A Portland poet known for his compassion and love is spending the first days of the new year celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of a Dutch Jew whose writings are known for their compassion and love.
Martin Steingesser and a pair of creative collaborators will perform a dramatic reading of “The Thinking Heart: The Life and Loves of Etty Hillesum” at Auschwitz, a German concentration camp in Poland where Hillesum was killed, along with members of her family, by German forces in 1943 as part of the Holocaust.
“At some point, there was a seed in me – some things don’t have reasons – to return her voice to the place where it was taken. It’s that simple,” Steingesser said, explaining his motive for arranging this week’s trip to Auschwitz.
He and his performance partners, Judy Tierney and cellist Robin Jellis, along with Portland photographer Arthur Fink, left Maine last week. They will spend several days at Auschwitz this week, then travel to the International Etty Hillesum Congress in Belgium, scheduled for Jan. 13-15. They will perform the piece at the Hillesum Congress, which this year marks the centennial of her birth.
“The Thinking Heart” is among three theatrical works that will be performed at the Hillesum Congress, which will be at the University of Ghent. Three dozen scholars from across the globe will attend and present papers that explore aspects of Hillesum’s life.
“She’s an unknown Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, and somebody who wasn’t famous and not well known, and I don’t know why,” Steingesser said.
That’s beginning to change.
Hillesum, who was born in the Netherlands in January 1914, kept a journal the last few years of her life. Her journal and letters were published nearly 40 years after her death under the title “The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum.”
Since their publication in 1981, her writings have been translated into 18 languages and inspired readers. With time, her words and story are becoming better known, in part thanks to people like Steingesser who, when he read the diaries several years ago, was struck by Hillesum’s spirit and outlook.
“In the darkest possible moment, she had the ability to step back and have a moment of peace,” he said. “In this dark, oppressive place, she provides a moment of light. She was able to rise above her own fears and find a way to be the best human being under the worst circumstances.”
SENSE OF HUMANITY
Steingesser, the former poet laureate for Portland, adapted her writings into poems and created “The Thinking Heart” as a way to honor a woman who practiced humanity and exhibited courage in the face of evil. Her writings suggest she felt sympathy and empathy for the Nazis who held and killed her.
As her letters have gained more exposure, Hillesum is becoming known for her sense of humanity, Steingesser said. He marvels at her positive spirit, and hopes to practice the kind of discipline and compassion that Hillesum displayed.
She refused violence and hate, which she viewed as the source of mankind’s misfortunes, and understood deeply that to hate is to continually re-inject poison among us, Steingesser said.
He cited one line in her journal: “I try to look things straight in the face, even the worse crimes, and to discover the small, naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds,” she wrote in May 1942, 18 months before she was killed.
In the introduction to the book of poetry that he wrote inspired by Hillesum, Steingesser writes, “Witnessing the conscious choices Etty makes, including refusing to escape, as she confronts the Nazis and her fears, one of the things I see would have been lost in violent response to the oppression, either for defense or retribution, would have been the ability to continue, with the opportunities for lightening suffering and for healing, her own as well as that of others.”
Steingesser, Tierney and Jellis have performed “The Thinking Heart” around Maine 50 times or so. Steingesser has long hoped to perform it in Europe, and specifically at Auschwitz. But those plans never materialized because of logistics.
It’s expensive to travel overseas, and the process of arranging performances in other countries is both complicated and cumbersome, he said. For those reasons, he never pursued the dream.
But when he received the invitation to perform at the Hillesum Congress, things changed. He looked at map, and figured the distance from Auschwitz in southern Poland to the Hillesum Congress in the Belgian city of Ghent was manageable. The opportunity was too good to pass up, he said.
A PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORD
Fink, the photographer, is accompanying the trio to document their trip and create images that Steingesser will use in future performances and after-show discussions. The Maine Humanities Council is supporting this journey so Steingesser can create more effective educational components with the piece, said Anne Schlitt, the council’s executive director.
“We appreciate the thoughtful way in which they hope to broaden the discussion component, which for us at the humanities council is at the core of what we hope to achieve with our work,” Schlitt said. “They are thinking long-term with this project. The opportunity to go to Europe and have this experience really pushed Martin and his group to rethink what they are doing with this project and how to expand upon what they are doing.”
Fink accepted the invitation to accompany the trio because he admires their work and also wants to learn more about Hillesum.
“I think we all need to understand the Holocaust better, myself included. Everything I know, I know synthetically, what I have heard and read. I have never had this immediate experience,” he said.
Fink, who is Quaker with Jewish roots, raised about $3,000 from friends and community supporters to pay his portion of the trip. He worked with the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland as his fiscal agent.
He views his participation as part of a lifelong personal quest.
Fink’s father worked as a graphic designer for the U.S. Army in World War II. In addition to making maps for the Army, he also designed books.
When he was young, Fink came across a book that he presumes his father helped design. It included Army photographs of the concentration camps after they were liberated. Although the slender volume has long since disappeared, Fink remembers clearly two photos: One was a pile of shoes, the other a pile of teeth.
Since then, Fink has wanted to learn more. This trip will help him fulfill a personal goal that has haunted him many years, he said.
For Steingesser, it’s a chance to give voice to Hillesum’s words in the place where her voice was silenced.
“The plan is to spend a few days at Auschwitz, to open to the experience, explore – ‘to listen to the wind, stones and sky,’ as Eli Wiesel urged people to do – then choose a site, a place there, either in or outside or both, that feels right, and speak Etty’s words, very likely the whole of the performance work but more as meditation, memorial and prayer than performance,” he said.
“What we’re doing says that this one life means something, even if she hadn’t written that luminous journal and letters, wasn’t as extraordinary, as wonderful as she is. By returning her voice to Auschwitz, in a way bringing her back to life where her life was taken, we are saying this one life matters, is meaningful in the deepest sense of what it means to be human in the vastness of a universe that makes even our world and time a speck. Etty herself says it by having written her journal and letters; and now we say it by repeating her words aloud, you can even say broadcasting them for whoever will hear.
“And if Etty matters, if this one life matters, then not only the 6 million murdered in the camps are no longer a number and matter, not only all of us matter, but each life by analogy is amazing, incomparable – sacred.”
Truth be told, all that is decoration on the cake, Steingesser said. “Why I’m going is a response to a deeply felt impulse, an intuition about the rightness of the pilgrimage, being ‘a journey to the heart of every life,’ as we’ve called it. And that says something more, affirms wisdom of the heart we may grasp (that) our minds won’t know in a culture (that) for too long has overstated and misused reason.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: