An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum
The Diary of Peter Ginz edited by Chava Pressburger, by Atlantic Books £16.99
It is surely no coincidence that the most famous diary of the last century was written by one who was not yet adult, plunged into the maelstrom of adult cruelties. Child is the wrong word to describe Anne Frank, the knowing young woman whose most private thoughts, shared only with her diary, are now among the most public thoughts of our time. Anne Frank, although her situation and suffering was unique, has become emblematic of a child in war because many of her deepest feelings were universal. Subsequent young diarists, from Bosnia to Rwanda, are all judged by the Anne Frank yardstick.
Earlier this year a recently discovered diary written by a young French woman, Helene Berr, murdered in a Nazi concentration camp, was published in France. Described as “a testimonial of rare power,” it has quickly become a publishing sensation, selling 26,000 copies in three days. Helene, a 22 year-old student when her journal opens in April 1942, is described as the French Anne Frank.
It’s is an intensely literary description of life in occupied Paris while Anne Frank’s diary deals with life in hiding in her Amsterdam attic with her family and is therefore more introspective. Both Helene and Anne died of typhus, only a month apart, in Bergen Belsen.
At the same time Esther “Etty” Hillesum, a little older than Frank and Berr, was also living in Amsterdam when she began writing a diary in 1942. Hers is an astonishingly revealing and intimate account detailing her innermost thoughts set against the shadows of the Holocaust. Like all good diaries, it also makes compulsive reading. But I don’t believe that makes those of us who are gripped voyeurs. The power of a diary is the way it can turn feelings into reality.
The best diaries are written by those who experience life more intensely than the rest of us, who have a gift for introspection and are able to extract significance from mundane activities. Often, by the end of the book, it is possible to see the personality of the writer develop. Which is why so many teachers recommend keeping a diary.
It isn’t just that it helps children improve their powers of observation of the natural world. It makes it easier for the author to understand his or herself and place in the world. The act of giving concrete verbal form in a book to an experience, however painful that experience, can be cathartic. For the rest of us, reading about what others have experienced is helpful too.
According to author Eva Hoffman, writing about Etty, reading such diaries is often meaningful to youngsters, “because they create a clear insight into the struggle of a young woman who is looking for balance in her life. Young people are likely to identify with the problems they may be faced with themselves.”
Zlata Filipovic in Sarajevo, ten in 1991 when she started her diary , said the war in Bosnia had robbed her of her childhood. She missed out on birthday parties, sleeping over with friends, playing in the park, having special events with her family and friends, and going to school. Often she had no electricity, gas, water or food at their home and had to go fetch water at a well which was dangerous because of snipers. For most ten year olds, her fear and deprivations, written in diary form, are wholly believable.
Helene Berr, on her way to college one day, wrote of how she kept her head up high “and looked so intensely in people’s faces that they turned their eyes away from me. But it’s hard. In fact, most of them don’t look. Two kids in the street pointed their finger at us: “Hey, did you see? A Jew,” they said. But the rest of the day passed normally. I left for the Sorbonne; on the subway, another low class woman smiled at me. I could feel tears bursting out of me. I don’t know why.”
Any child who has faced anti-semitic taunts understands why.
But not all diaries have female authors. Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz in 1944, was a fourteen year old Czech boy whose recently discovered diary reveals a heart rending account of a creative childhood cut short.
But there is a much deeper purpose. Diaries are a means of bearing witness. For many in the camps who survived, such as Primo Levi, the need to live in order to bear witness to such unbelievable atrocities was their greatest daily motivation.
Adult diaries are different, however. The joy of a child or adolescent’s diary is its purity, usually written without artifice and without any intention for publication.
As a biographer I am always wary of diaries so often created deliberately with one eye on posterity. As soon as a consciously literary style creeps in, the content is tainted or dubious. Letters, written for just one recipient, are of greater value in my experience. Of course, adult diaries can be invaluable historical documents. Discovering through Pepys about the smouldering embers of Pudding Lane that led to the Great Fire of London is thrilling. For my most recent biography, about Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie, just one diary appears to have survived, dated 1882. But even that was enough to refute charges that Jennie was a neglectful mother. There in the diary are accounts of the time she devoted to her young son and the activities they enjoyed together.
Jacqueline Wilson, like many of us, grew up with a copy of Anne Frank’s diary by her bedside; an inspiration, she explains, for wanting to be a writer. Diaries are a private place where children can retreat to explore their place in the family, in life or in the world. They can experiment with the raw materials life has thrown at them and give them meaning. But in adult hands too often giving events ‘meaning’ is constructing a narrative thread. Readers beware! You have been warned!
Anne Sebba will be signing copies of her latest biography: Jennie Churchill Winston’s American Mother at Jewish Book Week on Sunday February 24 from 3pm.