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Play breathes life into writer’s Shoa diaries
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Play breathes life into writer’s Shoa diaries

Susan Stein in performance as Etty Hillesum, the Dutch diarist killed at Auschwitz.
Susan Stein in performance as Etty Hillesum, the Dutch diarist killed at Auschwitz.

The tiny space at Trenton’s gothic-revival Mill Hill Playhouse felt just right for Susan Stein’s performance of Etty, based on the diaries of Dutch-Jewish intellectual Etty Hillesum. 

The claustrophobic diaries were written in Amsterdam and the Westerbork transit camp between 1941 and 1943. Hillesum died in Auschwitz. 

Using only words from Hillesum’s diary, Stein portrays the 20-something woman developing her sense of self and other in a world gone awry. On a stage empty but for a suitcase, Hillesum wrestles with sexuality, prayer, and God as well as her own identity as a writer and as a Jew — all in the face of impending death.

Just days after the murders at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, the events preceding the June 21 performance weighed on both actress and audience. “The play today — that is where it was,” Stein said at the beginning of the second act, which she opened by having audience members share what about the play would stay with them.

For Barbara Fox of Princeton, what was particularly memorable was Hillesum’s reference to the words of her father, who was at Westerbork, as were her mother and brother: “What thousands have borne, we also bear.” For Fox, what he said “captures the Emanuel AME church survivors.”

Another audience member was especially moved by Hillesum’s forthright conversations with God, for example, when she thanked God “that a heart can bear so much.” 

The play’s multi-dimensionality drew filmmaker Richard Blofson to consider developing a documentary that focuses on both Hillesum and Stein. He filmed the June 21 performance and discussion between actress and audience.

Blofson’s idea is to film subsequent performances in a small theater, a warehouse, a women’s prison, and a community college setting. “Our intention at the moment is to interweave those comments and questions and her answers into the program as a whole,” Blofson told NJ Jewish News. “A woman in prison is going to have a hell of a different reaction from a woman going back to school in Philadelphia to study economics at age 50 when her kids are grown up, or a professor.”

Stein said Etty has resonated strongly with prison inmates. Stein noted in an e-mail that Etty herself was imprisoned for over a year at Westerbork, and Hillesum wrote: “The whole of Europe is gradually turning into one great prison camp. Soon there will be nobody left outside.” 

Wrote Stein: “The prison performances are particularly powerful. The inmates open their hearts to Etty’s words, to my visit, and to the discussions.”

Stein studied acting at New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Science and Purchase College at State University of New York. A member of the Princeton Day School faculty for 13 years, she taught dramatic literature, playwriting, and the history and literature of the Holocaust. She appeared in 2005 and then in a revival in 2006 of the HB Playwrights Foundation production of Arthur Miller’s American Clock, directed by Austin Pendleton, who also directs Etty.

Stein said she discovered Hillesum when her college roommate’s mother recommended the book because it had “changed her life.”

Stein didn’t like Etty at first, she said, because “she was really full of herself and self-involved,” but as she kept reading “something shifted, and she was talking to me, and she became an intimate friend.”

When Stein finished the book in 1994, she said she had three thoughts: first, she didn’t understand why Hillesum was not better known; second, she thought she might make a play about Hillesum and bring her story to people who might not read her diaries; and finally, she said, “I wanted to give something back to her. She is a truth seeker — facing it herself because she feels like that is the only way to move forward.”

Stein was then teaching full-time at Princeton Day School and raising two sons. But in 2006, after a serious car accident on Route 287, she surprised herself in the emergency room by thinking that she hadn’t yet done the play about Etty. “I didn’t know that I would give up my job, with health insurance and benefits,” she said, to do the play.

Asked about Hillesum’s weaknesses, Stein talked about Etty’s elitism. “She’s got a little bit of a class issue,” Stein said, noting that she herself had grown up “really poor.” “She is educated — all the things I wish I had been. It was a trigger for me when she says, ‘She’s just a ghetto girl.’”

Stein asked the audience to guess what Hillesum and the other Dutch Jews sang on the freight train leaving Westerbork for Auschwitz. The answer was the Dutch national anthem. “Here’s this country that is sending them off,” Stein said. “But they are singing it because they are Dutch and do not want to leave their home.” During the reception, a Dutch couple, Karin and Bernhard Brouwer, were convinced by Stein to sing the anthem for the assembled.

For Stein, Etty’s story did not stop when she boarded the train to Auschwitz, where she died 89 days later. “When she’s no longer writing, she’s still thinking,” Stein said. “I like to think she was thinking up to the end.”

For more information about the production, visit ettyplay.org.

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