We left the camp singing
Each Monday, from July 1942 to September 1944, a long and empty train would slowly snake towards the Dutch village of Westerbork and pull into its overcrowded transit camp. 24 hours later, having been filled with more than a thousand Jews of all ages, that same train would head for one of three Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland where its powerless passengers were soon to be killed—some immediately upon arrival. 28-year-old Etty Hillesum worked voluntarily at Westerbork, offering support to those awaiting deportation; hours before writing this letter to her friend, she officially become an internee herself. Two months later, Etty, her brother Mischa, and their parents finally boarded the train to Auschwitz. All were eventually murdered.
Etty spent much of the time eloquently describing her experience in diaries and letters, many of which she passed to Maria Tuinzing (the recipient of this particular missive) before her departure from Westerbork. Her final note, written to a family friend, was thrown from the train and found by a farmer who sent it on. In it, Etty said, “We left the camp singing.” That note can be read along with her other writing in the book, An Interrupted Life: the Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43.
10 July 1943
Ten thousand have passed through this place, the clothed and the naked, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy—and I am left to live and work and stay cheerful. It will be my parents’ turn to leave soon, if by some miracle not this week, then certainly one of the next. And I must learn to accept this as well. Mischa insists on going along with them, and it seems to me that he probably should; if he has to watch our parents leave this place, it will totally unhinge him. I shan’t go, I just can’t. It is easier to pray for someone from a distance than to see him suffer by your side. It is not fear of Poland that keeps me from going along with my parents, but fear of seeing them suffer. And that, too, is cowardice.
This is something people refuse to admit to themselves: at a given point you can no longer do, but can only be and accept. And although that is something I learned a long time ago, I also know that one can only accept for oneself and not for others. And that’s what is so desperately difficult for me here. Mother and Mischa still want to “do,” to turn the whole world upside down, but I know we can’t do anything about it. I have never been able to “do” anything; I can only let things take their course and, if need be, suffer. This is where my strength lies, and it is great strength indeed. But for myself, not for others.
Mother and Father have definitely been turned down for Barneveld1; we heard the news yesterday. They were also told to be ready to leave here on next Tuesday's transport. Mischa wanted to rush straight to the commandant and call him a murderer. We’ll have to watch him carefully. Outwardly, Father appears very calm. But he would have gone to pieces in a matter of days in these vast barracks if I hadn’t been able to have him taken to the hospital—which he is gradually coming to find just as intolerable. He is really at his wits’ end, though he tries not to show it. My prayers, too, aren’t going quite right. I know: you can pray God to give people the strength to bear whatever comes. But I keep repeating the same prayer: “Lord, make it as short as possible.” And as a result I am paralysed. I would like to pack their cases with the best things I can lay my hands on, but I know perfectly well that they will be stripped of every thing; about that we have been left in no doubt. So why bother?
I have a good friend here. Last week he was told to keep himself in readiness for transport. When I went to see him, he stood straight as an arrow, face calm, rucksack packed beside his bed. We didn’t mention his leaving, but he did read me various things he had written, and we talked a little philosophy. We didn’t make things hard for each other with grief about having to say good-bye. We laughed and said we would see each other soon. We were both able to bear our lot. And that’s what is so desperate about this place: most people are not able to bear their lot, and they load it onto the shoulders of others. And that burden is more likely to break one than one’s own.
Yes, I feel perfectly able to bear my lot, but not that of my parents. This is the last letter I’ll be allowed to write for a while. This afternoon our identity cards were taken away, and we became official camp inmates. So you’ll have to have a little patience waiting for news of me.
Perhaps I will be able to smuggle a letter out now and then. Have received your two letters.
‘Bye, Maria-dear friend,
Late-1942, approximately 700 “well deserving Dutch Jews”—in most cases scientists, intellectuals, artists, and bankers—were taken to Castle De Schaffelaar in Barneveld where they would live safely and in comfort until September 1943, two months after this letter was written. They were then moved to Westerbork where they remained unharmed.