Working as a reporter for the Baltimore News American and WBAL-TV decades ago, Richard Hollander routinely followed leads. But when a dreadful incident in his own life — the 1986 death of his parents in a car accident in New York — led him to discover something that would clearly make an unusual news story, he backed away.
"I was doing what people do when family members pass away," Hollander says, "cleaning out their house. In a crawl space in the attic I spotted a nondescript briefcase. There were about 200 documents inside with swastika stamps on them. I was a complete coward. I let that briefcase sit in my [Baltimore] house for many years."
When Hollander finally decided to explore the collection, the result was a book he co-edited, "Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence From Poland," published in 2007. A decade later, that work inspired a play, Karen Hartman's "The Book of Joseph," which receives its East Coast premiere this week at Everyman Theatre.
The briefcase contents revealed a great deal Hollander had not known about his father, Joseph Hollander, who left Poland with his wife before the Nazis invaded and underwent a protracted effort to gain entry into the United States.
In addition to passports, photos and bureaucratic forms, there were many letters (the swastika stamps indicated clearance by Nazi censors) that had been sent to Joseph Hollander from relatives in Poland between 1939 to 1941.
In a way, the briefcase contained something else, too — a challenge to the man who found it.
"I had this idealized image of my father, and consciously or subconsciously, I did not want to confront or shatter that image," says Hollander, 69, who heads a communications firm in Baltimore. "I was married and had three rugrat kids. I was happy. What would I learn that might upset that balance in my life? So the briefcase just sat there."
Questions of balance also weighed on Hollander's mind before his parents' death. He had long preferred to avoid talking with his father about the past.
"We create our own boundaries," Hollander says. "I knew intuitively that if I stepped over the boundary, my father wouldn't be comfortable. I didn't want to resurrect the pain of what he lost. And I suspect he didn't want to burden others with his pain. Family secrets can be an act of love, a way of not hurting the other person."
After the years of wariness about the briefcase, Hollander decided to delve into the secrets, arranging for the documents to be translated from Polish and German. They shine a fascinating light on relatives in Krakow who did not escape the Holocaust.
"I really wanted to give a voice to the people who had been silenced," Hollander says.
In the course of learning about those relatives, Hollander investigated his father's experiences after leaving Poland.
"I realized my father was an immigrant test case," Hollander says. "He was arrested on Ellis Island. The U.S. government did everything in its power between 1939 and 1941 to deport him back to Europe, which would have been to his death. In the National Archives, I found several hundred pages of documents on my father, including his letter to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for help and her reply."
This struggle, which inspired a significant part of "The Book of Joseph," strikes Hollander as especially relevant now.
"On Ellis Island, immigrants were being asked, 'What is your race? What is your religion?' The parallels are painfully obvious," he says. "It sounds so absurd, but here all of a sudden, a section of the play becomes newsy."
In the end, Joseph Hollander prevailed, became an American citizen and served in the Army. His first marriage ended in divorce, but he remarried; that couple's son was Richard Hollander.
"My mother created an alternative universe for my father to rebuild a life," Hollander says.
There's a particularly haunting element to the earlier life of Joseph Hollander. Through his travel business in Poland and with a background in law, he helped get passports for dozens of Polish Jews to emigrate. But he was unable to help his own relatives after he got to America; having not shared his wariness of the approaching menace, they hesitated too long.
This family history, which unfolds in "Every Day Lasts a Year," does not automatically seem like a natural choice for a stage adaptation. "It's an academic book," says Hollander, who adds that the letters from Poland were censored often to the point of blandness.
None of that deterred playwright Hartman. Besides, she already had an idea in her head about crafting a play involving a parent and old letters.
"As it happens, after my father passed away, I found in his garage his correspondence to my mother when he was in Vietnam," Hartman says. "They divorced after he came back, which you can kind of tell from the letters. I had a heavy and mystical encounter with these artifacts and always wanted to make something out of that. But then this project came along."
Commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to write "The Book of Joseph," Hartman zeroed in on the issue of Hollander's delay in dealing with the briefcase.
"I had immediate compassion for this young father in his 30s whose parents are gone overnight, and then he finds these letters with creepy Nazi stamps," the playwright says. "Could his father have been a collaborator? How did he get out of Poland? For me, the story of the play is: What do we ask, and what do we not ask?"
As an entry point into all of this,"The Book of Joseph" shows the character based on Richard Hollander giving a talk about his book.
"He becomes an immediate tour guide for the audience; he takes you to a certain point, but then doesn't want to go any farther," says Noah Himmelstein, director of the Everyman production.
To help break the barrier, Hartman relies on a younger-generation character, inspired by Richard's son Craig.
"Craig is a relentless millennial in the play," Hartman says, "confronting his father about what he didn't ask of his own father. One arc of the play is the story of the past, about life and death, high stakes and huge questions. The other, larger arc is: How do the descendants reconcile and heal?"
Joseph, Richard and Craig Hollander are major characters in the play; other actors portray the Hollander relatives in Krakow.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Himmelstein sees plenty of light in "The Book of Joseph."
"I think people will be surprised by how much joy there is," the director says. "In the day-to-day existence in the ghetto, you can feel the optimistic way people could see the world and the sun coming up. On a very fundamental level, they realize what they have, and find such joy in that. These people were ultra-human."
If you go
"The Book of Joseph" opens May 11 (after preview performances May 9 and 10) and runs through June 10 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $43 to $52. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.