When I don’t have to sleep on an iron bunk,
surrounded by barbed wire,
I shall have a little lamp
above my bed, light around me
whenever I want.
_Etty Hillesum/Martin Steingesser
It will be winter at Auschwitz when they arrive, the trio of performers, to return Etty Hillesum’s voice to the very place it was silenced. It will be cold, stark, snowy, and gray. Yet with Hillesum’s words in the air, it will also be beautiful.
The journal and letters of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who died at the death camp at age 29, were published posthumously in 1981; they offered lyrical, intimate, and loving insights about a time and place that was decidedly and terrifyingly dark. Though she was offered several opportunities to go into hiding or otherwise avoid her fate, Hillesum chose instead to stay with her people, intent on being “a powerful source of healing for others in the camps,” says Portland Poet Laureate Emeritus Martin Steingesser.
Steingesser was so inspired by Hillesum’s prose — and the courage it conveyed — that he “constellated” her words as poems, re-arranging her observations and imagery into short verses. “Passages would leap out at me and combine almost at their own will,” he recalls. The result was The Thinking Heart: The Life and Loves of Etty Hillesum, a small volume of poetry that doubles as a piece of performance art, set to music by cellist Robin Jellis and recited by Steingesser and Judy Tierney. In 2011, Portland Phoenix writer Megan Grumbling called the performance an “intimate and profoundly moving meditation on how, despite everything, to love.”
This winter, Steingesser, Jellis, and Tierney will bring The Thinking Heart to Europe. They will travel first to Auschwitz, where they will offer up Hillesum’s words against a backdrop of winter snow, thereby “returning Etty’s voice to where her life and voice were taken,” Steingesser says. Then they will continue on to Belgium, where the ensemble has been invited to perform at the International Etty Hillesum Congress, celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth. To prepare for their journey, which they have dubbed “Pilgrimage to the Heart,” the ensemble will present three performances of The Thinking Heart as fundraisers in Portland and Yarmouth this fall.
Speaking at their home on Munjoy Hill, Steingesser and Tierney seem awed by the prospect of honoring Hillesum, who has become a powerful force in their own lives, in such a profound way.
“This trip, it isn’t simply about us,” Steingesser says. It’s part of a larger mystery — of how a voice can remain even after its speaker is gone, of how even in this violent and oppressive world, we can find shimmers of healing and light. The Thinking Heart, he says, is “a love story of a woman who would not allow her love for life and people to be diminished.”
Hillesum’s words ring as necessary reminders that, as Tierney puts it, “love is really a force in the world.”
THE THINKING HEART: THE LIFE AND LOVES OF ETTY HILLESUM | performed by Martin Steingesser, Judy Tierney, and Robin Jellis | Sunday, October 6 @ 4 pm with the Casco Bay Tummlers Klezmer Band | The Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St, Portland | Tuesday, October 22 @ 8 pm (abridged performance with Port Veritas) | Bull Feeney’s, 375 Fore St, Portland | Saturday, October 26 @ 7:30 pm (this performance is a benefit for Pilgrimage to the Heart; $50) | 317 Main Community Music Center, 317 Maine St, Yarmouth | 207.828.9937 | pilgrimagetotheheart.org