Review: Susan Stein Portrays Etty’s Life and Holocaust Diary with Strength and Dignity

By Britt Haefeli

A stage set with nothing but a single light brown leather suitcase. Strong and bold, demanding questions. Where has it been? Where will it be forced to travel next? Who calls themselves its owner, and what will they bring us, the audience? 

This series of non-chronological snippets of a life would be presented and hold me captive in my seat, clinging to each word as it left Susan Stein‘s mouth. Stein’s portrayal of Etty, a young woman not yet having experienced her 30s, now held our attention. She had a cheeky femininity that she bashfully admits to the audience upon arrival. She kept scandals and more in her back pocket while attempting to stay safe as a young Jewess living in Amsterdam in 1941. She spends her days inside the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, clacking away at a typewriter, willing that this will be enough of a personal sacrifice to balance a world lost in chaos. 

In the same breath, she longs to be a young woman again, to see friends and stay out in the night air. Whereas now she was daydreaming about a cake coated in sweet strawberries that a family friend Christine once delivered. Alas, a yellow star adorning her chest and a train that carries her to prison makes many of these simplistic life pleasures impossible. How can one stay an individual in all of this global turmoil? In some ways, Etty feels the luck of the draw, living in a timeline like this one. 

How glorious it is to be chosen to still breathe air when others’ fates have been cut. Etty walks us through the reality of the Nazi Regime and the insurmountable trauma and loss that resulted from the Holocaust. From prayers that she will live through the night to crying on her hands and knees, begging for her family to be pulled from a train docket set to send its inhabitants to Auchwitts, Etty gave us a glimpse into her bone-chilling reality. 

Susan Stein carried Etty’s personality with strength and dignity. From tugging at her lips when describing her affair with her therapist to her nervous pulls on her jacket buttons when discussing the horrors she witnessed, the movement and character work on this stage was unreal. 

Susan Stein as Etty Hilesum

Stein is one of the most harrowing storytellers I have seen, yet she presented each diary entry with such depth and divine femininity that you couldn’t help but continue to listen. Inside moments in complete silence, the audience listened to the space she was taking. Nothing but a simple suitcase was needed for this performance, and even a chair would have pulled too much attention from our narrator. Stein held unwavering eyesight with audience members, this trauma was no longer just Etty’s to keep, but the audience’s as well, in hopes that stories such as this continue to be told so that the cycle can break and cease to continue. 

Etty sometimes talks to the audience as if we are the embodiment of God, questioning us. Why all of this pain and suffering? How can I describe the un-describable? Why could you not have made me a poet, God? Yet, Etty held a capability that many writers do not. The most human thing to be is flawed, and Etty owns this while attempting to unravel the knots inside her inner psyche. Hoping that if she can solve her own internal chaos, she may be able to control the chaos of her world. Her claims of not being a poet get lost in a sea of poetic descriptions. In the end, the spotlight held on our storyteller narrows in slowly as she describes the sheer reality of her unwarranted, far too soon-to-be demise as her family was being carted to the same fate just a few train cars ahead. The stage lights died out with her final breath. 

“Say hello to my desk for me,” Etty pleads in one of her last letters sent to her friend, who later held on to her diaries. She was a writer through and through, even in her final moments on earth, longing for her sacred and creative space. 

In the second act of this performance, Susan Stein graced us with her presence yet again and asked us a simple question. “In the next few days, or 2-3 weeks, or even 6 months from now, when this performance somehow finds its way into your mind, what is a moment that will stay and stick with you?” An audience held their silence momentarily, digesting all they had just witnessed and heard. Then as a group, we gave our answers. I will take away Etty’s strength to carry her individuality as a woman at this time. 

So often in history, women are forced to sacrifice their femininity over to the chaos of the world to have their voices heard and projected. Yet, Etty keeps it, and she holds on to her hope and cheekiness, her femininity being her strength. This story and narrative filled a depleted portion of my young woman’s soul. 

As a writer, her voice fascinated me, and I am ready to crawl under a soft blanket during a cool spring night and read the rest of Etty’s diary entries. As I suggest, you do the same. 

Etty’s story, much like so many others, is one that not only deserves to take the stage and be told but must be told. As Stein answered questions, reality dawned on the audience; Etty and her story fit into a plethora of modern-day issues and topics. From the me too movement connecting to Etty’s therapist who uses her, to discussions on gender and its fluidity, to Etty’s experience with incarceration and the parallels we can make with the current prison to pipeline system. Her story gives us examples of how history has taught us in the past, and may we all lay down and pray that humanity listens. 

Off the Wall Productions and The Carnegie Stage should hold pride in its ability to bring this production to the Pittsburgh stage. As for actress Susan Stein and Director Austin Pendleton, their dedication to properly telling this woman’s life, and Susan’s work as an actress, is a marvel to behold. This night will stay with me and continue to give me chills for decades. I hold an incredible amount of thankfulness that I could witness this production. 

Off the Wall Productions & Carnegie Stage presentation of Etty has remaining performances on Saturday, April 22nd, at 8pm and Sunday, the 23rd, at 3 pm. For more information and tickets, visit: https://www.insideoffthewall.com/etty

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