The Book of Joseph: The Birth of a Play

Posted on April 20, 2018 by

Playwright Karen Hartman and author and native Baltimorean Richard Hollander were kind enough to sit down with us and talk a little about their experiences with creating “The Book of Joseph” and bringing the story of Richard’s family to life.

In this clip Karen talks about the impetus behind translated Richard’s book “Every Day Lasts A Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence From Poland” into the play “The Book of Joseph.”

Interview by JMM Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. Filming by Carmen Venable. This interview was filmed on April 11, 2018 at the Everyman Theatre in downtown Baltimore, MD.

“The Book of Joseph” runs at the Everyman Theatre May 9 –June 10, 2018. It’s companion exhibit, The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family, is on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland April 22 – June 3, 2018.


RK: I want to start by asking: Karen, how did the book-to-play transition come about? What was the impetus?

Karen Hartman: Technically, the impetus was, I was approached by Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, who said to me, “Here’s a story; do you want to write a play about it?” Emotionally, the hook for me was: here’s this story about this young man in his thirties, living in Baltimore, father of three, his parents die tragically in a car accident, and in their attic is a briefcase full of letters in Polish and German, stamped with Swastikas. He doesn’t know what they are. And I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting.”

And this man sets aside this briefcase for many years, and when he finally gets them translated it turns out that these are a group of letters from his father’s family, left behind in Krakow, and they are the most significant group of letters to survive the Krakow ghetto. And the story becomes both the story of the man who escaped, Joseph Hollander, and his son, Richard Hollander, the man who found the briefcase. And that double story just lodged in my heart from the very beginning and that was the story I was so excited to tell.

RK: Fantastic. And Richard, what was it like for you to sort of be a part of the process of this play coming into being and seeing your story sort of come to life that way?

Richard Hollander: When Karen created the play, she made a character Richard Hollander. [Karen laughs] And there was never a morning in my life when I woke up and said, “Gee whiz! I’d like to be a character in a play!” But as I got into it, I learned a lot about my life and what I experienced after my parents were killed in a car accident. And I learned of the parallelism between my life and my father’s life.

And the fact that what I experienced in the journey of for so many years burying the story, of not pursuing what was in the letters, what were the other documents that were available, not using, frankly, the journalistic skills that I had access to at the time– I was a news reporter at Channel 11.

I learned through Karen’s work why I frankly was the coward that I was, why my character in the play is flawed, which is fine with me, because it’s probably accurate [laughs]. And, I’m able to experience the process and the journey along with the character in the play, but I also understand that this is a universal story, that the character in the play– Richard in the play– sees his father before he, Richard, was born. And that is something I think all of us in the backs of our minds think, “Gee, what were our parents like before we were born?”

And this– through this play, it’s an opportunity for me to see my father– before he was born, and learn about his values, what motivated him, his survival skills, his courtship and marriage to my mother, so in many ways, it’s a really endearing, personal play as well as having profound universal themes.

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