“Etty,” a powerful, compelling one-woman theatrical play based on the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, will be performed Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. in the East Parlor at Chestnut Hill College.

by Sally Cohen

Chestnut Hill College will host a performance of the 2010 Philadelphia Fringe Festival selection, “Etty,” on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. in the East Parlor. The event, which has been brought back to the college by popular demand, is sponsored by the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College.

“Etty” is a touring one-woman theatrical play based on the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, adapted and performed by actor Susan Stein and directed by Austin Pendleton. Following the performance, there will be a panel discussion and time for audience response.

Esther “Etty” Hillesum, who was born in January, 1914, in Middelburg, Netherlands, died in November, 1943, at age 29 in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland. She was a young Jewish woman whose letters and diaries, kept between 1941 and 1943, describe life in Amsterdam during the German occupation. They were published posthumously in 1981.

Using only Etty Hillesum’s words, Susan Stein’s adaptation transports us back to 1943 when Etty, a young Jewish woman, is about to be deported from Holland. As she prepares for the three-day journey eastward, she digs deeper into her soul to understand this piece of history and root out any hatred or bitterness, believing that humanity is the best and only solution for survival.

Etty’s words, insights and beliefs reach out from the Holocaust and allow us to see the power of hope and individual thought in the most extreme circumstances. In her gentle yet forthright way, Etty asks us not to leave her at Auschwitz but to let her have a bit of a say in what she hopes will be a new world.

Etty wrote: “At night, as I lie in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls…dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, I am sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness. And I lie awake for hours, letting the impressions of a much-too-long day wash over me. And I pray, ‘Let me, oh Lord, be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ That’s what I want to be, the thinking heart of a whole concentration camp. I lie here patiently, and now calmly, and feel a lot better. I feel strength returning. I’ve stopped making plans and worrying about risks. Happen what may, it’s bound to be for the good.

“You must be able to bear your sorrow; even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong, and your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself, part of your body and your soul. You mustn’t run away from it, but bear it like an adult … for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate.”

Susan Stein is the author of “Etty,” an adaptation of Etty Hillesum’s diaries and letters. Susan picked up Hillesum’s diaries in 1994 for 50 cents at a yard sale after her friend, Joan, recommended it. After reading the diaries, Susan wanted to give something back to Etty and keep her spirit alive. Stein, who has extensive professional acting experience, studied acting at NYU Graduate School and SUNY Purchase. She is a member of the faculty at Princeton Day School.

Austin Pendleton, the director of “Etty,” became interested in the project when he was introduced to Etty’s diaries. Pendleton’s extensive theater career spans more than 40 years. He is an American film, television and stage actor, playwright and theater director and teacher as well as the author of “Orson’s Shadow,” “Uncle Bob” and “Booth.”

The performance of “Etty” is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Catherine Nerney, SSJ, Ph.D., at 215-248-7099 or e-mail nerneyc@chc.edu. For more information about the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College, visit www.chc.edu/forgive