Performance Counts: The Book of Joseph

Posted on May 11th, 2018 by

Our monthly look at JMM “by the numbers” comes to you this week from Director of Collections and Exhibits, Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Our lobby exhibit The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family may take up only a little over sixty square feet of space in the orientation space, but nonetheless it requires many hours to research, write, and install even small displays like this one.

I had the privilege of looking over the primary source material, reading the book based on the family story, watching the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, and talking to Richard Hollander, whose family’s story is told through all these different media.

In 1939, Joseph Hollander and his wife left Poland just days before the Germans invaded, and after an arduous journey through Europe, they ended up – accidentally – in New York. While they were fighting to keep from being deported, Joseph’s family in Cracow wrote hundreds of letters to him about the worsening conditions under which they were suffering. Despite his work to secure them safe passage, and later attempts – after the letters stopped in 1942 – to find them, Joseph never learned the fate of his family. Nor did he tell the full story to his son Richard, instead carefully storing all the letters, photos, and other memories away in a briefcase.

Richard only discovered the case, and the stories it contained, after his father’s death.

Some years later, he delved into the material, had the letters translated, and with scholar Christopher Browning wrote the book Every Day Lasts a Year. Playwright Karen Hartman then turned the family’s story into the play “The Book of Joseph,” first produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and enjoying its East Coast premiere at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

In order to narrow this history – relating the lives of 14 people, over the course of six years – down into something that could be conveyed in a small exhibition, the full story had to be known.

To that end, I cataloged 157 letters and postcards written between 1940 and 1942 by the Hollanders in Poland to Joseph Hollander in the U.S.; matched those letters up to the translations in the book; and selected letters that could best illustrate important elements of the family’s story, even to those visitors unable to read German or Polish.

Even though each letter tells its own small piece of the story, only 23 of those letters ended up in the exhibit itself. (If you haven’t had the chance to read the English translations of the full collection in the book Every Day Lasts a Year, I strongly encourage you to do so.)

In addition to the exhibit itself, I and our Marketing Manager, Rachel Kassman, have been collecting and developing additional content to augment the story, including an interview with playwright Karen Hartman and Joseph Hollander, blog posts highlighting individual letters not included in the exhibit, and news coverage related to both the exhibit and the play. You can check out that bonus content here.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, three actors from Everyman Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Book of Joseph,” along with the play’s director, and Richard Hollander himself, joined us at the JMM on April 26th for a special reading of two scenes, and a question-and-answer session with the audience. 89 people attended this unique opportunity to compare two very different ways of experiencing this poignant story: through the original handwritten letters themselves, and through spoken, dramatic interpretation.

The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family is on view at the Museum through June 3, 2018. “The Book of Joseph” is now open at Everyman Theatre and runs through June 10th.

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The censors make their shadowy presence known

Posted on April 25th, 2018 by

Curators have to make choices: not everything can make it into an exhibit, and there’s seldom enough space to share every interesting fact about the things that are on display. That’s where social media comes in! Here’s a closer look at another  letter in the Hollander family collection. Written by JMM Director of Collections and Exhibits and The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family curator Joanna Church. To see more Book of Joseph extras, click here.

In this April 23, 1941 letter from Joseph’s nieces Genka (top portion) and Lusia (bottom portion), both girls described their circumstances in not-terribly-hopeful terms. Genka’s note was more despairing than her sister’s, telling her uncle “I didn’t change much outside but inside I feel like I am a quarter of a century older.” Even cheerful Lusia, after assuring Joseph she is “healthy, joyful and full of good hopes,” could only summarize the family’s overall situation with “it’s going somehow.”

Noteworthy about this letter are several things:

Genka provided the Wimisner family’s Berlin registration numbers; at the bottom, one of the girls added their “current address,” now that they’ve moved to the Podgórze neighborhood… that is, the new Cracow ghetto; and, inside the envelope, added by a Nazi censor, is this small printed notice:

Im Interesse der Sache ist es dringend erwünscht, daß Name und Adresse des Briefempfängers und Absenders nicht nur auf den Umschlag, sondern auch auf eine jede Briefeinlage gesetzt werden.
                                                                   Die Auslandsbriefprüfstelle.


In the interest of the matter at hand, it is strongly desired that the name and address of the recipient and sender be set not only on the envelope, but also on each letter enclosed.

                       The foreign letter inspection office.

The girls added their uncle’s address by hand to the top of the letter itself, as requested – probably doing this after the letter was returned to them for their failure to follow a rule of which they may have been unaware. The rules for letters changed frequently and arbitrarily, adding to the uncertainty of communication with the outside world.

Genka and Lusia Wimisner to Joseph Hollander. Polish, typed/handwritten. April 23, 1941.

The translation of this letter appears in Every Day Lasts a Year on pages 243-244.

On loan from Rich Hollander and his family, Baltimore. JMM L2018.003.014.045

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The Book of Joseph: The Birth of a Play

Posted on April 20th, 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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