Several months after Joseph and Vita Hollander were killed in a car accident, their son Richard had to face the task of cleaning out their house. Still reeling from the loss, he was frantically “just trying to get rid of stuff,” when he found a briefcase in the attic filled with neatly stacked letters.
‘The Book of Joseph’ When: To March 5 Where: Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Tickets: $38-$58 Info: chicagoshakes.com
Written in Polish and German and each stamped with a Nazi swastika, Hollander knew immediately what they must be — letters from his father’s family in Nazi-occupied Poland. “Like a complete coward, I closed the briefcase,” he recalls. “I recognized the value of the letters but didn’t want to deal with it all at the time.”
What exactly did the letters reveal? Find out in “The Book of Joseph,” the latest world premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The storyline chronicles Joseph Hollander’s journey to the U.S. and the trials he faced getting through immigration channels here as well as offering a glimpse into life in Krakow’s Jewish ghetto.
Directed by Barbara Gaines, the play was commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare and adapted by playwright Karen Hartman from Hollander’s 2007 book “Every Day Lasts a Year.” The production features Francis Guinan as present-day Richard and Sean Fortunato as his father Joseph.
“This story has a lot of prongs and I think we’ve created a really compelling theatrical event to do justice to them all,” Chicago Shakespeare creative producer Rick Boynton says.
Nearly 15 years after discovering the briefcase, Hollander began the task of retrieving the letters, having them translated and digging into his father’s story. It was like putting together a puzzle, as his father had never talked about his past experiences and his son never asked.
“Neither of us wanted to impose any emotional distress on the other,” says Hollander, a former journalist who now has an advertising and marketing company in Baltimore. “He didn’t talk about his past but he did leave the letters and must have known that one day they would be found.”
Joseph Hollander left Poland just before the Nazi’s invaded, and made his way precariously to the United States. In the preceding months, he’d been able to save hundreds of people by securing valid passports for them through his travel business. But he was frustrated that he could not convince his own extended family to leave.
“I think they were filtering this war through past wars, especially World War I, where they saw economic dislocation,” Hollander says of the family he would never know. “They were educated and had comfortable lives and didn’t feel the urgent need to get out. No one could anticipate the coming genocide.”
The letters, written by three generations of the family, uncover a unique glimpse of day-to-day family life amid growing uncertainty and stress in the Krakow ghetto. But playwright Hartman admits the letters on their own are “very, very dry and could be described as boring.”
But they were boring for a reason. Each was written in a way that would not attract attention from Nazi censors. It was up to Hartman to find a way to use the letters aided by different theatrical devices to build a compelling story around generations of the Hollander family all of whom would perish in The Holocaust.
“The letters are more interesting when they are personal and that comes mostly from the women — grandmother, aunts and cousins,” Hartman says. “But anything political is mentioned in extreme euphemisms such as ‘we had guests’ [a visit from the Nazis] or ‘Uncle Tolstoy’ [a reference to Russia].”
Hartman also draws from Joseph Hollander’s own experiences as an immigrant (what could be more topical today?) thanks to court transcripts unearthed by his son in government archives. The documents are a record of an extremely skeptical judicial system hostile to people fleeing Europe during the building Nazi threat.
“My father lost his family, his friends, his nationality, his language, his culture, his livelihood,” Hollander says. “So how does one have the internal strength in spite of all that to start over again while also carrying this awful survivor’s guilt?”
As he cleaned out his parent’s house, Hollander also discovered his father’s autobiography. Written on yellow legal pads in the year preceding his death, it stops just short of The Holocaust.
“The question I have is, did it stop because emotionally he could not carry on? Or did it stop because he died? I’ve found some answers but not all of them. And that’s the way it should be; some things remain mysteries.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.