Written after seeing Heartwood Regional Theater Company’s
January presentation of the one-woman show, “Etty,” starring Susan Stein
I can’t even attempt to pretend that I know what the play “Etty” is about, nor can I grasp the full dimension of the spirituality of either Susan Stein’s performance or Etty Hillesum’s writing. All I can say is that this play, which I saw at the Parker B. Poe Theater at Lincoln Academy, is one-of-a-kind, with a distinct level of dedication that the author as well as the actor, Stein, has paid to this production, and a depth of spiritual discussion this play has brought to various groups, from middle schools to high schools, from prisons to large city theaters.
Invited by Lincoln Academy’s theater program director, Griff Braley, Stein brought Hillesum to the Parker B. Poe Theater in January. Stein has worked on this project, bringing Hillesum to life and the public’s attention, for more than eight years. Directed by the renowned American playwright and theater director Austin Pendleton, “Etty” is a one-woman play with a screenplay adapted from Hillesum’s personal diaries from her time working for the Jewish Council, an administrative agency under Nazi order against the Jewish population during World War II, until she willingly stepped on the train to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where her life ended.
With a suitcase on an empty stage, Stein passionately portrays the character of Etty, using her own writings of her intimate observation and reflection on her life, redefining her morality, spirituality, and her will as a young Jewish woman in the era of the Holocaust. Etty refuses to see herself as a victim of the Holocaust. She refuses to use her privileges to escape and survive at the risk of others’ lives. She refuses to blame the soldiers who, in her imagination of her death, might kick her to death, but she sympathizes with the illness of the soldiers. She is a woman who is able to observe the beauty of an SS guard picking up a blue lupine at the eve of her deportation on a sunny afternoon. She doesn’t rely on God for an answer but she seeks and nurtures peace and freedom within herself. She is so unshakable that she affirms the power of human spirituality to bring authenticity and dignity in the face of an evil human creation to destroy both.
Why do I care so much to write a column on this?
Truth be told, I have been procrastinating on this piece for two weeks now, simply because I was or still am not able to formulate my thoughts and emotions because of the content of this play and Hillesum’s philosophy behind her choices. Interestingly, Stein shared with our AP literature class that after eight years of performing and researching for the play “Etty,” she finds herself losing Etty at times in the spiritual and artistic complexity of her work. After Stein’s very personal and inspiring story, sharing her journey with the play “Etty,” she definitely sparked a lot of questions within the young minds in the class that had been edified in the learning of the Book of Job and the Archibald MacLeish play “J.B.” Indeed, where is God in the Holocaust? No one deserves to be murdered the way the Jews were in World War II. Will there be compensation from God for their cruelly inhuman treatment? I don’t think so.
So how can Etty not let her destined fate of death stain her life?
Etty knew the genocide was inevitable as she contended every day with the changes unfolding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She had all the chances and privileges to escape for survival, but she didn’t intend to take them. Instead, she determined to have her life fully, even if being murdered in a genocide was a part of it. She never let the destruction define her as a being, while over the course of history, countless cultures, entities, and individuals — prosperous or doomed – have inevitably defined themselves with their unforgettable experience of pain and lived to fight and compensate for their scars.
Etty never challenges or questions God’s doing in an era against humanity, but she confronts her fear, seeks her inner peace, and finds God in herself.
We might never, beyond our human reach, know the cosmic truth of life, but Etty Hillesum does show us a refreshingly beautiful perspective to having the life that we are given. There might be very little free will in our predestined life, but why not just take it as it is and enjoy it?
Lastly, in the words of the late American crime-fiction author Charles Williams to English poet and playwright Christopher Fry, “When we’re dead we shall have the sensation of having enjoyed life altogether, whatever has happened to us. Even if we’ve been murdered, what a pleasure to have been capable of it!”
(Hindley Wang is a senior at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. Originally from Shanghai, China, she currently lives in school housing. Contact Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org.)