Sunday, July 26, 2009
Anyone looking for an example of the power of theatre to uplift and inspire need look no further than Etty, the compelling one-woman bio-play written and performed by Susan Stein and directed with grace and simplicity by esteemed theatre veteran Austin Pendleton. The show played three performances last week, with a final one scheduled for tonight, at 59E59 Theaters. It then heads to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month.
Etty Hillesum (in photo) was a young Jewish writer and mystic who in letters and diaries chronicled life in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and the Westerbork detention center. She has been seen by many as an adult counterpart to Anne Frank and, after hearing her words of faith and hope, I understand why.
Dressed in a plain maroon dress and looking into the eyes of the audience, Stein becomes Etty solely through her words, spoken straightforwardly and confidently, but with no dramatics. Neither does she employ any action, yet she commands the stage, which other than herself holds only a folding chair, a glass of water and a large suitcase.
“I shall simply lie down and try to be a prayer,” is Etty’s response early on the to the 1941 German occupation of her country.
She might have been trying to be a prayer, but she wasn’t trying to be a saint. She talks freely of her affairs, and, later describes the abortion she gave herself to protect her unborn child from the growing Nazi threat.
The role she did see for herself was that of witness. A house mate comments one day on how lucky they are to have been chosen to live in that slice of history. Lucky they might not have been, but Etty is determined to find meaning in the experiences and refuses to hate her enemies.
“Every atom of hate we add to the world makes it that much more hostile,” she says.
She chooses to go to Westerbork to work for the department of Social Welfare for People in Transit. “The barbed wire is a question of attitude,” she says.
She keeps her spirits, and her humor, by quoting poetry and talking to God. “I’m not challenging you, God, but every now and then send me a line of verse.”
Rather than turn away from the horrifying conditions around her -- babies dying of pneumonia on the floors of transport trains, the mass of people herded into cattle cars headed for concentration camps, their hands reaching out from between planks in the side -- she watches every detail, documenting them in her head and discussing them with God. “Your lessons are hard, God,” she says, without bitterness or accusation.
Before she leaves for Westerbork, a friend warns her that a detention camp will not be a place to develop spiritually, that it will create a hard shell over her. But she has other ideas. “A hard shell shall not fit me. I shall remain defenseless and open.”
Amid the horror, she still believes she can make a difference. “You cannot help us. I shall have to help you, God.”
She helps prepare the babies and mothers who are about to be transported to the concentration camps. She does it caringly, all the while knowing they are likely going to their deaths. One day after watching more than 1,000 herded into trains for transport, she says sadly, “One more piece of our camp has been amputated.”
Surprisingly she says she loves Westerbork for its opportunity. “I’m not finished with you, God. Not by a long shot.” She maintains it is possible “to believe in a terrible end and God.”
And she vows to look up everyone she prepared for transport when the war is over, or visit their graves. “Will I be able to describe it all one day? I think I work well with you, God, that we work well together.
If I don’t survive, she says, how I die will show what I am.
She did not survive. Red Cross records say Etty died at Auschwitz on Nov. 30,1943. The letters and diaries she kept between 1941 and 1943 were published in The Netherlands in 1981, before being translated into English in 1983.
I left the theatre yesterday deeply moved, and still feel that way. Although I had never heard of this extraordinary woman until Stein and Pendleton brought her to life for me, they allow her spirit to survive Auschwitz and be shared with us. I wish them many blessings for their performances in Scotland.