I discovered Etty Hillesum and her diary in the 1980s. I was enrolled in a graduate course on World War II literature taught by poet and memoirist Carolyn Forché. Forché viewed the Holocaust as a unique and horrific break in world history. His vivid description stuck with me. It had only been 40 years since the end of the war that I took his courses. The Holocaust marked the 20th century forever, casting a long shadow over the 21st century. Forché, who is of Czech descent and is not Jewish, instinctively understood what the Holocaust had done to the Jewish psyche. In this context, she entrusted us with “Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork”.

The Hillsum journals were a revelation to me. She was 27 when she started her diary in 1941 and had just graduated from law school. She wrote her last entries in Auschwitz. Prior to this, Hillesum lived in occupied Amsterdam until she was sent to Westerbork transit camp outside Amsterdam, the last stop before deportation to Auschwitz. In her journals, she candidly wrote about her struggles with overwhelming depression and suicidal thoughts.

Susan Stein, an actress who portrayed Hillesum in a solo show, “Etty,” beginning in 2009, was introduced to Hillesum in the 1990s. Her college roommate’s mother says the book changed her life . A few months later, Stein bought a copy at a garage sale in rural Maine. She recently told JewishBoston that Hillesum seemed to her to be “very involved at first, and then something changed. She started to feel like a close friend, like she was sitting across from me and having a very personal conversation. It’s something I had never experienced in a book. Etty was inviting me into parts of myself I had never been to before.

To that end, Stein wanted to share Hillesum’s journals with the world. “Etty is so intricate, and I wanted to create a piece to inspire people to read it,” she said. “I want the audience to invite it into themselves like it happened to me.” Stein first gave readings from an early script for small audiences who congregated in parlor-style parlors. She said she listened to audience feedback and continued to revise her script with input from the play’s director and actor, Austin Pendelton. “The play,” says Stein, “uses only Etty’s words. The way I stick and shape the words is my interpretation.

Stein emphasized that she never intended the play to be a chronological account of Hillesum’s life. Its interest lies in the history of the diary itself and the self-transformation that Hillesum records. Early drafts of Stein’s screenplay described the story of the newspaper. As fascinated as she was by Hillesum’s biography, Stein wanted to capture “the power of the diary.” I wanted to stay in real time with Etty and capture the spontaneity and intimacy of her experiences. The diary also takes on a life of its own and it surprises her that she wants to be a writer. As Etty says, she “takes refuge in those thin blue lines.” The newspaper evolves for her.

Etty Hillesum in 1939 (courtesy photo)

Over time, Stein took her play on the road, where it performed on two continents in black box theaters, schools, homeless shelters and prisons. Stein said the prison performances were particularly powerful. “I learned from prisoners watching the play and responding to it that this is a prison story,” she said. “Etty herself says, ‘The whole world is gradually turning into one big prison camp. Soon there will be no one left. My prison audience in no way compares their imprisonment to Etty’s, but they are deeply moved by the way her freedoms are taken away from her. They also see that as more doors draw closer to Etty, her inner universe expands in response.

Stein also explores Hillesum’s relationship with the divine. Hillesum, a secular Jew, was an atheist who later practiced Buddhism and was influenced by the Quran and the New Testament. In his journal, Hillesum states that God will be his salvation and refers to God as “the deepest part of myself, which for convenience I call God.” Stein notes that Hillesum’s contemplation of God reflects this. “Etty’s quest for truth leads her to sacred texts,” she said. “And at the same time, the Germans impose his Judaism on him. But she does not turn away; she advances towards him and, to a certain extent, kisses him. Her relationship with God was the most surprising and difficult job for me in this project.

At one point, Hillesum’s relationship with God evokes the spirit of Abraham’s dialogues and disputes with the God of Israel. In his conversations with God, Hillesum challenges God. “She has an amazing entry in her diary, in which she says, ‘You [God] can’t help us. I will have to help you, God.’ This trajectory from needing God’s help to offering God’s help continues to engage Stein.

In the Q&A portion of the show, one of the questions Stein poses to the audience is why it took 38 years for the Hillesum diaries to be published. She suspects part of the answer is that the world wasn’t ready for Hillesum’s comments about her multi-denominational theology or her entries about her sex life. “Etty is a seeker of truth, and that sounds raw and brave,” Stein said. “She draws people into her life through her diary.”

On September 7, 1943, Hillesum was deported from Westerbork to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Sitting on her backpack in a crowded freight train car surrounded by other Jews, she wrote a postcard for a friend in Holland. “Opening the Bible at random, I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower.’ We left the camp singing. Hillesum, then 29, threw away the train card – it was her last match until her diaries were translated into English in the early 1980s.

Susan Stein will perform “Etty” at JCC Greater Boston on Sunday, April 10 at 2:30 p.m. After the performance (for ages 15 and up), Stein will host a discussion about social justice and overcoming prejudice.