“We’ll wait and see.”
Normally, words of prudence and patience. In the context of Karen Hartman’s intense epistolary play, The Book of Joseph, the words are a chilling death sentence.
These words are uttered by the family of Joseph Hollander (Danny Gavigan, solid and suffering), a well-to-do Polish-Jewish clan living in Krakow in 1939. In his other job as a travel agent, Joseph is able to pull strings and get his family visas to Portugal, where they will wait out the encroaching war and Hitler’s Final Solution with Joseph and his socialite wife, Felicja (Beth Hylton, playing both the icy Felicja and Joseph’s motherly sister Klara).
Hey, it’s 1939. The Hollanders are prosperous, healthy and cozily-ensconced in a fancy apartment. Unlike Joseph, who pleads with them “Get out,” they cannot wrap their minds around Nazism and the persecution of Jews. The Holocaust is inconceivable; human decency will prevail, right?
“We’ll wait and see.”
A palpable shudder runs through the audience at Everyman. We know what happens. It’s hard to stay in your seat when all you want to do is jump up onstage and yell “Listen to Joseph, for God’s sake—leave Poland while you can!”
The Hollanders didn’t listen and that decision anguished Joseph for the rest of his life. He got out of Poland and after being turned away in Portugal and sailing in the same ship to America, made it to Ellis Island, where his case for seeking refugee status was a test case for subsequent Eastern Europeans desperate to find asylum in America. Desperate not to be sent home, Joseph wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt pleading his case—and she wrote back.
Enlisting in the Army got Joseph the protection he needed, and ironies of ironies, because he spoke German he served in Germany, a hair’s breadth close to Poland. But his family was gone without a trace.
Yet, they lived. In stacks of carefully numbered letters, lovingly placed in an old suitcase. There, they languished, waiting to be revived. The letters were found in 1986 by his son, Richard (Bruce Randolph Nelson, mensch-y and shambling), a Baltimore journalist, after his parents died in an auto accident.
Seeing the swastika postmarks on the envelopes, Richard feared the worst and it took until the year 2008 for him to screw up the gumption to get the letters translated.
They were a treasure that had even the Polish-Catholic translator in tears. The Hollander family letters are the most complete narrative of a Polish-Jewish family living in Krakow before and during WWII. Even though the family wrote in discreet language to get past the Nazi censors, the letters tell the full story of their love and devotion to each other as the tentacle shadows crept closer and closer. The beauty of these letters is suggested in a melancholy set by Daniel Ettinger composed of postmarks, stamps and envelopes browned with age, all moodily lit by Cory Pattak.
The discovery of the letters led Richard Hollander to write a book, Every Day Lasts a Year, a journalistic chronicle of the Hollander family he never knew and his father’s heroism. This book is the basis for Hartman’s play, which deals with Richard’s search for truth, the reliability of memory, guilt and grief.
The conceit of the play is Richard giving a lecture on the book and hoping to tidy everything up neatly in an hour. However, his son Craig (Elliott Kashner, rife with youthful persistence) shows up, challenging his father’s lionized view of Joseph and his interpretations of the family letters. (Craig is his father’s son to a T, only he’s a historian of slave narratives, a career choice Richard thinks is meshuggah.)
The first act is through Joseph’s eyes, as he urges his family to flee Poland “until this all blows over” and then through his imagination as he reads their letters and tries to decipher what they are really thinking and feeling. It also charts Joseph’s rocky journey to American citizenship—a country that really didn’t want him and other Eastern European Jews and tried its best not to let them stay. Sound familiar?
The Book of Joseph
closes June 10, 2018
Details and tickets
The first act is warm, gracious and involving, as we watch the Hollanders bear indignities small and large every day—yellow stars on their clothing, not being able to swim in public pools, lack of access to work, losing their possessions and being relocated to one room in the Polish ghetto. Through it all they write and write, feel grateful for something, and above all, love their Joseph and praise the “lucky star” they believe he was born under.
What Joseph keeps from his family—and vice versa—is as heartbreaking as the words they commit to paper. Their words are not just letters strung together, but touchstones; treasures with a secret or a love token buried in each swoop of the pen or keystroke.
The devoted cast brings the Hollander family to abundant life, allowing them to bear testimony to the Holocaust’s horrors that they were denied when living. Megan Anderson, Wil Love, Helen Hedman, Bari Hockwald, Hannah Kelly all handle their multiple roles with care.
The play falls into shaky territory in the second act, where Craig forces Richard to confront the memory of his father and how to interpret the legacy of the letters Joseph left behind. What do you do with the information given to you by your family? How do you fill in the blanks of what’s missing and may be unknowable?
The second act is disjointed and not as evocative as the first, but it still makes you think about time and differing generational approaches to keeping the past alive and immediate. For Joseph and Richard, the letters are a way to mark time so we Never Forget.
For son Craig and other Millennials, it’s more a matter of forget about it. They don’t want their parents’ and grandparents’ old things. They store things in the cloud, not in an attic or closet. As the years go by and the survivors pass away, the Holocaust becomes more of a distant horrific event , not a point in time when the world cracked open and Hell was on earth day after excruciating day.
Plays like The Book of Joseph and the Hollander family letters keep the past in front of our eyes. Where it belongs.
The Book of Joseph by Karen Hartman . Director: Noah Himmelstein. Featuring: Megan Anderson, Danny Gavigan, Helen Hedman, Bari Hochwald, Beth Hylton, Elliott Kashner, Hannah Kelly, Wil Love, Bruce Randolph Nelson. Set Design: Daniel Ettinger. Lighting Design: Cory Pattak. Costume Design: David Burdick. Sound Design and Composition: Elisheba Ittoop. Dialects: Gary Logan. Projection Designer: Caite Hevner. Wig Design: Anne Nesmith. Props Master: Jillian Mathews. Stage Manager: Amanda M. Hall. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.