The broad strokes of Etty Hillesum’s life before World War II were not particularly remarkable. Her father was a Dutch school master, and her mother was one of many Russian Jews who fled the pogroms of their homeland to make a new life Western Europe.
Hillesum herself wasn’t a particularly good student, although she was interested in languages. Her brother was a very skilled pianist, but she showed no particular aptitude for music. She worked as a housekeeper. She had a romantic relationship with her boss.
In her diaries, however, Hillesum went on a rich and deep quest to become a more spiritual person, even as the world around her was erupting. She was very concerned with being a loving person, no matter how unloving the world was to her. For instance, after a dramatic run-in with a Gestapo agent, she wrote that her response wasn’t fear, “not because I am brave but because I know that I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does.”
As the restrictions on Jews became stricter, she of course found it harder to be so magnanimous. After she was forced to wear the Star of David, rumors of death camps started to fill Hillesum’s thoughts.
“I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.”
Composer Alexandra du Bois says she was introduced to Hillesum’s writings by a violinist with the Kronos Quartet. “He felt strongly that I would find her kindred, and said he could hear a string quartet in her writing.” He was right.
“I found an incredible voice in her journals and letters. One filled with genuine compassion, empathy, unabashedly open eyes, strength, courage, hope, profound forgiveness, yearning, sorrow and love. These elements, when combined, contain a certain 'sound' to me. A vibration.”
Du Bois secured a commission from the Kronos Quartet to write a new composition inspired by the diaries. She obtained a grant to visit the places where Hillesum and her family lived in the Netherlands, the Nazi transit camp where she volunteered to accompany the first Jews forcibly removed from Amsterdam, and Auschwitz, where Hillesum, both of her parents and one of her brothers died.
The composer says each movement of the Night Songs is meant to be a response to a specific element of Hillesum’s life. For instance, one, called “Thinking Heart,” deals with her efforts to react to difficulties with love. In the past, the music has been played without a pause between those sections. But for its Nashville premiere, du Bois says and the musicians of ALIAS Chamber Ensemble have decided to create pauses for Hillesum’s words to be read.
ALIAS Cellist Sari DeLeon Reist found it important to read Hillesum’s diaries as she was learning du Bois’s music. At first, she found herself drawn to composition’s “dark, warm texture.” But what she says she’s taking away from the experience is a sense of hope. “Even in the most desperate and horrific times, the power of love and constant faith in humanity will always win.”
ALIAS Chamber Ensemble will perform Night Songs Tuesday evening at OZ Arts Nashville to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The program also features Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen. The French composer wrote the piece around the same time Hillesum started keeping her diary. The French composer was a captive in a German POW camp at the time, and he scored the music for the only instruments available to him there: piano, cello, clarinet and violin. Its first performance took place on a cold January evening in the unheated common room of Stalag VIII-A with a couple hundred French, Polish and Belgian prisoners and a handful of Nazi officers as the audience.