‘Etty,’ the play: from Amsterdam to Auschwitz

‘Etty,’ the play: from Amsterdam to Auschwitz

Susan Stein has performed “Etty” in men’s prisons, in a Jerusalem Orthodox center and in a Muslim school, among other diverse locations. (Photos by Ricardo Barros)
Susan Stein has performed “Etty” in men’s prisons, in a Jerusalem Orthodox center and in a Muslim school, among other diverse locations. (Photos by Ricardo Barros)

Classrooms Without Borders is offering the opportunity to step back in time to spend an evening with a bright, young Dutch Jew, Etty Hillesum, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29.

In the vision of actress/playwright Susan Stein, whose one-woman show “Etty” will be performed for one night only on Sunday, April 12 at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Etty steps into the world not only to address her audience, but to challenge them and ask them to be her witnesses and confidants.

The real-life Etty was a 27-year-old woman with a law degree living in occupied Amsterdam and suffering from depression when her Jungian therapist encouraged her to keep a diary. In it, she describes and contemplates the growing persecution of Jews, her experiences work-ing for the Jewish Council and her tribulations and triumphs in Westerbork, the last stop before Auschwitz.

Adapted by Stein from The New York Times best-seller, “Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from West-erbork,” Etty’s diaries and letters come alive as Stein speaks to the audience in Etty’s actual words. The audience shares Etty’s search for meaning and for God in a poetic and evocative journey through darkness, exaltation and spirituality.

Etty came from a highly assimilated, middle-class Dutch family. Initially she worked for the Jewish Council, then volunteered to be transferred to Westerbork, where she brought with her a Jewish Bible, a Koran and a New Testament. In the depths of the camp life, she read both the Talmud and St. Augustine in her struggle to “open a space where God can live.”

For Stein, Etty’s conversations with God invoke the patriarch Abraham and his dialogue with God. Stein describes Etty’s journey as a “spiritual transformation. As her outer world got smaller and her freedoms were taken away, her inner world grew.” Even in the confinement of the camps, Etty found a lyrical voice. Speaking to God, she affirms, “You cannot help us. I shall have to help you.”

Stein has performed this play in as diverse locations as Israel’s Yad Vashem, inner city schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., men’s prisons, women’s shelters, an Orthodox center in Jerusalem, a Muslim school in Great Britain and for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Stein has three specific versions of “Etty: the Play” — for adults, for high school students and for middle school students. After each performance there is an audience discussion, and for school groups, study guides. Directed by Austin Pendleton, the Rodef Shalom performance has adult themes and is appropriate for a mature audience. The suggested donation is $18.

Simone Shapiro can be reached at simoneshapiro@hotmail.com.