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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: April 2, 2018

With hate on the rise, Maine poets reprise their tribute to Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum

Written by: Bob Keyes

Martin Steingesser, Rudy Gabrielson and Judy Tierney perform “Etty’s Song.”
Photo courtesy of Off the Page

Martin Steingesser and Judy Tierney thought they were finished performing their tribute to Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who was killed at the German concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland, along with members of her family, in 1943 as part of the Holocaust.

Steingesser and Tierney performed “The Thinking Heart: The Life and Loves of Etty Hillesum” many dozen times over the years, retiring it soon after they performed it at Auschwitz in 2014. But the hate that has crept into American life has resurrected the work. Steingesser, Tierney and a new musical collaborator, Rudy Gabrielson, will perform a new version of their tribute, called “Etty’s Song,” on Saturday and Sunday at Watts Hall in Thomaston, and will repeat the performance April 15 at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland and April 27 at L/A Arts Downstage in Lewiston.

The new piece is based on Hillesum’s writings and complemented by Steingesser’s poems. “Etty’s Song” is a new arrangement, with new music by Gabrielson playing keyboards and other instruments. They call their trio Off the Page, because they take beautiful words written for the page and repurpose them as a performance of words and music.

“We had done the original piece quite a long time, and we were satisfied with it,” Steingesser said. “But it’s become clear the circumstances of oppression, which seemed remote and distant from us, are present in our culture again.”

With hate crimes on the rise in this country and around the world, Steingesser and Tierney agreed they needed to revisit the writings and wisdom of Hillesum. Steingesser has called her the “unknown Martin Luther King Jr.,” who had the ability in the darkest moments to find peace, love and light. She kept a journal the last few years of her life, and her writings were published in 1981, nearly 40 years after her death at the hands of the Nazis.

The original piece ended as she boarded the train for Auschwitz. The new piece focuses more on the meaning of her life and emphasizes her spirit and capacity for love, “which doesn’t have sufficient coin in today’s marketplace,” Steingesser said. “We didn’t want to end with her end, but with what is alive with us today and how we deal with the darker aspects of ourselves.”

The new piece begins in January 2014, when the poets performed at Auschwitz. It also refers to the Trail of Tears, the Abu Graib prison in Iraq and oppressions in Chile and elsewhere in South America.

Tierney said it felt appropriate that “Etty’s Song” is getting its premiere and introduction during the seasons of Passover, Easter and spring, and their eternal promise of hope, love and life.

“Etty’s Song”

WHEN & WHERE: 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, Watts Hall, Main Street, Thomaston; 4 p.m. April 15, Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St., Portland; and 7 p.m. April 27, L/A Arts Downstage, 221 Lisbon St., Lewiston
HOW MUCH: $10 for all performances
INFO: For Thomaston, call 785-6435; for Portland, call 773-2339; for Lewiston, 782-7228

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