I am hard put to convey the exquisite intensity of Susan Stein’s stunning performance of a play simply titled “Etty.” So seamless was her acting and brilliant script that it was easy to believe that Stein actually was this richly complex and intriguing young woman, Etty, living in her beloved but Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1941.
Standing on stage and at times down by the edge of the audience in the Unitarian Universalist Society last Tuesday night, strong-minded Etty tells us that she refused to go into hiding because she “has so much to do with her life.” Likewise, after two weeks Etty left disgusted despite the relative safety of working for the Jewish Council, which carried out Nazi orders on its own Jewish community. As an act of solidarity, Etty volunteered to be among the first group of prisoners shipped to Westerbork, a transit camp where she knows it is only a matter of time before she will be transported to Auschwitz, and the inevitable death that awaits her.
Etty’s exterior experience is the base on which Stein seamlessly stitched together a nonlinear unfolding of Etty’s innermost growth as she grapples with the collapsing world around her. In an interview, Stein explained, “I wasn’t interested in presenting the story of her life, although that is a story that deserves to be told. I wanted to tell the story of her thinking, her transformation, the story of her sensibility. That story has its own chronology, but it is not the chronology of dates in a conventional sense.”
Stein, virtually channeling Etty, speaks directly to us, transforming us into immediate intimate friends with whom she shares her tender feelings toward her lovers; desperate desire to be a poet; and most of all, her growing spiritual journey. To me the imperative theme is her evolving relationship with God, along with the duality of the God within herself or, as she says, “the deepest and best part of myself, which for the sake of convenience I call God.”
Her conversations with God run throughout the hourlong performance, where she alternately questions, thanks, and confronts Him. For instance, she says, “I need to speak to You alone. Is that all right? Your lessons are hard, God. I am almost proud that You don’t keep your last and greatest mysteries from me. I have an almost demonic urge to watch everything that happens. To observe with detachment what people look like in their last convulsions.” At another point declaring, “You cannot help us; I shall have to help you, God.”
Remarkably, Etty refuses to see herself as a victim of the horror around her, but instead finds a place of compassion, telling us that “in this tempestuous havoc-ridden world of ours, all real communication comes from the heart.” She is not embittered but discovers, or cultivates, an inner place where she can say, “To think that one small heart can experience so much suffering and so much love. Thank you, God, for choosing my heart in these times.” She even takes a merciful tone regarding her captors. “If an SS man were to kick me to death, I should nevertheless look into his face and wonder, ‘My God! You poor fellow. What terrible things must have happened in your life to bring you to this pass!’”
I asked Stein if it was emotionally draining to inhabit such an intense person and story every time she performs. She responded easily, “I love being with Etty and her thinking and words. It is a great gift to hold her words inside me. As awful as her circumstances are, she chooses to live fully, and commits herself to finding beauty even inside the horror. She is a truth seeker. I don’t know many people who dare to face and live in the truth. Being inside her thinking and diaries is refreshing, although her circumstances are beyond what I can imagine.”
Every word Stein speaks is Etty’s, the script being a pastiche taken directly from her deeply personal diaries and letters to close friends. Virtually every line in this carefully crafted play makes an impact. Unsurprisingly, Stein found the decisions of what to include from Etty’s writings the longest part of the project, saying, “Each word that got to stay in the play had to have a home. If there was no home for the line, it couldn’t stay in.”
When asked what compelled her to craft the diaries into a play that she performs for audiences in theaters, schools, colleges, and prisons, Stein responds: “No writer had ever invited me into myself the way Etty did. It is as if she is speaking directly to me. She is so naked, raw and vulnerable, while also being strong and committed and courageous. It was disarming and thrilling and inspiring. I had never encountered a sensibility like hers. She gives so much in her writing with her great heart and willingness to write her truth. I wanted to give her something back. To say thank you in some way… Mostly I want people to read her writings to form their own relationship with her sensibility and allow her to invite them into themselves and face their shame, their potential, and their capacity for hatred and love.”
Stein’s poignant ending resonated long after the play finished: “How much You have given me, God … I think I work well with You, God. And we work well together. It doesn’t really matter if I go or somebody else does. The main thing is that so many thousands have to go … And if I should not survive, how I die will show me who I really am.” And she leaves us with these last heartbreaking lines, “Every word is fading, I need new words, unborn words. There is no hidden poet in me. Just a little piece of God that might grow into poetry. And a camp needs a poet, even there a bard to sing about it.”
While Etty may have gone to her death believing she was no poet, Stein’s play using nothing but Etty’s words proves she most definitely was a profound bard.
To learn more about the Etty project and see a short video with excerpts of Stein performing Etty, go to ettyplay.org. For Etty’s writings see: “Etty: the letters and diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943.” Etty Hillesum, K.A.D. Smelik, and Arnold Pomerans, 2002, William B. Eerdmans Publishers, or “An interrupted life: the diaries, 1941-1943”; and “Letters from Westerbork.”. Etty Hillesum, J.G. Gaarlandt, 1996, Henry Holt.