Our journey to Auschwitz is a pilgrimage that reverberates with story, foremost that of bringing the hero and writer Etty Hillesum’s words to life where her life was taken, and ending in Belgium, where we have been invited to perform at the International Etty Hillesum Congress, celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth on January 14, 2014. See Pilgrimage to the Heart
By its nature, this story is bigger, certainly bigger than us, others having returned her words at Auschwitz as well as others surely to follow, our own performances of Etty, The Thinking Heart, hopefully inspiring still others to find new ways to tell her story, whether in film, dance, music or words. And what words!—because to read and get to know Etty is to have a humanistic encounter of life-changing proportions. She is an avatar of all that it means to be and remain human under the most corrosive and oppressive circumstances.
And there are several stories here, stories within stories: first of all, of course, Etty’s and the life of her voice over and through time and space, crossing national borders, crossing and re-crossing continents and oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, crossing the borders of language (her journal and letters are read from her native Netherlands to Japan); and it is the story of her voice through and over the Nazi juggernaut; it is the story too of the mystery of time and space, how it happens she lived and wrote her Holocaust journey, ending with her death in the camps at age 29, and we get to experience it in the bosom of safe communities, rather than vice versa, that is, our perishing in the concentration camp and Etty living to tell about it. We might ask, how is this possible. We swim in the miracle of language like the air that sustains us. Returning her voice to Auschwitz is also the story of the mystery of language itself, how a voice might travel through a line of prose or poetry, a life be lived again in sound and light, in words or in film, crossing that other border between life as we know it and death, that seeming impermeable border between the world and spirit.
So we make a pilgrimage to breathe Etty Hillesum’s words where her life was taken—at Auschwitz. Oswiecim in Polish. Auschwitz is German. It leaves an aftertaste I don’t want in my mouth. Better the Poles take back the name. Oswiecim, yes, even though some Poles were complicit. Complicit. That word, too, leaves an unwanted aftertaste. It is hard to get the taste of these words out of the mouth, because we know them, they are part of us.
Then there is this woman, Etty Hillesum—words flow from her. They flow out, first like a little brook, then a stream. She can’t stop them. We don’t know where they come from. They become a river, a river of words, a river of freshness, and they flow into her notebooks and letters, even from inside that other word, 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.
So this is a story—brook, stream, river into story. We will go there, our small ensemble, to speak her words, and with our musician swell them in the strains of the cello. It will be winter in Auschwitz, and we will bring Etty’s voice there to wash the snow.