Etty Hillesum and Leonie Snatager’s tense friendship in the Jewish Museum


Etty Hillesum and Leonie Snatager in 1939.Sculpture collection Jewish museum/photographer unknown

That the Jewish Museum has a small exhibition – Etty and Leonie – dedicates to the friendship between Hillesum (1914-1943) and Leonie Snatager (1918-2013) is not surprising. “It’s an important story. They made different choices when it came to whether to hide or not. Their tense friendship creates a dramatic contrast,” says curator Ariane Zwiers.

The then 24-year-old Hillesum and 20-year-old Snatager became friends in 1938. They studied in Amsterdam and were in left-wing artist and student circles. Every Sunday they met in Café Reynders on Leidseplein to talk about politics and literature.

Louder gossip

From 1937, Hillesum lived in a room with the widower Han Wegerif at Gabriël Metsustraat 6. Leonie often stopped by there for, as Etty called it, ‘higher gossip’. The exhibition includes a double portrait of the friends from 1939 and a photo of Hillesum’s house overlooking Museumplein and the Concertgebouw.

At the beginning of 1941, Hillesum had started therapy with the palm reader Julius Spier, also Jewish, who helped her with all kinds of advice. She was so impressed with the man that she advised her friend to visit him as well. Etty eventually struck up a relationship with Spier, which developed into a tense love triangle for the three of them.

At the behest of Spier, who practiced his therapy by going hand-to-hand with the often vulnerable women who knocked on his door for therapy, the two women kept a ‘therapy diary’.

Precious handwriting

Hillesum started his diary from March 1941 and wrote at a roommate’s green desk. The exhibition includes parts of her world-famous diary, published in 1981, in which she wrote in delicate handwriting: ‘Other girls had a vision of a man with children. And I have always had one particular vision: a hand that wrote.’ The relationship with Snatager is also discussed in detail.

Snatager’s therapy diary is in the display case next to Hillesum’s diary. Judith Koelemeijer, who has been working on a newly published biography of Etty Hillesum in recent years, had discovered this 284-sheet diary in 2016 at the home of Snatager, who died in 2013. Leonie’s son Bernard had left his family home in Maryland’s Greenbelt, Maryland, untouched. In addition to the therapy diary, she also found her correspondence with Spier and Wegerif.

Complicated friendship

Both diaries provide insight into their sometimes complicated friendship. It also discusses their decision to go into hiding or not. Under the influence of her therapist Spier, Hillesum decided not to oppose her deportation, but to share her fate with her people. Ignoring all urgent advice from friends to go into hiding, she volunteered to go to Westerbork for the Jewish Council as a social worker to emotionally help and ‘help’ the deported Jews.

Snatager, who had initially been almost carried away by Hillesum, took another turn: she decided to go into hiding with a fake identity card.

The exhibition contains documents that Koelemeijer encountered for his biography, such as the complete Etty library with editions of Etty’s diaries in all languages, which the son Bernard found under his mother’s bed. There is also a 1937 photo of Hillesum with Wegerif and his son in a sailboat on Loosdrechtse Plassen, which was also used as the cover image for Koelemeijer’s book. Pa Han, as Etty called him, then looks at the cheerful Etty. The two are close to each other, and it is not surprising, because the two also got into a relationship with each other.

Photo album by Spier

There is also Spier’s photo album, which contains numerous photos of himself and Jewish Council cards from Hillesum and Snatager. On Snatager’s map it says: ‘nu geh. m. Penney.’ Snatager had survived the war and had gone to work for the World Bank in Washington in 1948. There she met Walter Penney, an American mathematician, whom she married and had three children with.

Hillesum, on the other hand, was deported in September 1943 with her family – mother, father and brother Mischa, a gifted pianist – to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.

Snatager, long influenced by Hillesum, later said in interviews: ‘I wouldn’t be sitting here if I hadn’t separated myself from her.’ She did not feel guilty that she herself had survived the war, and Hillesum did not. It would have been pointless, Koelemeijer writes in the biography. “Leonie was realistic enough to know she couldn’t have saved Etty.”

Etty & Leonie, the Jewish Museum’s art cabinet, until 9/4.

Julius Spier during a palm reading.  To his right is Etty, approx.  1941-1942.  Sculpture collection Jewish museum/photographer unknown

Julius Spier during a palm reading. To his right is Etty, approx. 1941-1942.Sculpture collection Jewish museum/photographer unknown

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