Friday, January 23, 2015

Etty Hillesum was a 27 year old woman studying Russian at university in Amsterdam having already completed a law degree. She experienced bouts of depression and was seeing a counsellor who suggest she write a diary to help her manage her feelings.

She happened to be Jewish although she wasn't a practising Jew. She had the misfortune to be born in Holland early in the twentieth century. Which meant that she had the pleasure of registering as a Jew with the Nazi occupiers of Amsterdam in 1941. After some time working for the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, she was sent to a labour camp and eventually, sent on to Auschwitz with her parents and her younger brother, Mischa.

The Nazis, who fanatically recorded the expected fate of all in comers to Auschwitz, noted when she arrived at the camp, that the latest consignment of women including Etty would "last" 60 days. Etty herself expected to live no more than 3 days if she were sent somewhere like Auschwitz. She thought she was weak. In the end, she lived for 89 days. Her manner of death goes unrecorded.

Her diary, along with copious letters, form the basis of a cracking play written and performed by a lady called Susan SteinI had the immense good fortune to cross paths with her visit to Edinburgh and catch a performance of the play last night. 

A retelling of a story with an all too familiar ending has such enormous potential to be crass and heavy handed and mawkish and gloomy and full of despair.

Stein's play is none of these things.

She's a brilliant performer which helps. No lights, her only set a suitcase, a simple costume. The play is a monologue, sometimes with song, knitting Etty's words together into a beautiful exploration of what made her remarkable. Delivered with a lovely lightness of touch that avoided all but the necessary straying into sentimentality. 

The words are really the hero of the piece, which has always been Stein's intention, she tells us afterwards. Etty set out to cope with the escalating (overused word) atrocities by documenting them. Sometimes staying up all night to record the miserable detail of the latest indignities to which the Jews were subjected.

She documents beautifully. Self-effacingly. With her tongue firmly in her cheek as she reveals her mischief alongside her incredible acts of kindness. 

But what is most amazing about her is her courage, compassion and boundless faith in people amidst her increasingly horrific circumstances. Her proper Pollyanna ability to see the good where there doesn't appear to be any. Easy to become cross, bitter, resentful, even angry in these circumstances, you'd think. But she accepts many of the things flung at her with an incredible grace, faith and hope.

She and her family walk onto the freight train sent to take them to Auschwitz singing the Dutch national anthem. A final cry for the individual. For a nation that didn't protect its own. For a life that should be better.

Her last documented words, she writes on a postcard, throws out of the train through a gap in the broken planks making up the walls of the container, and are collected and posted by the farmer that owns the land onto which they fell.

Etty's story is one of incredible hope when there shouldn't be any. A plea for kindness in a cruel world.

Stein takes the play to Rowan Williams next week. She doesn't know if he'll like it and really hopes that he will. So do I. 

Her main purpose, she says, is to let people know about this bright, funny, lovely lady and urge them to read her letters. So here you go. Now you can.


Blogger Dan Sutton said...

Any chance of you putting this on for the one act play competition?

10:15 am  

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