Memory is an incredible thing. Last week I finished reading Art Spiegleman’s Maus and suddenly remembered a powerful experience I had nearly two years ago. I was working for the Maine Humanities Council and volunteered to attend one of the grant events we had recently funded: a performance of “The Thinking Heart” at the Maine Jewish Museum. I was unprepared for the sense of connection the performance would give me—both to the people in the room, and to a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam in the early 1940s, during Nazi occupation.
Former Maine poet laureate Martin Steingesser created this truly unique piece, which combines spoken word poetry and music. He wrote the poems using excerpts from Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943. Etty’s diaries share her intimate thoughts during a long year in the Westerbork holding camp, waiting for her inevitable transport to a concentration camp. She ultimately rode a cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she died at age 29.
The performance, staged in the Maine Jewish Museum’s beautiful synagogue, consisted of Martin Steingesser and Judy Tierney’s voices reading the poems as Robin Jellis played cello accompaniment. The poems unfold as a single first-person narrative in Etty’s optimistic voice. She is a strong, vivacious woman. She had two lovers before the Nazi occupation, and the audience can feel her straining in the gender-segregated camp.
Etty’s love of life is channeled to whatever pleasures she can find in her bleak, starved existence. She describes the clouds. She dwells on the sight of a young soldier holding a gun. Her faith in humanity and appreciation of the world’s beauty miraculously survive conditions that claim lives around her. “Pray, let me be the thinking heart, the thinking heart of a whole concentration camp,” she wrote. Her words preserve an incredible, horrible moment in human history. They are a testament to humanity itself.
I doubt there was a dry eye in the synagogue that night. After the performance, the audience filed downstairs to a room cluttered with chairs and a table of food. It felt like a church potluck of old friends. Steingesser stood near a whiteboard and pulled out a marker, asking us to share a few images that stood out to us in the performance. After the first few people spoke, the responses came quickly—one remembered a bird, another, the description of hunger. The rest of us nodded in agreement, our memories spurred by what other people drew out of the performance.
Steingesser wrote the responses in colored marker as we spoke, and explained that we were creating a poem. As a group, we began to reorganize the images, weed out certain words, develop themes, and add in connections. Certain lines were repeated. Once the process was finished, I was amazed. We made a poem together—something I had always thought of as an individual act. In the process, we had the chance to work through the emotions we experienced in the program and create a deeper meaning and sense of connection. I never saw the people in that room again, but for one night we experienced something truly powerful, together.