WHAT IS REAL?
The following provides historical context for the events surrounding The Book of Joseph and actual letters from the Hollander family. In the play itself, the Kraków letters, court transcripts and the elderly Arnold Spitzman’s language are excerpted directly from documentary material. The Kraków letters are published in Everyday Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland, edited by Christopher Browning, Richard Hollander and Nechama Tec.
US WARTIME IMMIGRATION
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as waves of people fled Nazi-occupied Europe, the United States government had no established refugee policy. Instead, the US was operating on immigration quotas set in 1924 that did not reflect the influx of immigrants due to the changing political landscape—and resulted in thousands of refugees being kept on waiting lists. Further complicating matters, in 1931, President Herbert Hoover issued a mandate that the country would accept only those immigrants who could prove that they would not be a “public charge,” or otherwise burden society—an order disqualifying all but the wealthiest of refugees. Such isolationist rhetoric, along with widespread fear resulting from the Great Depression, developed strong anti-immigration sentiments among the American populace.
As Nazi Germany became a greater threat to America and it was evident that the nation would soon be at war, the government feared that spies and saboteurs would enter the country disguised as refugees. As a result, it became all but impossible for refugees to enter the country. It was not until 1944 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—under intense pressure from cabinet secretaries, Jewish leaders and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—founded the War Refugee Board to begin addressing the immigration crisis facing a world ravaged by conflict.
OCCUPATION OF KRAKÓW
Kraków, Poland has been home to Jewish residents since the early thirteenth century. By the time of the 1931 Census (as reported in 1936)—the last before the outbreak of War World II—Jews accounted for approximately one quarter of the city’s total population. Following the invasion of western Poland by Nazi forces in September 1939, approximately 20,000 additional Jews flocked from the countryside to Kraków in hopes of finding safety. Under the occupation, Jews were used as forced labor for public duties such as street sweeping and garbage collection. Wealthier families were able to pay fees to avoid such tasks, but were forced still to distinguish themselves with armbands and badges, register all property and assets and adhere to strict travel restrictions and curfews. By late October, most of Poland, including Kraków, was under Nazi rule.
The Nazi government established a Jewish ghetto in March 1941—not in the centuries-old Jewish Quarter of Kraków, but along the railroad tracks to the south of the city center. The approximately 15,000 Jews allowed to remain in the city were forced to move in to the newly established ghetto and an estimated 3,000 rooms; roughly four families were assigned to each apartment.
Once relocated, Jews were forbidden to travel beyond the concrete and barbed wire barriers demarcating the ghetto, and were forced to work in factories manufacturing products for the Third Reich. This urban labor regime expanded to include labor camps on the outskirts of town; where families were separated and forced to work in fields, quarries and textile plants. Two years after the Kraków Ghetto’s establishment, Nazi commanders ordered its liquidation. By March 1943, the estimated 10,000 residents who remained in the ghetto had been executed.
This Playgoer’s Guide originally appeared in the printed program for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2017 world premiere production of The Book of Joseph, directed by CST Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.