Thursday, March 2, 2017

“While I wasn’t looking, the Holocaust went from memory to history”

“While I wasn’t looking, the Holocaust went from memory to history”

Reading this simple sentence evoked a strong visceral emotional response when I read The Book of Joseph, a play by Karen Hartman presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. In a nutshell, it clearly expressed my frequent regrets since my parents died. I not only lost them, but the opportunity to hear directly and understand fully what they and their families experienced in nazi Germany. Their memories are now lost to me and I am left to the imperfect, incomplete family history that I have been trying to construct.

Please take the hint and learn from your older family members.  You’ll only regret it if you don’t.


The Book of Joseph by 
Karen Hartman                                                                                                                                  

After the tragedy of losing his parents in a car crash, Richard Hollander, found a briefcase with various documents and over 200 letters stamped with swastikas.  He  and his father Joseph never discussed his father’s past in detail.  Joseph escaped Poland before the war.  Richard knew little more. Dealing with his grief, he left the briefcase and its contents untouched for 15 years.

When he finally opened the briefcase, he found a previously unknown autobiography that told his father’s story of leaving Poland to escape the Nazis having failed to convince his mother and married sisters to join him. They ultimately were murdered in the Holocaust. The autobiography and other documents told of the torturous time he spent fighting to stay in the US and simultaneously seeking a way to rescue his family in Krakow.  He finally earned US citizenship by joining the army and the war in Europe.

The 200+ letters, in Polish and German, addressed to his father, told a richly detailed story of their lives under the Nazis in Krakow and of the continued efforts of Joseph to rescue them.  The letters offer a rich perspective of what Jews in Krakow endured and of the steadily shrinking life-space the Nazis imposed.

Taking the title from a line in one his Grandmother’s letters to his father, Richard Hollander with Christopher R. Browning and Necham Tec, edited Every Day Lasts a Year, a book which tells Joseph’s story, describes Krakow during the Nazi occupation and includes the letters.   It also describes the experience that Richard and his family had in understanding what they had discovered in that briefcase.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre commissioned Karen Hartman to write The Book of Joseph, a play adapted from Every Day Lasts a Year.  Its world premiere was January 29, 2017 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, directed by Barbara Gaines. The last performance of the world premiere is on March 5, 2017.  The excellent reviews that it has received suggest that other theater companies will be presenting performances in the future.

The play is presented in two acts.  In the first act, Joseph’s family members tell their own stories through the reading of their letters to Joseph.  The staging and lighting artfully bring these characters to life.  It’s not just the family members speaking, but a family movingly tells its story.  Joseph’s actual letters to his family in Krakow, did not survive, but Ms. Hartman has crafted a Joseph whose letters simultaneously show his aching frustration and his desire to keep his family hopeful. 

Act two is the story of Richard Hollander and his family, as the contents of the briefcase are revealed to them and they work to understand their meaning and get to know the family they barely knew existed.

The Book of Joseph is especially meaningful for me as I too discovered letters after my mother died and I too left them unread for too long (8 years in my case) 

In contrast to the remarkable story told by the Hollander family letters, mine number only ten with large gaps in time in between them and only hint at their lives. Read them here: Letters to My Mother 

I highly recommend The Book of Joseph.  But, rather than write a full review, let me refer you to the review by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune.  He took the words right out of my heart. Click here to read Chris Jones' review


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