Etty Study Guide

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This study guide includes a brief introduction to Etty Hillesum and the play, Etty, inspired by her writings. It also provides pre- and post-performance activities, a timeline, relevant historical background, a glossary and biographies of the playwright, Susan Stein, and those who have helped bring Etty to the stage. The study guide is designed to be used in conjunction with the play, Etty, yet activities may be adapted to work independently.

Please contact us to learn more about having the play performed at your school.

About the play Etty

Using only Etty Hillesum's words from her diaries and letters, this play reveals the inner change in a young Jewish woman during the Holocaust as it juxtaposes her growing spirituality and the ever-increasing persecution of the Jews in Holland. Students witness the efforts of one victim to control her own destiny and as a result are empowered to address present day social justice issues.

Standing alone with her suitcase on a bare stage, Etty speaks directly to the audience as she witnesses her world and confronts us with her ethical and moral questions. Etty brings the audience into her thinking as she grapples with the changes unfolding every day during the Dutch occupation. She chronicles well-documented events--the yellow-star regulations, life in the barracks, the loading of Jews onto freight cars--and curious images, such as the SS guard who picks a bouquet of lupins while a train prepares to depart. Etty's observations are searing and intimate. Etty refuses to see herself as a victim, and as the world closes in around her, she nurtures her inner resources and finds a freedom within herself that is unshakable. She affirms the power of the human spirit to maintain dignity and authenticity in the face of forces that threaten to destroy both.

Each performance includes a post-performance discussion facilitated by actress/playwright Susan Stein. These conversations offer audiences the opportunity to learn more about Etty Hillesum, the history, people and events that shaped her life and to explore the creative process of adaption. Post-performance discussions have examined a range of topics from the roots of genocide to the use of writing as resistance.

The full play Etty runs a little under an hour. The high school version runs 35 minutes, and the middle school version runs 25 minutes. Each of the three versions of the play includes a post-performance discussion and may be augmented by student workshops that range from 40 minutes to a full day. Week- and month-long artist-in-residencies are also available. All workshops develop students' close reading, writing and speaking skills as well as critical thinking and artistic expression. Etty teaching artists work closely with teachers to adapt the workshops to the needs of an individual class or school and to enhance existing curricula on Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights studies.

About Etty Hillesum And Her World

Amsterdam, 1941. Holland has been occupied by Nazi Germany for a year, and daily life is in constant flux, with laws changing every day and more and more emigres arriving from Germany. Etty Hillesum is a 27 year-old Jewish woman studying Russian at the University in Amsterdam until Jews are no longer allowed to attend school. She is bright and talented and has already earned her law degree, but she suffers under the weight of a sometimes overwhelming depression. For this she seeks the help of Julius Spier (referred to as S. in her writings), a brilliant, eccentric Jungian therapist. His unusual methods include palm reading and wrestling. He encourages Etty to keep a diary of her innermost thoughts.

Although Etty has the opportunity to go into hiding, she elects to remain an active witness and chronicle daily events unfolding before her. In July 1942, Etty initially works as a typist with the Jewish Council in Amsterdam. Unwilling to use her position to try to save herself, she volunteers to be transferred to Westerbork Transit Camp. Etty has a special travel visa which makes it possible for her to travel back and forth between Amsterdam and Westerbork. On 7 September 1943, Etty, her parents and brother, Mischa, are deported to Poland. On 30 November 1943, Etty was murdered in Auschwitz.

Pre-Performance Activities

Discussion: Why keep a diary? (10-15 minutes)

Choose some or all of the prompts below and ask students to discuss each for 3-5 minutes.

  1. Ask students if they keep diaries or write in journals on their own or if they know someone who does. Discuss why a person might want to write about her life.

  2. Generate as many reasons as possible that someone might keep a diary. What kinds of information might one find in a diary? How might a diary be useful to historians? What are some risks or challenges of using diaries to inform us about history?

  3. Consider the audience: to whom is a diary addressed? How might it affect the writing if the author thought the diary would be read by others?

Writing: Writing Your Own Life (10-15 minutes)

  1. Address some or all of the following prompts to students and ask them to respond in writing:

    Choose something you saw or did or heard or even thought about this morning. Now, write about it in detail and use all five senses to describe the experience: sight, touch, smell, sound, taste.

  2. Describe a moment from your life you want to live in forever. Use all five senses to put us in that moment with you (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste) - consider writing in present tense.

  3. Describe a moment from your life you want to erase. Use all five senses to put us in that moment with you (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste) - consider writing in present tense.

Reading: Imagining Etty: (10-15 minutes)

Read the following three quotes of Etty's with the students. After reading, ask students to consider the following questions:

  1. From her words, how would you describe Etty?

  2. What more would you like to know about Etty? Write down your questions.

Etty quotes:

  1. Last night, shortly before going to bed, I suddenly went down on my knees in the middle of this large room, between the steel chairs and the matting. Almost automatically. Forced to the ground by something stronger than myself. Some time ago I said to myself, I am a kneeler in training. I was still embarrassed by this act, as intimate as gesture of love that cannot be put into words either, except by a poet. (December, 1941)

  2. And I shall wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer, and my words will be so many hammer strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate and a piece of history as it is and never was before … still, a few people must survive if only to be chroniclers of this age. I would so much like to become one of their number. (10 July 1942)

  3. One discovers that the basic materials of life are the same everywhere, and that one can live one's life with meaning – or else can die – on any spot on this earth. (10 July 1942)

  4. One moment it is Hitler, the next it is Ivan the Terrible; one moment it is resignation and the next war, pestilence, earthquake, or famine. Ultimately what matters most is to bear the pain, to cope with it, and to keep a small corner of one's soul unsullied, come what may. (7 July 1942)

  5. After this war, two torrents will be unleashed on the world: a torrent of loving kindness and a torrent of hatred. And then I knew I should take the field against hatred. (10 July 1943)

Analysis: Who was Etty? (20-30 minutes with optional extensions and homework assignments)

In preparation for class, ask students to read and annotate one of Etty's longer letters, either December 1942 or 24 August 1943, and write a letter to Etty in response. It should be in the student's own voice. In the letter, students should address three things Etty mentioned in her letter and pose a question for her to answer. Students may speculate how Etty would respond using the letter to support their views.

In class option: Classmates trade papers and read each other's observations about Etty, then write a response to your partner's piece, having conversations in writing. Students select written exchanges to share as class.

Comparative Study: Pairing Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum (30-40 minutes in class with optional extension and homework assignment)

This activity could occur before or after students have seen the performance. Because more students are familiar with Anne Frank, her writing can be a good entry point for approaching Etty Hillesum's diaries and letters.

  1. Make enough copies of Anne's entry of 11 July 1942 for each student to have one; they should write their names on theirs. Next, ask students to read the entry and circle 3 images or lines that resonate; then, in the margins, write a response to the circled text. At the bottom of the page, write out at least one question for Anne or the text.

    Put sheets in the middle of the table, choose one and read the comments, then respond to the question at the bottom of the page.

    Repeat this 2 times: trade, read circled texts and write responses to questions.

    Retrieve originals and read the comments written by other students to the questions at the bottom of sheet. Respond to what was written in a free write.

  2. Make enough copies of Etty's entry of 8 June 1943 for each student to have one; they should write their names on theirs. Again, circle 3 images that resonate with something Etty wrote.

Questions to Extend and/or Homework Assignment. Write responses to the following questions:

  1. What are some differences you noticed between Anne's voice and Etty's voice?

  2. What are some similarities in their voices and/or perceptions?

  3. What might contribute to some of the differences? For example, how might being inside (Anne) versus being outside (Etty) affect their experience? What about the difference in their ages?

Option to extend: Hand out copies of Etty's diary entry of 11 July 1942. Read part of Etty's silently, then part aloud. Recall Anne's diary entry of the same day.

  1. Mark lines in each writing that show how aware the author is of the world beyond her own experience.

  2. How is each writer using her diary to come to terms with what is happening around her?

  3. Does the diary help the writer understand her circumstances? How?

Post-Performance Activities (in-class or homework activities)

Writing: Respond to Etty (10-15 minutes)

Choose one of the two prompts and write a one page response. Be sure to include specific details and draw from the five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch):

  1. Write a letter to Etty. Respond to something specific you remember from the performance--an image or moment she described--and ask her at least one question.

  2. Construct an argument that Etty was a coward, a hero or something else altogether? Explain.

Writing: Personal Memoir Project (25+ minutes)

  1. Imagine your life and all the different pieces and influences that make up who you are. Which parts are essential to the story of you? (your neighborhood, a grandparent, a certain memory, a friend) Now, imagine a rope, and consider all the strands that make up that rope. On a piece of paper list or free write some of the strands that are essential in your story that you would need to include in your story. (5 minutes)

  2. Choose 1 strand and tell its story. (5 minutes)

  3. Choose a second strand and describe it. (3 minutes)

  4. Choose a third strand and write about it in the present tense. (5 minutes) Share a section (as short as a single sentence, as long as a paragraph) with the class.

Close-Reading & Critical Thinking: Analyzing Etty's words (20-30 minutes)

Choose one of the quotes below and respond to it. Possible questions to consider: What does it reveal about Etty? How do you read Etty's tone? How does this individual tell us anything about this historical event? What is the impact of the historical events on her? On us?

Analyze your response to Etty's quote. Why did you frame it that way? What do your response reveal about you? Respond from a different perspective.


  1. But I always project myself back into reality. I make myself confront everything that crosses my path, which sometimes leave me feeling battered. It is just as if I let myself crash violently into myself; leaving dents and scratches. But I imagine that it has to be like that. I sometimes feel I am in some blazing purgatory and that I am being forged into something else. But into what? I can only be passive, allow it to happen to me. But then I also have the feeling that all the problems of our age and of mankind in general have to be battled out inside my little head. And that means being active. (4 September 1941)

  2. God, take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. But now and then grant me a short respite. I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others. We cannot be sure that it really exists. I don't want to be anything special, I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise. (21 November 1941)

  3. It is probably worth quite a bit being personally involved in the writing of history. You can really tell then what the history books leave out. That man in Beethovenstraat this afternoon won't get a mention in them. I looked at him as one might at the first crocus in spring, with pure enchantment. He was wearing a huge golden star, wearing it triumphantly on his chest. He was a procession and a demonstration all by himself as he cycled along so happily. And all that yellow - I suddenly had a poetic vision of the sun rising above him, so radiant and smiling did he look. (30 April 1942)

  4. How rash to assert that man shapes his own destiny. All he can do is determine his inner responses. You cannot know another's inner life from his circumstances. To know that you must know his dreams, his relationships, his moods, his disappointment, his sickness, and his death. (4 September 1941)

Reading versus Performance: Respond in writing or discussion (20-30 minutes)

Ask students to reread the responses they wrote to Etty's writings before watching the performance. How is the Etty they met reading her diaries and letters different from the Etty they just saw? Explain and give two examples of how she's different.

What were your reactions to hearing "Bei Mir Bist du Schein" sung in English? In Yiddish?

What were your reactions to Etty addressing members of the audience as God?

Discussion: Coming into Political Consciousness (30-40 minutes)

Etty's early diary entries show that she did not want to look at or think about the German occupation or the political situation that was occurring around her. Yet, the situation worsens and ultimately she has to face it. The journey she takes is profound, and her diary helps her establish her true self in the midst of what is occurring in the larger political world around her.

What is going on around you that you don't want to look at? What are you hearing about on the radio, your friends are talking about at school, your family is worried about – something that is happening but you don't want to get pulled into it and, instead, are trying to think about something else?


Date Location
1914 Jan 15

Esther, Etty Hillesum is born in Middelburg, Holland, where her father, Dr. Louis Hillesum, teaches classical languages.


Family moves to the city of Deventer, in the east of Holland. Louis, Etty's father, becomes Assistant and later Headmaster of a school there.


Etty leaves Deventer to take her first degree in law at the University of Amsterdam.

After obtaining her law degree, Etty enrolls in the study of Slavic Languages.


Etty moves into the house of Han Wegerif as a housekeeper in exchange for rent. Within six months, they begin having an affair.

1940 May

Nazi raid on Rotterdam followed by the Dutch surrender.

1941 Feb 03

Etty meets the therapist, Julius Spier (referred to as S. in diaries)

1941 Feb 12

Jewish Council in Amsterdam holds its first meeting.

1941 Mar 09

Etty begins her diary.

1942 Apr

Germans launch their first major roundups of the Jews, requiring them to wear the yellow star, and moving all Jews to Amsterdam.

Jews no longer allowed to use trams, buses or enter public parks.

1942 Jul 03

Etty writes in her diary that the Nazis are out to destroy us completely.

1942 Jul 16

Etty is hired by Amsterdam's Jewish Council as a menial clerk. Two weeks later her request is granted for a transfer to Camp Westerbork (a transit camp in the Netherlands) to accompany the first group of Jews being sent to Westerbork. With a special permit, Etty travels back and forth between Amsterdam and Westerbork for the Jewish Council.

1942 Sep

Julius Spier (S.) dies in Amsterdam.

1943 Jun

Etty returns to Westerbork for the final time. She leaves her diaries in Amsterdam. Knowing she may not return, Etty writes to friend and housemate Maria Tuinzing that she has left her diaries in Amsterdam.

1943 Jun

Etty's parents, Dr. Louis and Riva Hillesum, and her brother, Mischa, arrive in Westerbork.

1943 Sep 07

Etty, her parents and younger brother are deported to Auschwitz. Etty brings the diaries she writes after October 1942 with her.

1943 Sep 10

Etty arrives in Auschwitz with her parents and brother, Mischa. Her parents are gassed upon arrival.

1943 Nov 30

Etty reported dead by Red Cross.

1944 Mar 31

Mischa reported dead at Auschwitz.

1945 Apr

Jaap, Etty's younger brother, reported dead at Bergen Belsen.

The History of the Dutch Occupation

After the Nazi raid on Rotterdam and the Dutch surrender in 1940, regulations became increasingly threatening for the Jews.

On January 10, 1941 Germans order the compulsory registration of all those of full or partial Jewish blood. Failure to register is punishable by five years in prison, confiscation of property or both. In February 1941, the Jewish Council is established. Jews no longer are allowed to be members of an institution that also has non-Jewish members. By November 1941 non-Jews are no longer allowed to work in a household headed by a Jew. Round-ups of selected Jews begin in Holland.

Beginning in January 1942 Jews are removed from the provinces and brought to the ghettos in the cities. In April 1942 Jews are required to wear a yellow star with the Dutch word for Jew, "Jood" printed on it. All Jews over six years are required to wear a yellow star when going outside. Jews are forbidden to enter cafes, restaurants, libraries, beaches, and public swimming pools. Signs reading Jews not allowed or Jews not welcome appear in more and more places. By May 1942 more prohibitory rules follow:

In July 1942, two transit/concentration camps are established in Holland, at Westerbork and Vught, as way stations to hold Jews until they are deported east to concentration and extermination camps. Over 100,000 Dutch Jews were brought to Westerbork and deported to the concentration camps Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt and the extermination camps Sobibor and Auschwitz in Poland. The trains leave Westerbork every Tuesday morning, carrying between 1,100 and 3,000 people.

Glossary of Terms


The largest Nazi concentration camp, located 37 miles west of Kracow (Poland). Established in 1940, it became an annihilation camp when it began receiving deportees in March/April 1942. Eventually it consisted of a number of sections. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was designated as the main annihilation camp.


Originally a prisoner-exchange camp, it became a concentration camp in March 1944. Anne Frank was murdered there in March 1945.


The first concentration camp set up in Southern Germany near Munich in 1933.


Etty's home town.

Dutch capitulation

May 1940 Dutch surrender to the Nazis after the Nazi raid on Rotterdam, Holland.


A location in a city or town that was restricted to Jews in order to physically segregate and isolate them. The ghetto was meant as the first stop on the way to labor, concentration or camps.


From Samuel I (7:9), literally meaning "a completely burned sacrifice." It was the term used to describe the destruction of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators in Europe and North Africa between the years 1933-1945. The term was first used in connection with European Jews by Elie Wiesel.

Jewish Council

In all occupied countries the Nazis selected prominent Jews to act as their liaisons with the Jewish community and ensure the orderly implementation of their new regulations. Jewish Council members also sought to provide basic community services to ghettoized Jewish populations and to protect their communities.


Member of "NSDAP"-fascist Nationalist Socialist German Workers' Party, which was founded after World War I and eventually taken over by Hitler.

Nazi camps

Between 1933-1945 Germany established a variety of camps in Europe, including transit camps, concentration camps and extermination camps.

Transit camps

Jews in Nazi-occupied lands often were first deported to transit camps, which served as temporary holding stations until they were sent to slave-labor and death camps. Average time in transit camps varied: some inmates spent a few hours, some a few days and some a few weeks.

Concentration camps

Camps established in the beginning of the Nazi regime for imprisonment and forced-labor of "enemies" of the Reich, political and "anti-social," as well as Jews. Disease, maltreatment and starvation led to many deaths, as did direct executions.

Extermination camps

To facilitate the Final Solution (the genocide or mass destruction of the Jews), the Nazis established these camps to systematically and efficiently kill primarily Jewish victims. Unlike Concentration Camps, these were explicitly designed to murder inmates.


a transit camp in Holland where Jews were interned before being deported to concentration and extermination camps in Eastern Europe. Etty Hillesum lived at Westerbork for fourteen months between July 1942 and September 1943. Anne Frank was brought to Westerbork in 1944, before being deported to Bergen Belsen.

Yellow Star

A Jewish ID badge worn on the arm or chest that Germans demanded Jews in most parts of occupied Europe to wear at the risk of being shot. On 1 September 1941, all Jews over the age of six, were forced to wear the star in public in Germany.

Glossary of Names


Etty's former teacher, colleague of Etty's father. Christine regularly sends food parcels to Etty's family in Westerbork.


Han Wegerif, an accountant and widower, owns the house where Etty lives in Amsterdam from 1937-1943. Etty and Han begin a love affair a few months after she moves into his house.


Etty's younger brother, medical student, works as a medical intern during the war.


Etty's best friend.

Louis Hillesum

Etty's father - teacher, classicist, and principal of a school in Deventer, Holland.


Etty's close friend. Etty leaves her diaries with Maria when she goes to Westerbork.


Etty's youngest brother. Mischa, a child prodigy and pianist, suffers with schizophrenia.


Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), one of the most significant poets in the German language. Etty's favorite poet.

Riva Hillesum

Etty's mother. Born in Russia, she fled to Holland following a pogrom and tutored students in Russian.


Julius Spier, a student of psychiatrist Carl Jung. Spier is referred to as S. in Etty's diaries. Spier was a psychologist who also practiced palmistry (the reading of one's hands) and wrestling as part of his therapy. Etty becomes Spier's patient, secretary and lover.



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Modified: 2014 Oct 07