being laid on the Jewish people. . . and that those who did understand it must accept it must accept it willingly in the name of all. I wanted to do that, let Him only show me how."
Simone Weil, in her Spiritual Autobiography, relates how she was drawn to uniting herself with Christ on the Cross. While following the Holy Week services at the Benedictine Abbey of Solemnes, she experienced "[T]he possibility of loving divine love in the midst of affliction. It goes without saying that in the course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all." She refused, however, to be baptized into the Catholic Church because to accept the Church's dogmas would have meant an impossible compromise of her intellectual integrity.
As Brenner explains, Weil sought to "de-create herself, " so as to become nothing before God as the ultimate and only offering humankind could make. "We possess," she wrote (in Gravity and Grace)"nothing in the world-a mere chance can strip us of everything-except the power to say "I." That is what we have to give to God-in other words, to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act which it is given us to accomplish-only the destruction of the "I." Weil's theory of humankind's relationship to God, as Brenner points out, puts her outside both the Jewish and Christian traditions in which the individual's union with God, rather than the total annihilation of the self, is the supreme good to be desired. In contrast with Weil, Stein, Frank, and Hillesum looked to a God who, in the midst of utmost degradation and despair, restored to them a sense of their own worth and the worth of each human being.
Although with the exception of Simone Weil, these women did not seek their death, nor did they see themselves as sacrificial victims. But they neither expected or asked to be released from their suffering. What they looked for in seeking a relationship with the divine or as Jung expressed it "the God-image" was a sense that there was meaning to that suffering. As we have seen, Stein and Weil found the "deeper question" answered in Christianity, Stein in the embrace of the Catholic Church, Weil in her own unique version, more Gnostic in nature than either Jewish or Christian. Both found consolation in the passion and suffering of Christ. Etty Hillesum and Anne Frank, however, were not drawn to the historical God of Jews or Christians. This God it seems had withdrawn himself from the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The Christianity and Judaism that are present in their relationship to the divine came to them from the humanistic ideals of Western culture itself the product of both traditions.
"I know," wrote Anne Frank, "that I am not safe, I am afraid of prison cells and concentration camps, but I feel I've grown more courageous and that I am in God's hands. . . .Without God I should have long ago have collapsed." Frank found God in the natural world. "Anyone who is as afraid as I was then should look at nature and see that God is much closer than most people think." From God who manifests himself in nature, she receives comfort and reassurance that restores her personal dignity, self-respect and moral dignity. The tranquillity and beauty she finds in nature consoles her for she comes to understand that human beings, however wicked or weak, are part of that creation which is good because it is God's creation.
Etty Hillesum believed, as did Anne Frank, " I am safe in God's hands." She announced this to her friends in rebuking them for having urged her to try to escape. While Frank found God in nature, Hillesum found him within herself. "I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose is what I call God." This was a belief that did not come easily to her. She wrote of "the girl who could not kneel." But in the last pages of her diary, she writes of the girl "who learned to pray," that prayer was her most intimate gesture, more intimate that which occurs between herself and her lover." But when she prays, she never prays for herself. Praying for yourself, she says is just too childish for words. "To pray for another's wellbeing is something I find childish as well; one should only pray that another should have enough strength to shoulder his burden. If you do that, you lend him some of your own strength." She had turned within herself to find God there, to make room for Him. "Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other, God to God." (204).
Brenner remarks on the paradox of a powerless God whose "existence is predicated on the faith of those whom he cannot save." God cannot save her or the Jewish people, but Hillesum writes, "I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. . You cannot help us, but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last. . . I shall try to make You at home aways." In this weak God, this powerless God, Hillesum, like Stein and Weil, saw the weakness and powerlessness of the suffering. It was this which gave them the courage and will to go beyond their own fear and despair and to take on themselves the burden of their suffering fellow human beings.
As Brenner suggests, Simone Weil obsession with self-sacrifice was nearly suicidal in its intensity. Edith Stein, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, on the contrary, did not want to die. Etty Hillesum felt her life had not yet come to a "rounded whole." She describes it as " A book, and what a book, in which I have got stuck halfway." But if she should not live, she wishes someone else to carry on from where here life was cut short "and that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath: so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again, need not face the same difficulties. Isn't that doing something for future generations?" (154). Her sense of self, and this was true of the Stein, Frank, and Weil as well, could not be separated from her responsibility for others. And it should not be forgotten that these women held fast to this conviction in the most inhumane of situations when the instinct for sheer survival might have understandably weakened this resolve.
As we learn from these women, and as Jung affirmed, self-realizaiton cannot happen without a relationship with others. This relationship, moreover, has to be manifested in behavior which is concerned with the well-being of the other as well as myself. The narcisstic focus on self-realization promoted by New Age adherents could not be more antithetical to ideal of self-realization as these four women understood it and with which they struggled to their death.
Although we cannot speak of a self except in reference to other selves, to hold to this does not necessarily obviate the idea of there being a "kernel" or innermost core to the self, as Edith Stein posited. True relationships cannot exist without this core self which is capable of relating. Moreover, this core self seems to point to a greater self to which one also must relate, as was the experience of these women. That greater self may be recognized as coming from without, as in Nature as was true for Anne Frank or "reposing" within as was true for Etty Hillesum. "What comes to us from outside," wrote Jung,
or for that matter, everything that rises from within, can only be made our own if we are capable of an inner amplitude equal to that of the incoming content. Real increase of personality means consciousness of an enlargement that flows from inner sources. Without psychic depth we can never be adequately related to the magnitude of our object. It has therefore been said quite truly that a man/woman grows with the greatness of his/her task. . .When a summit of life is reached, when the bud unfolds from the lesser the greater emerges, then as Nietszche says, "one becomes two, and the greater figure, which one always was but which remained invisible, appears to the lesser personality with the force of revelation.
The self, Jung seems to be saying, achieves its fulfillment, or "wholeness" in its capacity to relate to that other, greater self which both encompasses and transcends it and in doing so transforms it. If we consider the identification of Stein and Weil with the passion and death of Christ or Etty Hillesum's willingness to "help" God, than this other who is greater than ourselves, also exists only in relatedness.
1 Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum (University Park, PA, The Pennysylvania State University Press, 1997.)
In Writing as Resistance, Brenner devotes several chapters to the role that autobiography (in the case of Stein and Weil) and diaries (in the case of Frank and Hillesum) played in the resistance of these women to the dehumanization of the Final Solution. She then concludes her book with a consideration of the significance of gender in how these women perceived themselves and in the shaping of their attitudes towards their situation. It would be beyond the scope of this paper to do justice to them as they deserve. These chapters should be read not as mere after-thoughts, but as integral to Brenner's over all thesis.
2 Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, translated from the Dutch by Arnold J. Pomerans and edited with notes by Jan G. Gaarlandt. (New York, Henry Holt, 1996). Since this article was written a new translation into English of the complete and unabridged diaries and letters has been published: Etty, The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943 (William B Eerdmans, 200.). Also an important book containing great deal more information about Hillesum has recently been published. Denise de Costa, Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum: Inscribing Spirituality and Sexuality, translated by Mischa F.C. Hoyinck and Robert E. Chesal (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1998). DeCosta had access to all the extant diaries and letters of Hillesum.
3 Rachel Felday Brenner dedicates her book to her maternal and paternal grandparents, victims of the Holocaust. She tells us in the acknowledgments that "writing this book was a long, lonely, and often painful process." This must surely have been so. I hazard a guess that it may have been particularly difficult to write about Simone Weil who was so disdainful of her Jewishness-and her sex. And yet Brenner writes of Weil with compassion and understanding. This intellectually rigorous and probing, but also deeply felt book is itself an extraordinary act of empathy.
© Dolores E. Brien 2005.