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 were drowning."

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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