Imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam during the Holocaust. How would you feel if you were imprisoned in a holding camp for more than a year, knowing at any moment that you could be packed into a cattle car and shipped off to Auschwitz? Given the choice, would you have escaped persecution or stood by your family and friends?
Etty Hillesum chose to sacrifice her freedom for those she loved, ultimately dying in Auschwitz at age 29. Through it all, she somehow managed to find beauty amongst the horrific and the mundane.
Hillesum chronicled her experiences in poetic journal entries and letters. Her writing doesn’t just tell what happened; it allows you to see and feel it through vivid imagery and honest emotion.
Former Maine poet laureate Martin Steingesser pays tribute to Hillesum with “The Thinking Heart,” presented Thursday at Bates College in Lewiston. At its core, the production is a staged reading of poetic variations of excerpts from her journal and letters. But it is so much more than that.
Steingesser, Judy Tierney and Robin Jellis combine spoken word with music, creating a soulful atmosphere that forges a connection between the audience and a life interrupted 70 years ago this November.
The poems, written by Steingesser, are based on excerpts taken from “Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943,” and capture images from both her time in Westerbork Camp and her life prior to her internment there. Through imagery, the audience comes to know the spirited young woman and her passion for life.
“Pray, let me be the thinking heart, the thinking heart of a whole concentration camp,” Hillesum thought as she lay awake on her plank bed, listening to the women and girls around her as they sobbed, tossed and turned.
Her words are visceral, haunting and miraculously empowering. Hillesum went from having two lovers to living in a concentration camp where men and women were kept apart, but her lust for life remained unquenchable. “You’ve got to come to terms with that. Not just stoke your desires. Turn love into a force, something good for each other, tangible as we are in bed.”
Steingesser’s deep appreciation for Hillesum and her writings was evident Thursday night. Reverence and awe resounded in his voice as he recited his poetic variations of her poignant words. Musical interludes from Steingesser on manjira hand symbols and a wooden recorder heightened the emotion.
There was wistfulness to Tierney’s recitation that made it feel like the audience was there with Hillesum. Each word she spoke resonated with life, defying death.
Jellis completed the performance trio, primarily providing musical accompaniment on cello. The mournful strains of the instrument tugged at the heartstrings of the audience, creating a bond between word and emotion that was summed up beautifully in the epilogue.
“The strains captured my heart, holding it fast on all sides, lifted it high above. I watched it dance through space, and it was a marvelous feeling, my heart dancing away, high above in the sky, in the grip of the strains of a cello.”
Steingesser and company are currently performing “The Thinking Heart” throughout Maine and New Hampshire, and hope to take it overseas next year to participate in Hillesum’s 100th birthday celebration. The production is well worth a viewing, if you get the opportunity.
April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at: