Etty Hillesum and Haiku

Etty Hillesum
Etty Hillesum

My spiritual advisor Mary Ann introduced me to Etty Hillesum five years ago and encouraged me to read An Interrupted Life, Letters from Westbrook.  Most people are familiar in some way with Anne Frank.  Few know much about Etty Hillesum, Anne Frank’s adult counterpart who remained a beacon of life in the heart of darkness.  Ms. Hillesum died in Auschwitz in 1943.  She was 29-years old.

Earlier this week, Sister Michelle Authier, RJM from Plainville, Massachusetts brought Etty Hillesum to mind again.  I met Sister Michelle over a year ago as she attended the eight-week sabbatical session at the Redemptorist Renewal Center I frequent.  Sister Michelle reminded me that at 7:30PM on a May evening in 1942, Etty Hillesum wrote in her journal about the efficiency of Japanese writing.  Although she never mentions Haiku, it is clear to me that she is talking about that beautiful art form.  This is what Etty Hillesum wrote a little more than a year before she was transported to Auschwitz,

“Friday evening, 7:30. Looked at Japanese prints with Glassner this afternoon. That’s how I want to write. With that much space round a few Words. They should simply emphasize the silence.  Just like that print with the sprig of blossom in the lower corner.  A few delicate brush strokes—but with what attention to the smallest detail-—and all around it space, not empty but inspired.  The few great things that matter in life can be said in a few words.  If l should ever write—but What?—I would like to brush in a few words against a wordless background. To describe the silence and the stillness and to inspire them. What matters is the right relationship between words and wordless, the wordlessness in which much more happens than in all the words one can string together. And the wordless background of each short st0ry—or whatever it may be—must have a distinct hue and a discrete content, just like those Japanese prints.  It is not some vague and incomprehensible silence, for silence too must have contours and form.  All that Words should do is to lend the silence form and contours. Each word is like a small milestone, a slight rise in the ground beside a flat, endless road across sweeping plains. It really is quite laughable: l can write whole chapters on how I would like to write, and it is quite possible that apart from these words of wisdom l shall never put pen to paper. But those Japanese prints suddenly showed me most graphically how I would really like to write.  And one day, I would love to walk through Japanese landscapes.  In fact, I am sure that one day I shall go to the East.”

Ms. Hillesum never went to the East.  She died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.

“If l should ever write I would like to brush in a few words against a wordless background.”

 I think that is the essence of Haiku.”

A month or so ago, we began posting Haiku poems and we encouraged people to offer their thoughts in exchange.  Jane Park Smith from LA, Jim Tothacer from Nashville, my wife Mrs. tVM and my granddaughter have all participated.

With every post, we encourage everyone to “Write a ‘holy sentence’ every day … none of us has a lock on truth and insight.”

Read Ms. Hillesum’s entry again.  When my wife came into my office yesterday with her Haiku, I felt blessed.  It is something she would not normally do, but given the circumstances of the week, it came to her naturally and purely.

Join the exchange and write a holy sentence every day.