I Couldn't Help It

Published on 26 Sep 2016

By Teresa McCaffery

I couldn’t help it!  It’s such a sweet excuse: usually deployed by children who have broken something it conveys apology with a certain helplessness, though it can infuriate.  Would you expect to use it of an omnipotent God?

Etty Hillesum (1) is a Jewish woman aged 29 who is confronting the Nazi programme against the Jews in Holland.  She has made the long journey from atheism to a profound belief in a God who is to be found deep within.  As she looks at the awful pain and degradation inflicted on her people she realises that there is so much of it that God cannot help it.  She is convinced moreover that this helpless God has to be protected, by us.  “Alas, there doesn’t seem much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible.  You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last” (2)

As I tried to make sense of this I remembered the day I came into the living room to find my two sons, still really quite young, standing with their backs to the dresser.  Nothing was said, but their eyes conveyed that sense of helpless apology.  Somehow my gaze was directed downwards to where a pretty fruit dish lay in several pieces on the floor.  I can still remember the way I felt, maybe twenty years ago, as I looked at those anxious faces and wondered what to do about this dish that Peter and I had bought together on holiday.  There seemed to be so much at stake; the relationship between mother and children; husband and wife; us and the Portugese people whose art was represented in the dish and ultimately the unity of the whole world in its brokenness.

I did not shout at the children (although I often did).  I got the glue and we had the dish mended before Daddy came home.  That dish still sits on my dining table, Etty died in Auschwitz.

Etty Hillesum: a life transformed (by Patrick Woodhouse) Continuum 2009

Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1942-1943 complete and unabridged, Klaas A.D. Smelik (ed), Arnold J. Pomerans (trans) Novalis 2002 pp 488-489)