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 Shamba 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 Awad-Srour – Palestine – I am Dina Awad Srour. A Palestinian raised in Beit Sahour, a small town east of Bethlehem in Palestine. These days I live in Eilaboun, a small Arab village in the north of Israel. I’m a lecturer and author and my main passion is to empower women and mothers. I encountered Etty’s diaries eight years ago when I was 27 years old, the exact age that Etty was when she started writing her diaries. I immediately felt connected to her and to the challenges she faced as a young woman. I learned a lot from her about love and freedom, how to remain independent and free even when you love someone. As a spiritual person I learned from her about prayer and connecting to God. As a Palestinian, Etty inspired me by giving me a wider perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond seeing things in absolutes, black and white, good and evil. I learned to ask questions and find the answers within myself. I learned from her to see the human within the Israeli soldier and gained a deeper understanding of war as a system that misuses young men.

 

Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon – Israel

I am Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon, an artist, poet and Rabbi. I discovered Etty Hillesum’s diaries 15 year ago, and ever since her inner dialog became a part of me. As a Jewish woman who grew up in Israel, I know that we carry trauma that affects us both as individuals and as a nation. The trauma that we carry from the Holocaust influences much of our behavior as a people and especially how we treat Palestinians. As a peace activist I know that we can’t make progress towards a vision of peace if we don’t heal our past wounds. Etty Hillesum’s writings have deeply healed my heart and allowed me to choose to forsake the role of victim and find within myself the powers to help create better world. 

 

How did you meet?

We met when Dina first met her partner, Hanna Srour in 2010. Hanna was a member of a group of Israelis and Palestinians promoting the vision to build a village for exploring peace in the middle east, Dina’s mother was also part of the group. Hanna was excited by meeting Dina and brought her to the group meetings, and we hit it off very quickly. For Dina the connection to Hanna was romantic and powerful and she wrote about her experiences and shared diary entries with her mother. Dina’s writings and also her sincere revelations about love, erotica and spirituality led to a real friendship between us and an understanding that we’ll work together.

What are the cards?

We created cards containing quotes by Etty Hillesum ten years ago for the alternate Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony that we held in Israel. These cards became the basis of our current project. Ever since, we’ve held annual alternate Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies, and Etty Hillesum is our main inspiration for these event. At the end of each ceremony, participants are asked to pick a card with a quote as the basis for a prayer. About a year ago we decided to publish the cards with a small booklet containing added information about Etty Hillesum and the subject that she explored in her diaries. We picked on hundred quotes from her diaries and letters that she wrote while in the Westerbork transit camp and we translated the quotes and booklet into English, Hebrew and Arabic.

So, what did you discover in Etty Hillesum’s diaries?

For both of us, reading Etty’s diaries was both inspiring and educational and taught us the meaning of being peace activists in such challenging times. We both cherish a vision of building a community consisting of Palestinians, Israelis and others, and Etty’s words help us persist with this vision even when it seems to be difficult or impossible. We decided to publish the cards because we believe that the quotes can heal many hearts as they contain a deep human wisdom that is vital to the world.

Who is Etty Hillesum?

Etty was a Dutch Jewish woman who wrote diaries during World War II. She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 29. The diaries that she wrote during the last two years of her life are a testimony to love, compassion, trust in life and a deep spirituality. In diaries and letters written in the Westerbork Concentration Camp, she describes her inner process of choosing to believe in human spirit. These are the words of a woman who chose to trust her inner voice no matter the reality taking shape around her.

“I’m ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death that life is beautiful and meaningful, and that it is not God’s fault for the way things are at present, but our own. We have been granted every opportunity to enter heaven, but we must still learn how to handle them.” (July 7, 1942)

Despite all her pain and suffering, Etty was passionate about life and the chance to experience everything happening in and around 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 reveal all of life’s secrets, to dispassionately observe the dying during their last moments. And also, suddenly, to be forced to face myself and learn all there is from the spectacle that my soul is currently enacting. And later, finding the right words for it.” (28 July 1942)

 

 

The first edition of the cards sold out quickly and drew a lot of attention. The cards reached places that we hadn’t anticipated, for example, some social workers acquired them for working with Syrian refugees in Greece and Germany. We received many requests to translate the cards to more languages. Two film directors from the Netherlands read an article about our project and decided to film a documentary about it. They wanted to relate Etty Hillesum’s words to life today, particularly in Israel/Palestine. They filmed us holding discussion circles with the cards in Israel and Palestine. Consequently, we flew to the Netherlands in January 2020 and took part in the Zen Peacemaker Retreat at the Westerbork transit camp. We participated in a ceremony of the reading of 102,000 names of those  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 hidden gems. When you pick a card you may find it easier to connect to a number of sentences and take them as inspiration for the rest of the day. The message in the cards could be a part of your meditation or prayer. To begin with, we created the cards for our Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies, each participant was asked to pick an Etty Hillesum quote and describe its meaning for her/him. Some of these people are still carrying around their quotes from a ceremony 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. Cards are available for sale here.

Do you still hold your special Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies?

 This year we did it over Zoom. It allowed us to gather about 300 people from Palestine, Israel, USA, Portugal, Colombia, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Ruanda. Here you can find a taping of the ceremony, (please note that the first 25 minutes of the ceremony were not taped due to technical difficulties, but you can still get a feel for the ceremony). For the ceremony this year we decided to focus on how Etty Hillesbum’s legacy can teach us to find internal freedom in challenging times.

Many thanks, I’ve learned something new… and here is a link directing to the Etty Hillesum Youth Theater.