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  • The Religious Meaning and Significance of the Holocaust Today:The Diary of Etty Hillesum
  • Marc P. Lalonde (bio)

New thoughts will have to radiate outward from the camps, new insights, spreading lucidity, will have to cross the barbed wire enclosing us and join with the insights that people outside will have to earn as bloodily, in circumstances that are slowly becoming almost as difficult. And perhaps, on the common basis of an honest search for some way to understand these dark events, wrecked lives may yet take a tentative step forward.1

Etty Hillesum, letter from Amsterdam, end of December 1942


Allow me to begin with a broad, though very difficult question: What is the religious meaning and significance of the Holocaust today?2

I ask this question not only because the Holocaust continues to challenge the theological validity of traditional theism (which it does3); nor because the remembrance and historical weight of the Holocaust is currently being deflated (which it is4); but also because changed socio-historical circumstances solicit a different tack. One such change is outlined in the weighty volume by Charles Taylor, namely, A Secular Age.5 In this text, the author argues that “Christendom” has finally come to an end. This is to say that the historic Christian influence over Western culture, society, politics, economics and everyday life has clearly been deposed with the onslaught of modernity. What follows is transformative. For in the place of Christian dominance emerges a variegated landscape of multiple religious perspectives that present themselves as but possible options for the individual “quester.”6 Religion as such, as well as religion in particular, cannot be envisioned as a monolithic whole but rather as shot through with manifold languages, beliefs, doctrines, expressions, practices, material cultures, histories and geographical placements or displacements, etc. To be sure, not everyone will applaud this development. From the point of view of this essay, however, there are two important consequences [End Page 59] for post-Holocaust religious thought today, one obvious, the other less so.

First, and most obviously, to redress the religious meaning and significance of the Holocaust today is to explore the plural sources of moral-spiritual and religious insight that emerge from and bear upon this event. Thus not only do the world’s religions prove germane—with these, in turn, considered inherently pluralistic (hence “Judaisms” and “Christianities” etc.)—but so do the different contributions from various psychologies, literatures, philosophies, and more. Such miscellany augments the range and flexibility of response in relation to the historical complexity of the Holocaust. Second, though less obviously, to redress the religious meaning and significance of the Holocaust today is to recognize anew the reach of its historic impact. By this, I do not mean to stress the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust with its quasi-revelatory import.7 Rather, the singularity of the event is rooted in its contemporaneity. As Zygmunt Bauman states the matter, “the Holocaust [is] not simply a Jewish problem, and not an event in Jewish history alone. The Holocaust [is] born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization and culture.”8 Undoubtedly, Bauman’s approach does not intend to undermine the Jewish specificity of the Holocaust. He knows it remains a “Jewish problem” and “an event within Jewish history.” Yet he also knows that the Holocaust constitutes the history of the present; that it is shaped by and continues to shape, in turn, contemporary existence; that it is key to modern Western identity and its future apparitions.

This basic approach to the religious meaning and significance of the Holocaust today is one that is played out in the wartime diary of Etty Hillesum (1914–1943). In the midst of Nazi occupied Holland (1940–1945), this young Dutch-Jewish woman tells of her journey from a fearful, self-enclosed, dispirited person to a more trusting, open, spiritually attuned individual. As the diary intimates, this is a herculean task for both personal and historical reasons. Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of Hillesum’s apparent...


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pp. 59-74
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