June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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Lest We Forget: Joseph Hollander’s Angst In The Lucky Star (and Every Day Lasts a Year)

Despite the attrition of first hand witnesses to the Shoah, the over-saturation of fictional plays, films, and publications, some of which may trivialize aspects of it, or worse, downplay or deny it in some media forums, the mantra Lest We Forget is more relevant today than ever before. No matter how deeply we have been exposed to Holocaust history, sometimes a new and timely work touches us profoundly. “The Lucky Star, based on Richard S. Hollander’s book Every Day Lasts a Year (co-authored with Holocaust scholars Christopher R. Browning and Nechama Tec) is such a work.

I lived in Baltimore, so chances are that Richard Hollander and I have probably crossed paths somewhere between WBAL, the station where he worked, or on the road between the Park Heights/Greenspring areas and Beth El Congregation. where he served as congregational president. Although I have neither met him nor heard his story until recently, I can imagine his shock upon discovering neatly organized, rubber band secured, and swastika-embellished stacks of letters in a suitcase, in a crawl space in his parents’ home.

Joseph and Vita Hollander have died in a 1986 auto accident, and when Richard Hollander stumbles upon the suitcase, he is unable to deal with the contents. He sets the letters aside for 13 years, after which his son Craig encourages and assists him in getting them translated. Most have been written either in his grandmother’s largely archaic German script or the family’s Polish vernacular. The letters sent to Richard Hollander’s father, Joseph, reveal The Lucky Star’s powerful backstory. It is an utterly compelling play—not only due to the dramatic impact of the story, but because everything about its execution is so extraordinary—the script, acting, direction, costume, lighting, set design, and sound.

The play was originally performed in 2017 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where it was titled The Book of Joseph, named for Joseph Hollander, who becomes the patriarch of the Hollander family after his father’s pre-WWII death. This production, The Lucky Star, just closed at 59 E. 59 Theaters. It is built around the Hollander family’s sage and letters, and underscores the love, devotion, and cohesiveness of family bonds under prolonged separation and extreme duress. Even when loved ones fail to see the dangers confronting them, when they disregard them and hopes wane, when they are at their most vulnerable and their entire legacy is at risk, these bonds hold fast.

The crown jewel of this production is the absolutely riveting performance by Steve Skybell as Richard Hollander (Readers may recall Skybell as Tevye in the Folksbiene’s Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof). There are strong supporting performances by the entire company, but Danny Gavigan’s portrayal of Joseph is especially convincing. Karen Hartman’s script and Noah Himmelstein’s direction juxtapose Richard’s discovery with the Cracow Hollanders’ lives under Nazi-era proscriptions. The creative mix of nuanced costume, set, lighting, and sound changes add an almost a visceral reality to what transpires onstage. This reality is augmented by the family’s handwritten letters, which are projected onto the backdrop.

As the narrator/commentator, Skybell’s Hollander guides us through his Joseph’s harrowing story of coming to America, fighting deportation, and furiously working to save his family, who ultimately all perish under Nazi occupation and subsequent deportations. Joseph, who has the foresight to get the necessary documents for himself and his entire family, escapes together with his wife Felicia, but for the Hollanders in Poland, there remains an ongoing cycle of humiliation, deprivation, and eventually, death.

While detained on Ellis Island with Felicia and Arnold Spitzman (a 14-year-old for whom he assumes financial responsibility), Joseph persistently battles the INS and faces off against the State Department’s intransigence in strictly adhering to the 1924 immigration laws that exclude entry by most refugees. Yet despite his own arduous incarceration, and the proverbial hoops he must jump, including writing to Eleanor Roosevelt to stay in the US even temporarily, he never stops exerting pressure and providing financial and other resources to rescue his family in Poland.

Joseph is an urbane man with a law degree, owner of a successful travel agency, and has many contacts, Jewish and non-Jewish, upon whom he can call for help. He initially secures his family visas and tickets to neutral Portugal. In a familiar trope of many who have been able to leave but have instead chosen to remain at home and adopt a wait-and-see approach, the family’s hesitation ensnares them ever tighter in the Nazis’ net. It is only later, when Joseph sends Nicaraguan documents, that the family joyfully prepares to flee. Unfortunately, this time the Nazis will not release them. This is another, cautionary theme of The Lucky Star—when things start to get difficult, anticipate that they might get much worse, and respond accordingly.

To get a “deeper dive” into the Hollander backstory, I have been reading Every Day Lasts a Year, but have paused in reviewing the letters. I’ll return to them, but the personalized snapshot of the Hollanders under Nazis occupation has been difficult to process. I envision in the Hollanders’ struggle that of my own extended family in or near Lvov. I am sure others will feel similarly, especially when they read that at Belzec, in its first month of operation in March 1942, over 78,000 Jews were gassed (p. 55). That figure excludes other means of extermination.

The sheer volume of day-to-day details of Nazi occupation in Every Day Lasts a Year is overwhelming, despite how frequently the Hollander clan tries to sound upbeat and hide their misery from Joseph. In contrast, The Lucky Star incorporates the letters very judiciously, to flesh out the progressively harsher environment under which the family lives. At the same time, it reinforces the underlying, strongly rooted love of and faith in Joseph, which glues the family together across oceans and nations.

The letters from the Hollanders and others, from which The Lucky Star is drawn, are an invaluable contribution to Holocaust history. In their explicitness, and as part of the dialogue in The Lucky Star, they offer a rare and intimate window into life in pre-war Cracow, the ghetto, and the surrounding areas. The “efficiency” of the Nazi machinery and the ghetto’s ultimate liquidation were set into motion in a city whose pre-WWII population was one-third Jewish. The overall lack of documentation about what occurred in Cracow has left chroniclers little evidence of its inhabitants’ lives and progressively harsher levels of persecution and deportations.

If this play documents such a bleak story, why the title The Lucky Star? Joseph Hollander, the youngest of four, is the only son. He becomes the man of the house and the pride and joy of his mother and sisters, who dub him “the lucky star” and repeatedly refer to him as such in their letters. Even his brothers-in-law, who are older, look to him for salvation.

Increasingly, the family relies on Joseph for assistance. Interestingly, given the Hollanders’ relative assimilation, the book’s letters often appeal for G-d’s mercy or intervention, or refer to prayers to G-d on Joseph’s behalf and theirs. The play, unlike the book, doesn’t reference G-d as often, but later in the play, Shabbos candles are lit.

The letters, more infrequent with time on the part of both senders and receivers, cache references because of the censors—for example: the Nazis (an old, ugly aunt); possibly fleeing to Russia (Uncle Tolstoy) or new uniforms (yellow stars). The packages of food are also less frequent, not because Joseph does not send them, but because some are intercepted in transit. Also, in part to deceive the censors, the family sends out mixed messages—we are healthy, we don’t need anything, don’t spend your money—but at the same time, express gratitude or even specific requests for food.

Understandably, there is little humor in the play—perhaps a bit of irony, where events take an unexpected turn. Nevertheless, there is one place in the show where we can chuckle. Not long after the Hollanders are released from Ellis Island, Joseph and Felicia divorce. Joseph will shortly be deployed to Europe, after joining the military as a path to citizenship. He sits on a train next to Vita, a young, attractive American Jewish woman, who is curious about the Polish poetry that Joseph is reading. They strike up a conversation, and she reveals her engagement to a doctor. Their mutual attraction blossoms to love. As the scene ends, we hear her announce to her parents, “Mother! Daddy! The wedding is off! I met a divorced Polish immigrant!”

The montage of events and creative input that make The Lucky Star so incredibly powerful is intensified when one reads Every Day is a Year. Yet the play itself, which distills the angst of Joseph and his relatives as they struggle daily, vividly transforms their specifics into a generalizable, collective memory mandate–Lest We Forget. 

Rachel Kovacs is an Adjunct Associate Professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected].

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