The letters were located in the attic of their family home and had been locked away for over 15 years collecting dust, covered in swastikas and written in German and Polish, two languages that no one in the Hollander family spoke.
Found after his parents had passed away suddenly in a tragic car accident in 1986, Richard S. Hollander refused to look at them, burying them from his mind and back into the attic he found them in.
Unpacking them meant having to address the fact that he truly didn’t know his father.
“You open a briefcase full of swastikas and you don’t know what to think.” acknowledged Craig Hollander, a professor of history at the College, in regards to his father’s strife and reluctance to decode the letters.
Craig Hollander was the one that had pushed his father to finally acknowledge the importance of the letters in their attic back when he was still in college himself.
His father, Richard Hollander, would come to learn that the letters held great historical significance, providing a greater context to the lives of Jewish people who were sent to live in ghettos that they would not be leaving. The letters were written by immediate members of the Hollander family, including the mother, two older sisters, nieces and two brothers-in-law of Craig Hollander’s grandfather, Joseph Hollander.
Sent from when they lived in the Krakow Ghetto, the letters are important, as they came from three generations of women and provide a take on the Holocaust that is not from a male perspective.
In addition, the letters provide insight into the thought process of people who didn’t know that they would not be leaving the ghetto in the end.
“It’s rare to have documentation written by people who haven’t survived and do not know what is coming,” Craig Hollander pointed out.
He compares the existence of these letters to that of Anne Frank’s diary; incredibly valuable and precious, as some of the letters sent to his grandfather also came from young children, who describe in their letters their issues with how their daily lives have been affected by being displaced.
Craig Hollander says that the girls wrote about how they could not go to the pool, go to the movies or play soccer. In other letters, he says, the young girls wrote about what they wanted to do when they grow up.
“They don’t expect to get killed,” Craig Hollander said. “They’re hopeful that they’re going to get out.”
He also pointed out the immense guilt that his grandfather had carried at not being able to protect his family.
When Joseph Hollander left Poland for Germany in 1939 to work as a lawyer, he had seen how Jews were being treated and urged his family to leave their home and get to America.
For an unknown reason, they stayed in Poland and didn’t leave.
Craig Hollander pointed out that though his grandfather was the youngest child, he was the only boy and so was considered the man of the house. Therefore, their deaths would only add to his grief when he finally escaped to America.
One of the first political refugees in the United States, he escaped Nazi-occupied Poland on a boat with his wife and a young child that he rescued.
While many people attempted to send them back, several U.S. politicians became involved in his case, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. From that point on Joseph Hollander was allowed to join the US Army, and was one of the first American soldiers let into Berlin, getting the chance to work as an interpreter as he spoke between six to seven languages.
These letters and Joseph Hollander would eventually become the basis for not only Craig Hollander’s senior thesis but also a book.
Based on the book published in 2007 that recounted the story of Joseph Hollander, his subsequent escape to America, and Richard S. Hollander’s discovery of the letters, the book was taken and made into a play.
Written by Karen Hartman, a playwright based in Brooklyn, the book-turned-play is titled The Lucky Star and is based on a new narrative focused on Richard Hollander’s perspective as he gains a better perspective on his father due to the letters.
Previous iterations of the play ran in both Chicago and Baltimore, where it was previously known as The Book of Joseph.
Changed to The Lucky Star when it reached New York, the play gained popularity at the 59 East 59th Street Theater in New York, where it is now an off-Broadway play.
Previews for the show begin in April, with the College organizing for history majors and students groups focused in the theatre and the holocaust minors to see the play on April 27, while the show’s opening night is on May 5.
Students who attend the trip will also get a chance to meet and ask questions of the cast after the performance.
“I'm excited to give TCNJ students the opportunity to interact with [the cast],” said Craig Hollander, “and to see a New York theater performance.”