‘How I die will show who I really am’: Etty performed in Wheeling

Susan Stein, who portrays Etty in the one-woman show of the same title, drops to her knees and chants a Hebrew psalm during her performance Sunday at St. Michael's Church. 

Susan Stein, who portrays Etty in the one-woman show of the same title, drops to her knees and chants a Hebrew psalm during her performance Sunday at St. Michael's Church. 

By Lee Chottiner

Etty walks on stage (really the pulpit of St. Michael’s Church), and confides in her audience.

For the next 50 minutes, the girl in a simple black dress talks about love and sex, hate and hope, God and man, right and wrong—just about anything she is experiencing in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.

Though cruelty is all around her, Etty won’t let it consume her.

“If an SS man were to kick me to death,” she says, “I should nevertheless look into his face and say, ‘My God! You poor fellow, what terrible things must have happened in your life to bring you to this path?’”

The only stage setting is a suitcase. She sits upon it as she speaks, or when she falls silent. Other times she walks down the aisle recounting her experiences in Westerbork transit camp.

She even drops to her knees, and beneath the vaulted ceiling of the church, chants a Hebrew psalm.

Etty, of course, really isn’t there. She died in Auschwitz on Nov. 30, 1943, at age 29. But she left behind some 800 pages of diaries and letters, which were published in 1981 under the title, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. Since then, the diaries have been turned into a play, Etty, by Susan Stein, the New York actress who performed the show Sunday for 120 people at St. Michael’s. She spoke and prayed the actual words of the young Dutch Jewish woman whose life was cut short by the Holocaust.

Temple Shalom and St. Michael’s co-sponsored Etty, which corresponded with the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazi gangs rampaged through the streets of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, burning and destroying Jewish property and arresting Jewish men.

“Etty” was the nickname of Esther Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who turned to journaling after the Nazi takeover of Holland in 1940 as a way to cope with her depression. She left her diaries for a friend—a writer—hoping her story would not be lost.  

While many Dutch Jews, including the more famous Anne Frank, went into hiding, Etty, through Stein, balks at that option, preferring to be sent to Westerbork, and ultimately, to Auschwitz, where she died with her her parents and brother.

“I wouldn’t feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer,” she tells her audience. “I’m not going out of a sense of masochism, and I wouldn’t turn down an exemption on account of my inflamed kidneys or bladder, and I have been recommended for some sort of soft job with the Jewish Council [the entity set up the Nazis to carry out its orders].

“But that is as far as I am willing to go,” she continues, “beyond that, I am not willing to pull any strings. Everyone who tries to save himself must realize that if he doesn’t go, another must take his place.”

“How I die will show who I really am,” she adds.

She is under no illusions as to her fate. She asks a friend, a Professor Bonger, “‘Do you think democracy can win?’ And he [said] ‘It’s bound to win but it’s going to cost us several generations.’”

“And the next evening at Becker’s,” she adds, “the first thing I heard was: ‘Bonger is dead! …He put a bullet through his brain at eight o’ clock.’”

Stein first read Etty’s diaries in 1994 when she bought a paperback copy at a yard sale for 50 cents. The book changed her life.

She began working on the play in 2006, “distilling” Etty’s words with the help of famed actor, director and writer Austin Pendleton. It was Pendleton who urged Stein not to write the play chronologically, but to organize the lines in ways that would carry the most impact for her audience.

The play is entirely Etty’s words. Nothing has been added, though Stein often struggles with what to leave in and what to take out.

For instance, for her Wheeling performance, Stein left out one of the diaries’ more controversial passages pertaining to Etty’s abortion.

Stein has performed the play around the world: in schools, theaters, libraries, universities, even at Yad Vashem—Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum—and in England before the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A graduate of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science, Stein has also performed the play in several prisons here and abroad (she performed it this week at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh).

It’s the feedback from inmates that she finds particularly informing.

“Their comments have been powerful,” Stein says during Act II of the program, the part where she steps out of character and engages the audience in a discussion. “I think it’s through the comments of the inmates that I learned this is a prison story.”

Stein also uses Act II to make some forceful points about the Holocaust, saying Hitler alone was not responsible.

“The Holocaust did not happen because of one man; it was successful because so many contributed to it,” she says. “The Holocaust happened because the world let it happen.”

In the end, her positive outlook on life—even amid so much horror—impresses Stein, who has been living with Etty’s words for years.

She notes one passage where she sees a guard at Westerbork picking a purple flower, his rifle slung over his shoulder.

“I think she was committed to showing there was beauty,” Stein says, “that beauty and horror can live simultaneously.”

She concludes the program by discussing the suitcase on the pulpit, her one piece of stage setting. In her diaries, Etty writes about what she plans to pack in it when she is sent to Auschwitz. She prefers books, especially those of her favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

At a previous performance, she says, one man was deeply disturbed by that choice. Why not food, and other essentials? Stein just couldn’t get that man to see it through the author’s eyes.

“My point to him is, you weren’t there; she gets to pack whatever she wants to take,” she recalls. “Everyone gets to pack whatever they want; it’s their suitcase.”