Esther Hillesum and Anne Frank had much in common.
They were both Jewish, living in Holland, and they used their diaries to write about what they saw and felt during the dark days of the Holocaust. They also died in the concentration camps before the end of World War II.
But the similarities end there. Frank was a young girl during the war; Hillesum, a young woman in her late 20s. Frank wrote from her hiding place in Amsterdam; Hillesum, known to her friends as “Etty,” refused to go into hiding and wrote from Amsterdam as well as Westerbork transit camp.
Lastly, Frank’s novel was published and became an international best seller. Her story has been dramatized many times over the years in plays, movies and television series.
Hillesum, though she wrote extensively between 1941 and 1943 – as many as 10 or more diaries as well as letters, works that were published years later, in 1979 — she remained largely unknown after the war compared to Frank.
That is, until an actress named Susan Stein entered the pictured.
Stein purchased a paperback copy of Hillesum’s diaries for 50 cents at a yard sale in 1994. She became captivated by the author’s words and committed to bringing them to life.
The result is the two-act, one-woman play, Etty, created and performed by Stein, which will make its Louisville premiere on Saturday, January 28, 7:30 p.m., at Temple Shalom, 4615 Lowe Road.
Directed by acclaimed actor, director and playwright Austin Pendleton (My Cousin Vinny, Fiddler on the Roof and Catch-22) Etty is a portrait of Hillesum’s struggle to declare her humanity in the face of Nazi brutality.
“If I should not survive,” she wrote, “how I die will show me who I really am.”
The lines in the play are literally taken from Hillesum’s diaries. Nothing is added, though Stein may change which passages she speaks from one performance to the next.
The first act is essentially the entire play. For the second act, Stein steps out of character, though still in costume, to take questions from the audience and continue the dialogue that the late author began.
Etty is open to the Greater Louisville Community. The production, for adults and high school students, is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. Please RSVP to 502-458-4739. Visit www.ettyplay.org for more information.
Stein has performed Etty around the world for eclectic audiences. She has even taken her play behind prison walls for inmates.
“Their comments have been powerful,” Stein said during a recent performance. “I think it’s through the comments of the inmates that I learned this is a prison story.”