Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Living with Etty

by Catriona Troth
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Barros

Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman from the Netherlands murdered in Auschwitz. Like Anne Frank, she kept a diary which was found and published after her death. But perhaps because Etty is a more morally complex and ambiguous character, it took 38 years before her diary was published, and even now it is hardly known.

A chance discovery at a yard sale brought Etty into the life of actress and writer Susan Stein. And now, through the one-woman play she wrote based on the diaries, Etty has become her life’s work. Between performances during her latest British tour, Stein explained how the play came about, and how it develops as she travels the world, bringing Etty to an astonishing range of audiences.


I began by asking Stein how she first encountered Etty Hillesum, and why she decided to turn her diaries into a play.

“I first heard of the book from a college roommate’s mother who did not recommend books lightly.
She said it had changed her life. Then a few months later, I found a copy at a yard sale in a little town in Maine for 50 cents. It was the abridged version, “An Interrupted life”. It would fit in your pocket.

“At first didn’t like her at all. Etty seemed self involved. She is sleeping with two different men, trying to figure out who she wants to be with. She has this very odd relationship with her therapist.

“But at some point in my reading something shifted. I am not sure when it happened. I have tried to go back and pinpoint it, but I’ve never been able to find it again. But somehow Etty got under my skin.

“It’s as if she were sitting next to me, whispering her life to me. It’s uncomfortable, awkward. And sometimes friendly. Not precious. Sometimes incredibly poetic. Self conscious. All those things. Sometimes I have the feeling I’m not supposed to be reading this. It’s way too intimate. Too naked.

“I had never experienced a book like this. Never felt someone so raw and vulnerable. Yet at this point, I was still reading the abridged version, which was somewhat sanitised. Not quite her at all. She was a little bit turned into ‘Saint Etty.’

“Even so, her sensibility is remarkable. When she gets to the place where she says, “You cannot help us, God. I shall have to help you,” I stopped breathing. Who is this woman? What does she find deep in herself that she comes to that understanding?

“I had read the book jacket, so I knew she didn’t survive. I didn’t want to let go. An intimacy I’d barely experienced with my closest friends. I am the slowest reader I know, but I could feel myself slowing down even more as I neared the end.

“I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t better known. I remember thinking, ‘I know, I’ll make a play, bring it to people and they will want to read the diaries for themselves.’ (Which is still my goal, by the way.) But I didn’t do it straight away. A few years later, I was in a car accident. That night, in the emergency room, the thought came to into my head, ‘I didn’t do that play.’ Where did that come from?

“I’ve worked on it now for eight years. Now it is a full time job, and it is still evolving.”

Photo courtesy of  Ricardo Barros

As a writer, I was fascinated to know how she went about taking someone’s words and turning them into a play.

“I spent over a year, just distilling it. To begin with I thought I could just take the bits I liked. But then I started working with the director, Austin Pendleton. He made me see that it had no dramatic spine. He started giving me assignments to help me shape it.

“He asked me first to outline, not Etty’s life, but the story of the diary itself. Three weeks later I was still struggling with that. Then someone said to me, ‘Are you reading academic work about the Holocaust? You know more than Etty knows, about what’s happening and what will happen. It’s getting in the way.’

“I was very focused on dates. Austin pushed me to abandon chronology. At first I couldn’t do it. I had dates fixed in my head. ‘On July such and such, 1942, she said this!’

“I remember having coffee with a woman writing her Ph.D. on Etty. She encouraged me to ‘let Etty guide me to the script.’ Then I spent some time with Etty's actual diaries in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. I saw how her handwriting evolved over time. It helped me move closer to her words, and the words began to take me to a deeper place.

“Another thing Austin asked me was “Where is her shame?”I had to get underneath her words, figure out what she is NOT saying. I didn’t like where that took me.

“I could deal with certain parts of her shame. I knew she was ashamed of how large her breasts were. I imagine her stripped naked at Auschwitz. I worry about how she felt then, in front of all those people.

“But I had to take Etty off a pedestal. I was protecting her. I was struggling with my relationship with her, and I was also struggling as a Jew, especially about her menial work for the Jewish Council. That’s a thorny piece of the play. A thorny piece of history. It’s been one of the most difficult and time consuming parts of the play to get right.

“At one point, I performed Etty at a Quaker Meeting House in Aberystwyth. After that performance, some people were seeing Etty as a collaborator, which shows how easy it is for people to view victims as collaborators. It made me realise I still had a lot of work to do. By choosing to include the Jewish Councils, I had set myself a difficult task of introducing a complicated piece of history into the play, history most audiences were not familiar with. To clarify the Councils, I had put too much focus on them and the play seemed more about the Councils than about Etty and her remarkable sensibility.



“The Nazis were very smart in the way they created the Jewish councils. They put Jews in an untenable situation. Etty is caught in the middle. She refuses to go into hiding and save herself. Yet she accepts a menial role with the Jewish Council, which delays her deportation for several months.

“Where the bind comes, for her, is when her parents and brother get to Westerbork camp. She feels obligated to do everything she can to keep them off the weekly transport to Auschwitz. Yet she knows, if she succeeds in keeping them off the transport, then three other people go in their place. She becomes part of that cat and mouse game.

“Etty is agonized by the privilege her position affords her. But Etty is not corrupt. She is a human being caught in an inhuman situation. When I talk about this to students, I tell them – we are all privileged or we wouldn’t be here today, speaking about this. It’s not wrong to have privilege. Sometimes we earn it; sometimes we just get lucky. So what do we do with that privilege?

“What I have come to realise is that, within 10 days of keeping the diary, something is released in Etty. This is my interpretation, but I believe that force is what she is calling God. I believe that when she gets to Westerbork, she understands that this is the role she has been cast in. She has to be open to it and be present. She wants to ‘pass the test’. I hope she thought she did.

“So the play keeps evolving. It’s like scaffolding – when you move one thing, other things have the change as well. Each stage is different, and I don’t even realise I am in a different stage till I get there.

“The second ‘act’ of the play is now the discussion with the audience. That was something we discouraged at first – we wanted the play to be enough. But people weren’t leaving! Etty starts a conversation. Others want to continue it.”


Stein has performed Etty at an extraordinary range of venues – schools, places of worship, Native American reservations. It’s an intense emotional experience, for Stein as well as for the audience. As a film maker recently described it, ‘It’s as if this woman from 1942 walks into the room, sits down and starts talking to you.’


“I remember, before the first performance, Austin asking me, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I decided it was someone going to sleep. But Austin said, ‘No, going to sleep is a GOOD option. Let’s make it worse. Let’s have them walk out. One at a time, till you are looking at empty chairs where there had been people. What would you do?’ I said, ‘I’d keep talking.’ And he said, ‘Good. If that happens you will get to the place where Etty was when she started writing.’

“The nearest I came to that happening was in a prison in Scotland. They brought men and women brought together when they don’t normally see each other, so it had failed before it had even started. By the time I got to the prayer, they were all but throwing things. The only reason they didn’t walk out was that they weren’t allowed to. And I kept going. I had the experience of staying with her words when no one else cared.

“Despite that, prison performances are some of the most powerful. And I’ve met the most amazing people. A teacher at Shotts prison near Glasgow. Some severely disabled children at Braidburn school in Edinburgh. Etty has brought us together.

“I had no idea the project would have the life that it’s had. I didn’t know I would travel to all these places. Sometimes I have to ask myself, am I doing this right? It’s never had a theatre run. Never reached the point where it has a momentum of its own. Every day, it’s waking up and calling people, trying to let them know about Etty, finding the next venue to do it.

“But maybe travelling round the world with a suitcase and Etty’s words is the venue for this piece. Taking her to those who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre.

“Etty’s feels like a voice we need for our times. She refused to choose the divisive. She refused to 'tilt towards the savage.’ She found another way. She paid a price for it and was willing to do that. But her words and her spirit still live and inspire.”


To find out more visit about Susan Stein and Etty Hillesum, visit http://ettyplay.org

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