It’s well known that I like to collect fascinating stories for our website section about activist women promoting a shared life, so here’s an amazing story for you.
“We must be prepared to act as a balm for many wounds” (Etty Hillesum)
A while back I came across two women with an interesting and impressive initiative for global healing. So please tell me about yourselves.
We are Dina Awwad-Srour (Palestine) and Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon (Israel), peace activists working for global healing. We were both highly inspired by Etti Hillesum and wanted to share our inspiration with others.
Dina Awwad-Srour – Palestine – My name is Dina Awwad Srour. I am a Palestinian originally from the town of Beit Sahour, a small town in east Bethlehem – Palestine. I now live in Eilaboun, a small Arab village in the north of Israel. I’m a lecturer and a writer and my main passion is to empower women and mothers. I encountered Etty’s diaries eight years ago when I was 27 years old, exactly the same age as Etty was when she started writing her diaries. I immediately felt connected to her and her challenges as a young woman. I learned a lot from her about love and freedom; for example how to stay independent and free even when you love someone. For my spiritual path I learned a lot from her about prayer and connecting to God. As a Palestinian, I find Etty very inspiring as she helped me learn to look at the Palestinian/Israeli conflict from a wider angel beyond a black & white or a good & evil perspective. I learned to ask questions and look for the answers within myself. I learned from her to see the human inside every Israeli soldier. I gained a deeper understanding of how war is a system that misuses young men.
Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon – Israel
My name is Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon. I am an artist, a poet, and a Rabbi. I got to know Etty Hillesum’s diaries 15 years ago and since then her inner language became more and more a part of myself. As a Jewish woman who grew up in Israel, I know that we carry a trauma that influences us as individuals and as a nation. The trauma that we carry from the Holocaust plays a big role in our behavior as a nation and especially in the way we treat Palestinians. As a peace worker I know that we cannot go forward to-ward a vision of peace if we don’t heal the wounds from the past.
Etty wanted to be a remedy of healing. I believe that her spiritual path that allowed her to never hate and to find inner peace even in the very dark times of the Holocaust, can serve as a healing force and as a role model for what is possible for us as Jews and as humans. Her writings deeply healed my heart and helped me step out of a victim’s perspective and to find the power from within myself to contribute to the creation of a better world.
How did you meet?
We got to know each other when Dina met her partner Hanna Srour in 2010. Hanna was part of a group of Israelis and Palestinians who had the vision to create a peace research village in the Middle East, and Emma was also a member of this group. Hanna was very excited to meet Dina, and he brought her to the group’s meetings. So we connected very fast. For Dina, the connection with Hanna was a powerful romantic connection, and she wrote beautifully about her experiences and shared her writings with me (Emma). I loved her writings and her honest discoveries about love, Eros and spirituality. Then once I gave Dina a card from a homemade set that I made with quotes by Etty Hillesum. Dina loved the quote and wanted to read more. Since then our friendship has grown. For some years we meet regularly with a group of Israelis and Palestinians for study times, sharing circles and olive harvests. When Dina and Hanna married they asked me and a Palestinian friend to hold the ritual for them. I gave them as a marriage gift a box she made with cards with quotes by Etty Hillesum.
What are the cards?
We created cards with quotes by Etty Hillesum ten years ago in an alternative ceremony during the Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel/Palestine. Those cards became the base for our project. We have been holding the ceremony in the Holocaust Memorial Day every year since then and Etty Hillesum is the core inspiration of the events. At the end of each ceremony the participants are given the opportunity to choose a card with a quote by Etty Hillesum as a base for a prayer. A year ago, we decided to publish thecards along with a small booklet which includes further information about Etty Hille-sum and the topics she touches in her diaries. We chose 100 quotes from her diaries and the letters which she wrote while being in Westerbork and made the quotes and the booklet in the three languages; English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
So, what did you discover in Etty Hillesum’s diaries?
For both of us reading Etty Hillesum was a great inspiration to learn how to be a peace worker in such difficult times. We both carry the vision of creating a peace re-search community in Israel/Palestine in which Palestinians, Israelis, and Internationals can live together. And Etty helps us carry this vision in our hearts even when it seems difficult nowadays, or almost impossible.We decided to publish the cards as we deeply believe that these quotes can inspire and heal many hearts. We believe that they carry wisdom of deep humanism that the world needs so urgently right now.
Who is Etty Hillesum?
Etty Hillesum was a Jewish Dutch woman who wrote her diaries during the Second World War. She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 29. Her diaries, written during the last two years of her life, are a testimony of love and compassion, of trust in life and deep spirituality. She describes in her diaries and in the letters she wrote from the concentration camp “Westerbork,” a process of a woman who chose to believe in humanness and choose her inner reactions no matter what is happening in the outside. “I am ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death that life is beautiful and meaningful and that it is not God’s fault that things are as they are at present, but our own. We have been granted every opportunity to enter every paradise, but we still have to learn to handle these opportunities.” (7 July 1942)
Despite all the suffering and pain that was surrounding her, she found life interesting and was passionate about witnessing all that happened around and inside her.
“Life remains so “interesting” through it all. Ever- present in me is an almost demonic urge to watch everything that happens. A wish to see and to hear and to be present, to worm out all of life’s secrets, to observe with detachment what people look like in their last convulsions. And also, suddenly, to be forced to face oneself and to learn what one can, from the spectacle that one’s own soul enacts in these times. And later be able to find the right words for it.” (28 July 1942)
The first edition of the cards was sold out quickly and got a lot of attention. They reached places that we did not expect; people bought them as part of their work with Syrian refugees in Germany and Greece. After reading an article about our work, two of the Zen Peacemakers website film makers decided to make a documentary about Etty Hillesum and our project; to speak about the echo of her words today especially in Palestine/Israel. Because of Etty Hillesum and the filming of the movie, we took part in the Zen Peacemakers Retreat in Westerbork in January 2020 and in the ceremony of the Reading of the 102,000 names of those who were transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz.
The film is here.
Why did you decide to use cards?
The diaries and letters are long and full of treasures. When you take a card, it is easier to connect to a few sentences and take it with you as an inspiration for the day. Their message can be taken into meditation or prayer. In the beginning, we made the cards for the rituals which we held on the Holocaust Memorial Day. Each participant was asked to choose a quote from Etty and reflect upon what it means for him/her. Some participants still carry in their parcel their card that they got in the ritual many years ago.
So, when will you publish a second edition of the cards?
During these mad Corona days, we were able to publish a second edition and the third edition will be published soon. Cards are available for sale here.
Do you still hold your special Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies?
This year we held the Holocaust Memorial Ritual Inspired by Etty Hillesum on zoom. This opened the opportunity for many people from different countries such as: Pa-lestine, Israel, USA, Portugal, Colombia, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Rwan-da, to join us. Here is a recording of the ritual which was held in April, 20, 2020 (please note that for technical reasons, the first 25 minutes are missing but it can give you the spirit of the ritual). This year hour ritual was dedicated to the finding of inner freedom in difficult times.
Many thanks, I’ve learned something new… and here is a link directing to the Etty Hillesum Youth Theater.