The words of a young Jewish woman’s diary will be brought to life during the 25th Annual Louis and Mildred Resnick Institute Holocaust Memorial Presentation “Etty.”
Directed by Austin Pendleton, an Ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, “Etty” was chosen by The Resnick Institute’s Founding Director, Gerald Sorin, to be the first play performed for the annual presentation.
After becoming familiar with the play on YouTube and through Etty Hillesum’s letters, Sorin sought out to bring this one-woman performance to New Paltz.
Although Sorin is retired from his position as the director of Jewish Studies and chair of the History Department, he continues to depict the Holocaust through film and music during the spring semester, a responsibility given to him by Louis and Mildred Resnick in 1989.
“The number six million, is an abstraction,” Sorin said. “But when you hear one person’s story, it’s real. This is true of any human tragedy.”
Using one story to magnify a historical episode is often how Sorin said he keeps the Resnicks’ wish of extending Jewish Studies and the memory of the Holocaust alive at SUNY New Paltz.
So it’s serendipitous for him to have chosen a play in which the sole performer is trying to memorialize one woman, Etty Hillesum, who was murdered in Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII.
“We have an insightful, intelligent, young woman who saw the future and wrote about it, knowing she would die,” Sorin said.
He said The Resnick Institute provides another way of teaching, as it allows students, faculty and the community to come together to hear something special and ask questions to someone they wouldn’t have come into contact with otherwise.
The play’s adapter and sole performer, Susan Stein, said she has grown a lot living in Etty’s diaries for the past six and a half years, performing in prisons, colleges and high schools throughout the United States and Europe.
Stein said “Etty” is a difficult piece for the audience because the play requires views to transition into Etty’s way of thinking, being that she is the production’s sole character.
Stein said Pendleton’s direction has shaped this provocation and has been “a great gift to the project.”
While Stein’s biggest fear as a performer is that audience members will become bored with her onstage work, Pendleton encouraged Stein to channel her anxiety into her character.
Stein recalls Pendleton telling her that if she starts becoming nervous onstage, it’ll allow her to transport herself to where Etty was when she started writing.
Stein said during a post-show Q&A, Pendleton was asked why “Etty” did not have a full cast. He replied, “A diary is a one-person play.”
Even though “Etty” is a one-woman performance, the audience will become a part of the overarching narrative through the Q&A after the show, with the hope of promoting awareness of genocides and to “give something back to Etty,” according to Stein.
“We don’t want people to feel bad,” Sorin said. “But we want to remind them why we do the Holocaust Memorial Presentation. There was one Holocaust, but there are many genocides. It’s ongoing.”
“Etty” will run in Parker Theatre on Tuesday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a discussion.