Finding Etty

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Finding Etty is a book in progress by Susan Stein about the creation of the play, Etty and its travels throughout the United States and Europe. Below are excerpts in 2006 when Susan began adapting the diaries.


Sherri Underlied hits my car while she's skipping lanes on 287 North. John, a witness who barely makes it out of the way, tells me she was driving over 90 miles an hour, that he saw her lose control of her car and hit mine. I'm standing next to the wrecked car on the shoulder of the highway. I don't believe I'm standing there. There's glass all over me, my son's leg is bleeding, my right arm is tingling and it feels like I'm still in the spin.

She's driving a big black SUV when she rams into the passenger side where my older son, Seth, is sitting. I'm driving my ex-husband's 4 cylinder 1994 Honda Civic Hatchback. My younger son is in the back seat. There are no airbags.

When the car starts spinning it's 25 years ago and Jean is teaching me how to drive. Get your foot off the brake, he says, when I hit a patch of ice in New Hampshire. I hear him now and I don't put my foot on the brake although every part of me wants to. My hands hold onto the wheel and all of me becomes my spine. We're done. Is there any way to save them? The guard rail is coming up on the left, I think, please let it be fast.

Later, in the emergency room, after watching Sherri climb out of the window of her flipped over black SUV, after not taking a step towards her because I'm afraid to, afraid of what I'll do, after Kate lends Jean Pierre a car to come get us, when I'm trying to believe I'm not in the car anymore and it's not spinning, I remember the play I wanted to write about Etty Hillesum for the last twelve years since I read her diaries and now I should be dead and I wouldn't ever have done that play.

After that in bed that night I begin finding Etty.


Lunch with Kate. Sushi. Some place in Princeton. We walk downstairs and we're underground. I didn't know there was this place. We both get miso soup. I tell her about Etty.


I don't want Etty to die. And I don't want to leave her.


Now's the hard part. Reading the diaries and letters was easy. I could be passive. Even writing the publisher, but to create the piece. Suddenly I'm exhausted.

Etty has her diaries from Westerbork. They must have taken them when she arrived at Auschwitz. Or did she leave them on the freight train? She wouldn't have left her notebooks unless she had to. She knew they were going to take them. Why did she bring them with her? Why didn't she leave them at Westerbork?

What happens when she gets to Auschwitz? Does she see her mother and father get off the train? Does she see their selection? Or do they die en route? She probably spent the three days helping people. She dreaded that trip. She knew it was hell. What freedom did she find in that freight car?

Lunch with Professor Gerd Korman. On East 60th Street this time. Closer to the bus he takes. What is she thinking on the freight car? He looks at me with those thoughtful gentle eyes of his. She has three days. She can't really write anymore. We know she's thinking. She's been thinking all along. What does someone with her sensibility think? Does she find Gd?

She's been preparing for the freight car since the whole time, since the occupation.

Austin said the other day She's always in Westerbork. Confusing in the script when she's in Westerbork, when she's in Amsterdam. Austin says it has to be in her words. Sometimes it will be clear, sometimes it will be confusing. It has to be that way.

Hannele, the 84 year old survivor from Westerbork, the dancer in Westerbork's cabaret, takes my hand when I meet her and tells me that many people offered to hide me. I don't doubt it. There's something alive that pulses through her. It's there as soon as I meet her. It's something she has in her. I think, no one could kill her. You can't kill her.

Could you say something more about that, I ask her. That interests me because Etty could have gone into hiding too, but she didn't. Why didn't you, I ask Hannele.

She pauses a long time. She tries to tell me. The words won't come. I can't explain it, she says. I was drawn there, drawn to Westerbork.

Gerd Korman says that Etty was drawn to Westerbork like a magnet, something was pulling her there.

The end of the piece will be silent. That's the end. Silence. From 7 September through 30 November. We can only imagine her words.

Manfred tells me when I get to the Catholic Center for Dialogue and Peace, It's not what you hear at Auschwitz, it's what you don't hear.

I've been preparing my entire life for this piece. My young dreams and the nightmares of what I imagined it was like because we weren't allowed to talk about it.

That she has the courage to follow the threads of her own life. Yes, that takes courage. True courage, not to follow what is expected – to give in to fear. Like I did. Even now when I should know better, when I know what turning away looks like.

That was the real running away, running away from myself, from what I wanted so much to do. To act. Even now. So hard to write those words out. Have the courage to say it.

And now PDS – pushing me forwarding, believing in me to do it. But already I have all my excuses why I shouldn't. Too late. I had my chance. Who do I think I am?

My new apartment. Make myself sit in it.

A life of books and words and letters. One book, one thought, one idea at a time.

Austin says trust your instincts, Susan, they're always right. How does he know? And how do I quiet down my father's voice? It can be so loud, much louder than mine. It is mine.

Now I must read – all of Rilke and The Idiot, and St. Augustine. So much work to do. Such a rich life. And there's research to do at Cornell when I go up to see Seth. That lovely library, those wrought iron banisters, the big bell, the large window, that sky, that rich long table of wood.

A year, an entire year to myself in the city with paychecks coming in so I can do this work. The best gift I've ever been given. Better than the piano even.

Etty's passion was her writing. Is that why her desk was the most beloved place for her? Why even when she needed sleep or a moment's rest, she first found a spot to write -

She made a desk wherever she went. She brought her desk with her - even onto the freight car - on top of her rucksack - the last image of her the world sees. In her paper trail.

Gerd says, she left quite a paper trail.

When I see that Gerd Korman's on the faculty at Cornell, I ask Seth to find him for me.

Seth tells me that Professor Korman's distinguished in three different departments. Mom, he's highly distinguished. What would you talk to him about?

I just want to meet him. And talk to him about my project.

Seth sends me Dr. Korman's email address. I write him a letter and send it the old fashioned way. No response.


I'm nearing the end of my first day alone in my new apartment. Self-pitying. Useless rage. How do I learn how to keep a diary?

All her writing is important. How do I know what to cut?

The apartment has a good vibe as Ruth said this morning – the atheistic Jew on the first floor with the British accent.

I've begun reading Rilke's letters. Hillesum wants to write like Rilke.

The demons were strong today. Couldn't work.

Tomorrow I'll work in the morning when my energy is great. I won't stop until I need a break. I'll go to The Hungarian Pastry Shop. Surrounded by people it will not be as easy to get discouraged.


Hungarian Pastry Shop. I do love this shop.

Her writing is sooooo good.

I need to read the diaries again and see with different eyes what needs to be in.

Dates on a screen? use of visual-sound?

Meeting those two women at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, especially the light haired one with the glasses and the woolen cap she put on when she left. And she started the conversation. She was interested in my work – the Hillesum and the Rilke. I spoke too much about myself. She's read the diaries. I should have asked her more about them.

The other woman said to ask whoever's read them what they remember?

I asked the light haired woman. The aspirin. Taking all those aspirin.

What is it like to pry yourself from an addiction?

Etty's pillow – how she wanted to keep her pillow. I don't remember her pillow. I remember what was under it. Her Bible, Rilke's letters, Tolstoy.

Her bicycle.

There should be a bicycle on stage and I should ride. Later it should be taken away and left on stage as a reminder of what I've lost.

Wool sweater she gets.

Desk – books - flowers on the desk.


Wrestling with S.

I really love living in this apartment. How could I love living somewhere so much?

I love having Seth here. I just wish there was another room so he had his own space. This living room thing won't completely work if we don't figure something out.


Why does it upset me so much that those boots went on sale? What is my thing with sales? with bargains? that I have to feel like I've won?

Yesterday at the coffee shop I wanted to conveniently misplace the coffee receipt and only pay for the pastry. Why? After meeting that woman and feeling pushed forward by her genuine spirit and interest in the project? That was indeed priceless, yet I still think about how to steal.

It's stealing that I like. It's back to Marlboro Projects, to sitting behind building 8 with Kim and Denise, setting it up, the candy stores, my overalls. I love it, going, knowing I'll be good at it, knowing I could win, acting, he'll believe me when I ask where the Dots are, I'm a good kid.

Getting things I can't have. Winning.


A difficult piece to reconcile is her stoicism.

I must read Saint Augustine (on an empty stomach – like she does?)

Work up to the loftier ideas – start out with basic chores.

I can't share her courage. Or, maybe hers, is different. Is it courage to run away – to escape – to survive? Why is dying noble?

I must continue to read the diaries over and over.

So lovely being with Seth. We can weave in and out of each other's days.

The getting up, the writing, going to the gym, picking up bread, preparing the tea, picking up fruit, writing, reading, playing the piano.

What do you pay for in an apartment in the city? Light.

A critical change. 3 July 1942, Friday evening, 8.30.

She understands quite clearly that they (the Nazis) seek the Jews' total annihilation. She never retreats from there.

Etty is an intellectual. I am not, although I wish I were. I wish I were smart enough. She had the upbringing I wanted. And she's free, sexually.

Barbara says to keep a list of how I'm like Etty and how I'm unlike her.


The Annie Leibowitz exhibit makes me want to take pictures. Do I need to take a class or can I just take pictures?

Work. I love to work. I love to work. To work.



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Modified: 2014 Oct 05