More on Hillesum: darkness that is not dark
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 17, 2004
In last week's column, we left the story of Dutch Holocaust diarist Etty
Hillesum just days before she was crammed into a railway freight car bound
for Auschwitz, one of the six million Jews to die under Hitler.
Of such jam-packed cars she had previously written: "The freight
cars had been completely sealed, but a plank had been left out here and
there, and people put their hands through the gaps and waved as if they
Memories of those "drowning" hands brought this note from
a Dutch coffee companion who is a regular at our table:
I WAS A little boy in Hilversum, the Netherlands. We lived only a
few blocks from a large rail yard. I remember asking my mom for chunks
of scarce bread, then running to the rail yard, crawling through the
fence, and scrambling with other little kids to the lines of boxcars
where from every hole and crack an open hand stuck out. I will never
forget the muffled shouting inside the boxcars.
Jack Popjes, Trinidad
ANOTHER OF our coffee companions, historian John Chalmers, has been
to the final destination of those trains. He wrote:
I HAVE STOOD beside the railway tracks at the very spot in Auschwitz
where the boxcars of Jews were unloaded and the prisoners sent immediately
to either the gas chambers or to slave labour. Strangely enough, it
was not the empty barracks, the tracks to the gas chambers, or the display
of a huge amount of hair that had been shorn from women that had the
most impact on me.
It was the display of a great many suitcases and other pieces of luggage
that shocked me, because it was on the pieces of luggage that the prisoners
had written their names, and it was then that the people who had suffered
at Auschwitz became real Else Hitschmann, Peter Eisler, Margarete
Glaser, Herman Pasternak, Liese Morgenstern and Klement Hedwig
real names of real people, ordinary people, plucked from their daily
lives by an evil force and sentenced to death.
John Chalmers, Edmonton
HOW IS IT, then, that such evil evoked such goodness from Hillesum?
I raised this with Greg Clark, rector of Cochrane's All Saints Anglican
Parish. He replied:
I DON'T THINK these words of Etty Hillesum need any commentary. Reading
them, and being silent before them, can perhaps help us to be a bit
more human both before God and with one another.
As a parish priest, I am often concerned about making what might seem
like glib remarks about finding God in suffering. I am aware that such
words often ring very hollow. At the end of the Book of Job, does not
God himself speak "out of the whirlwind" and say that he is
"burning with anger" towards Job's friends who have offered
Job pat explanations for his anguish?
Many of us, in many capacities, have been gifted by the opportunity
to be with people during times of vulnerability. I call it a gift, because
that is what it feels like. Northrop Frye says something about God being
Present and Presence.
Hillesum's words cause one to recall Psalm 139: "Lord, you have
searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising
up; you discern my thoughts from afar
Where can I go then from
your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb to the
heaven, you are there, if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts
of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold
me fast. If I say, 'Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light
around me turn to night,' darkness is not dark to you; the night is
as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike."
Greg Clark, Cochrane
TO QUOTE Hillesum, "How glorious the Psalms are." Thank you.
© 2004 Warren Harbeck
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