An Interrupted Life
Etty Hillesum’s life was interrupted by the Holocaust. Susan Stein’s life was interrupted by Etty Hillesum’s letters and journals. On Wednesday, March 13, we have a chance to have our lives interrupted by Susan Stein’s dramatic adaptation of those diaries, Etty.
When she died (the power of the play can sustain the spoiling) at the hands of the Nazis in 1943, Etty was a 29-year old student from Amsterdam. In the play, she struggles with guilt, complicity, and maintaining a faith in humanity in the face of Nazi brutality. But she refuses to be defined by her circumstances. She writes, “I don’t want to be a chronicler of horors.” She knew that others would do that. Instead, she wanted to show that life can be simultaneously beautiful and horrible. A Jew who had begun reading Rilke, Dostoevsky, Augustine, and the Bible, Etty carries on a one-sided dialogue with God about the Shoah that she and her people were enduring. Pope Benedict recently mentioned Etty in his final Ash Wednesday homily:
"I also think of the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. Initially far from God, she found Him looking deep inside herself and wrote: 'There is a well very deep inside of me. And God is in that well. Sometimes I can reach Him, more often He is covered by stone and sand: then God is buried. We must dig Him up again' (Diary, 97). In her scattered and restless life, she finds God in the middle of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah. This young fragile and dissatisfied woman, transfigured by faith, becomes a woman full of love and inner peace, able to say: 'I live in constant intimacy with God.'"
Because of its serious themes, this is not a play for our youngest children. We recommend it for Middle and Upper School students, and for our parents. We’re encouraging other schools in the area to join us as well.
Stein has performed her Etty in theaters and schools, and she is earning a reputation for a simple and courageous portrayal of this young woman who found her voice in the most unimaginable horrors. The play was nominated by Amnesty International for their Freedom of Expression award.
C.S. Lewis once said that God is often in the interruptions of our lives. Stein tells the story of how she discovered Etty’s letters and was captured by her self-revelations. The idea of the play was born, but not until a serious car accident interrupted Stein’s life did she resolve to write. I hope that many in our Trinity community will allow their lives to be interrupted for an evening, to open themselves up to whatever God might be doing through this experience.
I can’t help but think of another great soul whose life was interrupted by the same Holocaust. In 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had just arrived in America so as to avoid forced military service in the Nazi cause. But as soon as he landed on this continent, he had serious misgivings, and within a month he had boarded a ship to return to Germany. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants,” he had once written. Now was the time to live that out. Now was the time to turn back to the suffering. Now was the time to let the Great Interruption become the main thing.
We are pleased that Susan Stein will be with us on Thursday and Friday after the play. She will visit classes to discuss her play and its themes. The Senior Theology class will be talking about Etty’s letters as an entre into their study of the problem of evil and suffering. We look forward to all the ways (especially the unexpected ones) that Ms. Stein and her Dutch friend will teach us during their visit.
The play lasts an hour, and then we will hold a panel discussion with Stein and some other guests. I hope many of you can join us at 7:00 p.m. in the Blue Gym on Wednesday, March 13.