‘Part theater, part cause’

‘Part theater, part cause’

Fort Lee’s Gesher Shalom to mark Yom HaShoah with original play about doomed Holocaust diarist

Susan Stein plays Etty Hillesum. (Ricardo Barros)
Susan Stein plays Etty Hillesum. (Ricardo Barros)

When Susan Stein saw the book for 50 cents at the yard sale, she remembered the recommendation from her friend’s mother. She was a woman who read a lot of books — and recommended few of them. Ms. Stein trusted her recommendation even as she found the first pages tough slogging.

The book was a translation of the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew. Ms. Hillesum was 26 when the Nazis conquered Holland. At 27, she began keeping a diary, at the suggestion of her Jungian analyst.

At first, “I didn’t like her,” Ms. Stein said.

But as she kept reading, “something changed. I felt like she was speaking intimately to me, almost whispering in my ear. Her sensibility felt remarkable and incredible and unique and disarming and embarrassing and funny and sad.”

The diaries describe Ms. Hillesum’s experiences and feelings as the Nazi restrictions on the Jews of Amsterdam increase, and then she finds herself at the Westerbork transit camp. The published diaries conclude before she is deported to Auschwitz in September 1943, where she dies two months later.

When Ms. Stein finished reading the book, she didn’t want to let Ms. Hillesum go. So she set out to write a play based on the diaries, and on her letters, which also had been collected and published. The result, “Etty,” is a one-woman performance culled from the diaries, in which Ms. Stein becomes Ms. Hillesum.

Ms. Stein will perform at Congregation Gesher Shalom, the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, before Yizkor services on Shabbat, April 27, the eighth day of Passover.

Gesher Shalom’s Rabbi, Kenneth Stern, explained that with dwindling attendance at his congregation’s Yom HaShoah observances, and with aging congregants reluctant to travel to Fair Lawn for the regional observance sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, he has moved his congregation’s Yom HaShoah observance to the eighth day of Passover and Yizkor.

Susan Stein

Rabbi Stern said that the story of Etty Hillesum “personalizes Yom HaShoah in a different way than when we hear survivors speak. This is someone who didn’t have the privilege of surviving, whose story of atrocity won’t be described, but whose normal anxieties of life remain in view.”

Ms. Stein said that she had no idea “how hard it would be” to turn Ms. Hillesum’s words into a play. Yet she felt an intense desire to “give something back” to Ms. Hillesum. “She feels like giving you a lot in the diaries. She is a truth-seeker, and she does that right on the page. I wanted to keep her with me. I want to get her to as many people as possible. I want her name on politician’s lips. I think it’s her words we need.

“This is part theater and part cause.”

Ms. Stein said the focus of the play is on Ms. Hillesum’s “sensibility. Her wanting to be a writer. Her spiritual transformation. Her spiritual yearning. How she becomes herself in this set of circumstances. It’s pretty remarkable.

“It upsets some people and confuses them because she’s not trying to save herself. It’s not that story.

“She has a keen sense of what’s happening. On July 3, 1942, she writes that ‘They’re out to destroy us completely.’ That’s insight. That’s pretty early for Dutch Jews. That said, my interpretation is that she believes and hopes she’ll survive. She says in a letter in 1943, ‘Some people will have to survive to be the chroniclers. Why can’t I be one of them?’

“I believe she understands she’s in a genocide. I’m not sure she can hold on to that understanding at every minute of every day. I’m not sure anyone can. She has access to a radio. She writes in her diary that the English radio announced that 700,000 Jews have been murdered in Poland. She’s aware of something other Jews might not have been aware of.”

The last word received from Ms. Hillesum was a postcard she pushed through the broken planks of the freight train that took her and her family from the Westerbork camp in Holland to Auschwitz in Poland.

Etty Hillesum

“A few days later a farmer finds it. It was addressed to her seventh-grade Latin teacher, a colleague of her father. They were sending food supplies. Etty said not to send any more. And she says, ‘We left the camp singing.’ We can interpret that as her asking, ‘Remember us this way.’

“I don’t think she’s surprised she doesn’t come back. She’s not naive.

“The play to a certain extent is also a prayer. She has a spiritual transformation through her diary-keeping. She refers to God as the deepest part within herself. She has an Abraham-like conversation with God. There’s a Jewish wrestling match going on.”

Ms. Stein has presented the play to some 60,000 people around the world, at venues ranging from theater festivals to prisons.

At Gesher Shalom, Ms. Stein will present an abbreviated version of the play. The full version runs an hour, and is then followed by a discussion.

She said the discussion at universities changed rapidly from last academic year to this one.

“Last year, many of the undergraduate women were really seeing the play, and what they had read about Etty, through the lens of the #MeToo movement. Etty is in the midst of a couple different love affairs, and one is with her therapist.”

“This year, I started touring four days after the Pittsburgh shooting. #MeToo hasn’t come up. This year it’s about gun violence and hatred and the political climate. The play is about how Etty is living in this time of hatred and refused to hate. It’s never resonated the way it’s resonating now.

“At the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, a significant part of the audience was young Palestinians. They loved Etty. They bought her book. They wanted to stay to talk about her.

“The conversations are always different. In prisons it’s particularly powerful.”

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