The Journal of Etty Hillesum
A One-Woman Play
Adapted and Performed by
Jane Smith Bernhardt
In wartime Amsterdam, a mile from the secret annex where Anne Frank was hiding and keeping a diary that became one of the most powerful accounts of the Holocaust, another Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum, 15 years older than Anne, was living in the open and writing a diary of her own.
Like Anne, Etty refused to let the evil blind her to love and beauty. Soaring above the cruelty and death around her, she evolved an artistic vision of almost mystical intensity. Etty saw the ultimate evil of anti-Semitism clearly, but it only strengthened her faith. "God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another," she wrote in her diary. ''We are accountable to Him!"
For more than a year, she lived at the transport camp Westerbork, outside Amsterdam, providing comfort to her people as they waited for the transports that would take them East to the death camps. During that year, she used passes from the Jewish Council to visit Amsterdam periodically and return to Westerbork, shuttling mail and medicine for the other prisoners.
Finally, on September 7, 1943, Etty and her family boarded a transport, and she threw out of the train a postcard later found by farmers. It read: ''We have left the camp Singing." Etty Hillesum died at the death camp Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. Her account of her life, her love affair and her growing faith in God appeared in two books published in the 1980s: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork. Now, a Massachusetts-based actress, Jane Smith Bernhardt, has crafted Etty's words into a compelling one-woman play, "Love, Etty."
Jane Bernhardt outside the gates of Auschwitz-Berkinau, Poland
Jane Bernhardt traveled to Auschwitz to perform her piece for the anniversary of the camps liberation. Jane remembers:
"I was afraid I'd feel overwhelmed in that place, but standing on the stage-which had been the camp's induction center-
I felt the light of Etty's passion above and beyond that ghostly nightmare, still inspiring us to transform our world."
As you know, over the past several years I have faithfully tried to embody the words and spirit of Etty Hillesum in my-play ,"Love, Etty: The Journal of Etty-Hiliesum", which I continue to perform whenever possible. Etty's words of courage and faith are every bit as relevant today as they were during the days of the "Final Solution."
I am writing to you because you have seen the play, or because you know my dedication to Etty's vision of non-violence in a new world where:
"Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more
piece of love and goodness drawing strength from within ourselves."
Etty died In Auschwitz in 1943. And I have recently been Invited to perform "Love, Etty" there this December, as part of the convocation for "The Interfaith Pilgrimage For Peace And Life 1995," beginning at Auschwitz and ending in Hiroshima.
Although the trek to Auschwitz in December is a daunting prospect and I must provide the funding, I feel very strongly. that there can hardly be a more fitting occasion for Etty's words and spirit to be relived:
"I look for the bloody lessons of these times -
for the new Insight that will be drawn from the deep well of this darkness and pass
on across the barbed-wire.
I still believe this world will only
be redeemed through love....
It's as if the main path of my life stretches even
now into another world, as if, even now, I were
helping to build a new and different society."
I am asking you to pray for Etty's vision, for this Peace Pilgrimage, and also for me - that I will be a vessel for Etty's spirit and a piece of her answered prayers.bless you,
If you would like to make a donation for this trip, which will cost eight or
nine hundred dollars, I would be deeply grateful.
Jane Smith Bernhardt
Article published in Newsday Jan 26, 1996Interrupted Life finds Longevity on Stage
by David Behrens
JANE SMITH BERNHARDT had
mixed feelings when she met Etty.Hillesum for the first time. Etty was so frank about her love affairs, - her sexual appetites, her devouring passions.
For Bernhardt, it certainly felt like a real meeting - although Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who had died in the Auschwitz extermination camp almost 50years earlier.
Bernhardt's encounter was with a long lost diary just four years ago. She was at a summer weekend retreat in New England when a friend had said, "I have something for you," and mailed her the paperback edition of Etty Hillesum's journal. The book changed her life.
Hillesum started her diary in March,1941, and continued her entries for 18 months during the early days of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. The diary, and a short collection of her letters written in1943 from the Westerbork transport camp in Holland, were published in the United States for the first time in 1983 and titled
"An Interrupted Life."
A best-seller in Holland and a text now revered in the international peace movement, the book is not widely known in this country, although the 50th anniversary of Hillesum's death was celebrated two years ago in Washington, D.C., and there is talk of a film.
Bernhardt, a portrait artist with three children whose husband- is an Episcopal priest, put aside her paints and charcoals and worked for almost two years on a one woman play, selecting sections of the journal to bring Etty Hillesum and her words to life on stage. Now 43 and a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, she had not acted professionally since she started to raise a family.
After performing "Love, Etty: The Journal of Etty Hillesum" on several dozen occasions at temples, churches, schools and regional theaters in the Northeast, Bernhardt presented the work last month during a reconciliation conference at Auschwitz, bringing together the offspring of Holocaust survivors and the offspring of Nazi officers...
Etty Hillesum was 27 when she began her diary, writing at a small desk in her room overlooking the Museumplein, one of Amsterdam's historic squares, about a mile from the home of Anne Frank. They never met: Anne was 15 years younger and had gone into hiding with her family about the time Etty was completing the Amsterdam journal.
For Anne, sweet thoughts of first love were just budding. For Etty, life was a tug of-war between earthy passions and mystical spirituality.
Her friends had urged her to hide or to join the underground. But she concluded that there was no escape: If one Jew saves herself, another dies in her place. Instead, Hillesum volunteered to serve as a social worker at Westerbork, where she ministered to other Jews bound for the death camps. Keeping a chronicle was part of her search for some meaning in her life.
At first the journal documents her passions: "1 am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers," she confides.
She writes about her simultaneous affairs with two men, her voracious passion for the men in her life, her appetite for love and art, her wish to understand the relationship between literature and life.
Hillesum's intense self-absorption was disturbing at first, Bernhardt recalled in a telephone interview from her home in Beverly, Mass.
"Etty was so self-centered and hedonistic, so wrapped up in a superficial layer of existence, it seemed at the start, and I was losing patience. But at the very same time," Bernhardt said, "I felt grateful for her articulation of the nitty-gritty of life, all the things many people choose not to write about. . . I think I felt an affinity for Etty and her way of chronicling an inner journey - the struggle to balance spirituality, humanity, intellectual curiosity, ambition, sexual feelings."
But then the journal begins to change. By the time Hillesum is bound for Auschwitz, the diary becomes less earthy, and filled with curious benevolence toward her oppressors. Her optimistic view, Bernhardt noted, is difficult for some audiences to accept.
In the final pages, Hillesum concedes that she probably will not live long enough to become a great artist.
"Very well then," she writes on July 3, 1942, "this new certainty-that what they are after is our total destruction I accept it: I know it now and I shall not burden others with my fears. I shall not be bitter if others fail to grasp what is happening to the Jews. I work .and continue to live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful-yes, meaningful."
Etty Hillesum's last letter to her friends in Amsterdam was written Sept. 7, 1943, from Westerbork. Two months later, on Nov. 30, according to Red Cross records, Hillesum had died.
After last month's performance at Auschwitz, Bernhardt recalled, a woman approached her, very troubled, because her own parents were among the Dutch Jews who had hid successfully.
'Was I advocating or celebrating her choice over another?" Bernhardt said. "Because," the woman said, "if her parents had made that choice, she would not be alive." No, Bernhardt said. She was simply' dramatizing one woman's search for hope.
The performance ends with a long prayer-like recitation:
"Sometimes very late, at night, I find myself walking with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. Time and again, this feeling comes into my heart -that life is beautiful and meaningful and, some day we shall be building a whole new world. . . If we just care enough, God is in safe hands with us, despite everything."