The Letters Fly Free

Returning Etty's words at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Returning Etty Hillesum’s words at Auschwitz-Birkenau
© 2014 Arthur Fink Photography

Centre for Dialogue & Prayer, Oswiecim and Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 2014

Martin Steingesser

What could be simpler?—  A young Dutch woman, Etty Hillesum, sits down at her desk, looks out the window overlooking Gabriel Metsustraat, in Amsterdam. Her gaze drops to the blank page of her journal, and she begins to write, and write, and write. . .

From that first journal entry in German-occupied Holland in the spring of 1941 until the autumn of ’43, when the Nazis murdered Etty at Auschwitz-Birkenau, she wrote herself into history, her voice reaching us across national borders, language barriers (her writings now translated in 18 languages), continents, oceans and that other apparently fenceless distance, time.

Long ago, it’s told, the Romans wrapped a Jewish martyr in Torah scrolls and set him on fire. “I see parchment burning,” he cried out, “but the letters fly free.”

Moved by this, Etty’s courage, intelligence, wit, but perhaps most of all by her passion for life, the depth and reach of her love, and her commitment to finding words for us to also know that passion for life and love—I created with two others an ensemble version of her book, An Interruped Life and Letters from Westerbork, for performance.

Late last year, we received an invitation to perform The Thinking Heart: the Life & Loves of Etty Hillesum, the title of our performance work, at the International Etty Hillesum Congress, in Belgium (January 13-15, 2014), in celebration of the 100th anniversary of her birth. We would accept the invitation but first fulfill what had become a commitment to Etty to bring her voice and words to where they were taken from her, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A victory, small as it may seem but undeniable in its way, this one voice, proven unstoppable by all the Nazi hardware and machinery of death, to breathe and speak again over the acres of Birkenau.

Is this not powerful? It strikes me so, how Etty’s commitment to community in the camps continues to live, encourage and foster community among us.

“I see parchment burning,” the Jewish martyr being burned alive in Torah scrolls cried out, “but the letters fly free.”

How else explain the coming together of our Ensemble, the audiences who gather round us for her story and the friends at home in Maine who gathered to support and make possible our journey to Auschwitz. And then, too, the supportive welcome at the Centre for Dialogue & Prayer, in Oswiecim, for us and Etty’s story, the gentle and nurturing guidance there of Father Manfred Deselaers, author of “And Your Conscience Never Haunted You?”: The Life of Rudolf Höss, Commander of Auschwitz, and Pastor and Program Manager at the Centre, along with Mary O’Sullivan, a Member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in the Education Department. Again the warmth of friendship and that passion for the love of life—or is it the life of love? or is it they are one?

Listen to the Earth, to your Heart, to the Other and to God, they advised. These are the four pillars of the Centre.

“There was nothing,” Fr. Manfred said. “The nothing is most important. Let me explain,” he said, then smiled and went on to tell us about his father, whom he loved. “When he died, there was his coat on a rack, and of course he wasn’t in it. We must listen for what is missing, to hear what’s missing.”

We envisioned our journey to Auschwitz as a Pilgrimage, calling it a Pilgrimage to the Heart, taking the word pilgrimage writ large to be the path of each person’s life to the truth of self-realization, symbolized here, of course, by the heart. For us, it reverberates with story, foremost the story of bringing Etty’s words to life where her life was taken. Others have returned her words at Auschwitz as well as others I am sure to follow, our own pilgrimage hopefully inspiring some, perhaps even to begin annual January pilgrimages celebrating her birth and life.

Ours—I want to think of it as a triumph of the spirit over tyranny, not only the tyranny of man but a victory over the duality of body and spirit in a collaboration with the dead through art, in this instance Etty Hillesum’s art, the form with which we spoke it, as well as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, itself no longer the camps but a form for transmission of what took place there.

So this is the story—brook, stream, river into story: first like a little brook, then a stream. They become a river, a river of words, a river of freshness, and they flow into her notebooks and

letters, even from inside that black hole, Auschwitz. Etty’s words burst the dam of Auschwitz, and now they flow out of us, and we shudder as they wash us, at the warmth and light they leave in our mouth, in our heart.

Returning Etty Hillesum’s voice at Auschwitz-Birkenau is also the story of the mystery of

consciousness, language and art: “I see parchment burning. . . but the letters fly free.”

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