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Palestinian and Israeli Peace Activists Translate the Wisdom of Etty Hillesum

While she was in Auschwitz, she heard a voice: “I did not die so you can hate each other.” 

When my friend Rabbi Haviva Ner-David mentioned she was reading the diaries of Etty Hillesum, I admitted I had never heard of her. Hillesum, who perished in Auschwitz, is much less well known than Anne Frank, but her diaries and letters are an extraordinary treasure trove of spiritual wisdom. When Rabbi Haviva told me about the Etty Hillesum Cards, produced in partnership between two women, Dina Awwad-Srour and Emma Sham-ba Ayalon, a Palestinian and Israeli, I was deeply moved. Dina and Emma sell the cards through their website in Israel, and now the cards are exclusively available in the U.S. through Ritualwell.

Dina and Emma met as part of a group of Israelis and Palestinians “who had the vision to create a peace research village in the Middle East.” In an interview with Zen Peacemakers International, Emma said: “I gave Dina a card from a homemade set that I made with quotes by Etty Hillesum. Dina loved the quotes and wanted to read more. Since then our friendship grew. 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 [her now husband] married they asked me and a Palestinian friend to hold the ritual for them. I gave them as a gift a box I made with cards with quotes by Etty Hillesum.”

Dina learned about the history of the Holocaust on a trip to Auschwitz she describes in the interview. She connects to the trauma the Jews experienced and comes to a new understanding of how it plays a role in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “Usually as Palestinians, the only thing we relate to the Holocaust is the fact that because of it, we have the Israeli occupation. So we do not learn about what actually happened there because we are very hurt… So for me to be there along with other Germans, Swiss, Jewish Israelis, Jewish Americans, and more, and to bear witness and understand how this trauma was so deep… was a good learning for me.” While she was in Auschwitz, she was meditating and thinking about Hillesum, when she suddenly heard a voice: “I did not die so you can hate each other.” This profound experience stayed with Dina. Hillesum’s writings renewed her faith in the goodness of humanity and the possibility for peace. Dina and Emma have also collaborated on an alternative Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Israel, in which they share the writings of Etty Hillesum.

Dina and Emma painstakingly chose Hillesum’s quotes and translated them into English, Hebrew, and Arabic. The result is a beautiful set of cards that can serve as inspiration for peace and healing of oneself and the world. I keep them on my nightstand and plan to use them for personal mediation and prayer practices. These cards would be an excellent resource for dialogue groups, book clubs, activists, healing circles, and prayer services. As an Israeli-American currently living in Israel, I now reach for my Etty Hillesum Cards when I need to remind myself of the common humanity we all share and the truth that peace begins from within.

Hila Ratzabi is the Managing Editor of Ritualwell.org, a poet, essayist, freelance editor, and writing coach. For more on the feminist wisdom of Etty Hillesum, see the following article by Emma Garmon in the Paris Review.

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