It is barely conceivable how one woman, at a way station en route to Auschwitz, wrote so ardently of purple lupine. And of gulls, of boiling endive on a hot-plate, of "glorious rye bread." This woman of such startling joys is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who was killed in 1943, at the age of 29. Her incandescent journals and letters — most of which were written at Westerbork, a concentration camp where Dutch Jews were held before being shipped on to the Auschwitz death camp — chronicle a mere two years of what Hillesum saw and how she levied delight against horror.
Her words are given voice in The Thinking Heart, a "chronological collage" of Hillesum's writings recited by Martin Steingesser and Judy Tierney, with original cello improvisation by Robin Jellis. It will be performed on Sunday, May 1, at First Parish Church in Portland, at 7 pm (with additional performances upcoming).
From Hillesum's journal and letters, which run from March 1941 to September 1943, Portland Poet Laureate Emeritus Martin Steingesser has "constellated" a progression of her words in "poetic variations," which he and Tierney recite in conversation with Jellis on cello. The ensemble considers the performance to have four voices: that of Etty Hillesum, the two vocalists, and Jellis's cello. While their creation is skillfully and passionately performed, it is not precisely an act of theater: Absent is any sense of a fourth wall, and instead the ensemble's affect recalls the fact that together, both performers and audience are people sitting together in a room. It's this quality, along with Hillesum's remarkable voice and the ensemble's stirring simplicity, that make The Thinking Heart a intimate and profoundly moving meditation on how, despite everything, to love.
Most immediately striking in Hillesum's writing is her sensuousness, which is sublimely expansive: She revels in tangibles, but lives in the physical world with a poet's sense of how the spirit inhabits the quotidian. She is especially attuned to the pleasures of flowers and food; indeed, the very first words we hear of her in The Thinking Heart are an homage to "a red anemone." Not long after, she declares that "today's joy is a magnolia," before reveling in the yellow daffodils beside her love's pillow.
The role of her sensuousness evolves once she and her family are at Westerbork; Steingesser's subtle culling lets us hear how her ecstasy matures from a focus on lovers and self to a much more difficult wisdom, and a more universal transcendence. Amid the horrors and ever-imminent death of the camp Hillesum rapturously recounts the smallest details of community and camaraderie — the delivery and divvying up of precious bread, the sharing of a single tin of pea soup. Her strength of spirit must have been uncommon among the other stricken internees, and sometimes we hear her implicit acknowledgment of this, of the limits of her love: One day, she tells, she's lifted by the sight of a rainbow, and some men in the camp ask if she's heard good news, ask the reason why she's smiling. Hillesum wistfully reflects, "How could I fob them off with the rainbow — really, the only reason."