January 5

Portland poet tells tale at Auschwitz

Martin Steingesser brings his performance piece overseas.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Martin Steingesser describes Etty Hillesum as “an unknown Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.” Hillesum kept a journal during the last years of her life that was published nearly four decades after her death. Steingesser adapted those writings for his performance piece, “The Thinking Heart.”

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The entry to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, with snow-covered rail tracks leading to the camp in the winter of 1945. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest German-held concentration camp and the place where Etty Hillesum and members of her family died in 1943 at the hands of Nazi forces at the height of World War II.

The Associated Press

Additional Photos Below

Etty Hillesum facts

BORN: Jan. 15, 1914, in the Netherlands

DIED: Nov. 30, 1943, at Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland

WRITINGS: Her diary and letters were published in 1981.

QUOTES: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”


“Become simple and live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world.”


“Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.”


“Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”


“I know and share the many sorrows a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them; they pass through me, like life itself, as a broad eternal stream...and life continues...”

“The Sky, Full of Birds”

“The Sky, Full of Birds”


By Martin Steingesser, 2010

The chink of spoons on china, background chatter, music piped in; outside, the sky full of soaring birds, on the streets people walking to work, sun shining through the window of my face I’ve been reading letters from a Dutch Jew, Etty Hillesum about a transport she witnessed being loaded for Auschwitz, planks pulled from the cars, hands waving through gaps The locomotive hiss and shriek, 3,000 Jews about to leave. “The sky is full of birds,” she wrote, “sun shining on my face,” heaven and earth in her rushing head-on. What bewilders – that sun on our faces, hers but weeks, countable hours for the gas chamber, my own star a golden oriole of spring, armfuls of sun to warm and nourish what seed, what crop my heart my harvest Fate – karma, kismet, chance, luck, you bewilder me. Everything bewilders me. Long ago, I thought one day life would open her pockets, that I’d be able to answer a few questions like What is this country I’m crossing? What station do I get off?

Where to from there? And still, I have no idea what the ground under me is, no idea where I stand. And what do I do with this word bewilder? The strange word bewilder. Be wilder. Maybe wilderness isn’t lack of restraint but an ability to be in doubt, like Keats said, without reaching after reason. Printed in blue on the pencil I am holding is the word Focus – Focus and be wilder. For Etty, stakes were high, calling down God into that circle of barbed wire. Sometimes I feel so pedestrian shuffling the small ways I do to feed myself, keep warm, clear away the daily messes, bewildered, wanting to be wilder loving this only and one life, wanting to write a line of meaning into it all, “lend the silence form, contours,” like she said, like she did, even when tired, cold, hungry, frightened

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.”


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.”

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

“The Thinking Heart” is a poetic telling of Hillesum’s story. This year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth.

click image to enlarge

Past Portland poet laureate Martin Steingesser is bringing a performing group from Maine to Auschwitz to perform his "The Thinking Heart". “In this dark, oppressive place, she provides a moment of light,” said Martin Steingesser of Etty Hillesum. “She was able to rise above her own fears, and find a way to be the best human being under the worst circumstances.”

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)



The Golden Dish - TODAY
Lamb stew for spring

More PPH Blogs