An original one-man Holocaust drama is to be presented as part of Ottawa’s Yom HaShoah commemoration, Louise Rachlis reports:
Do human beings have the capacity to learn from history?
That’s the question being asked by actor-playwright Roger Grunwald in “The Mitzvah Project,” an acclaimed combination of theatre, history lesson and conversation that comes to Ottawa on April 11.
The one-person drama portrays the history of tens of thousands of German men known as mischlings (mixed blood), the derogatory term the Nazis used to characterize those descended from one or two Jewish grandparents, who served in Hitler’s army.
“One of the things I hope people come away with is an understanding of German Jewish history,” sayes Grunwald, who created “The Mitzvah Project” with his director and co-author Annie McGreevey over a number of years, beginning in 2011.
He spoke to the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin from San Francisco, where he works at the American Conservatory Theatre and is currently understudying the part of a 70-something Irish butcher in “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” by English playwright Simon Stephens.
Grunwald was inspired to begin “The Mitzvah Project” by the lives of his mother, who died in 2001, and his aunt, who is turning 104. The women are survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
In 2011, he went to Los Angeles to meet with his Aunt Annie, who gave him a book called Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, by Bryan Mark Rigg.
“It’s a seminal work in the field,” he said. “I considered myself fairly well read, but I hadn’t heard of this. I couldn’t put the book down.”
With knowledge gleaned from that book, he created the play’s three central characters who cross paths: Schmuel, a Polish Jew from Bialystok whose family and community were wiped out by the Nazis; Christoph Rosenberg, a German half-Jew who was an officer in Hitler’s army; and The Chorus, an American-Jewish comedian.
By 2014, “The Mitzvah Project,” which premiered at the Emerging Artists Theatre’s “Illuminating Artists: One Man Talking” Festival in New York City, was touring across the United States, with productions at high schools, colleges, universities and at Jewish community organizations.
On Wednesday, April 11, it will be performed for the first time in Ottawa, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) as part of Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust commemoration. Following the performance, Grunwald will give a talk, delving deeply into the history and tragic back story that produced mischling soldiers – “men who were the product of two centuries of German-Jewish assimilation, intermarriage, conversion and the striving of a people committed to calling the German Fatherland their home.”
Several tens of thousands of mischlinge (the plural term for mischling men) were discharged from the German armed forces beginning in 1940. Nearly all were sent to forced labour camps or worse. A few thousand mischlinge, however, who were designated by the Reich as valuable to the war effort and who had an “Aryan appearance,” were exempted from the Nazi race laws. A “Declaration of German Blood” (eine Deutschblütigkeitserklärung) – signed by Hitler himself – allowed these select few thousand mischlinge to fight for the Nazi cause. Most died in battle.
On the same theme of race, Grunwald also talks about a new book called Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman.
“It’s a “very important work and most people don’t know much about it,” he says. “For instance, there was a lot of praise for American race laws in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Interestingly, one of the ugly ironies is that when the Nazis rejected American practices, it was because they were too harsh, not that they were too enlightened.”
Grunwald wants audiences to question their own assumptions and attitudes that are now prevalent in the United States.
“What is identity?” he asks. “To what end do we insist on labelling each other, whether the ‘we’ or ‘other’ is a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Shia, a Pashtun, a Hutu, or a Tutsi – these are all ways we set each other up.”
The Mitzvah Project attempts to raise several sociological, cultural and historic issues, he said.
“Who decides what culture, race and ethnicity mean? What is identity? What, if any, responsibility do we have to the dead? Does killing another human being have a place in a moral universe?
“We’ve learned over the millennia that we’re not a ‘pure’ anyone, we’re all mishlings. There is no ‘other.’ ”
After the play, Grunwald will give a talk on the broader issues raised. The play runs about 30 minutes, followed by the talk of the same length.
“I love to have a chance to chat with folks,” Grunwald says.
One reaction from previous audiences has been shock.
“I think people find it hard to believe,” said Grunwald. “One of the people in Rigg’s book decided to falsify his identity and stayed in Germany and survived the war.
“It was Moses Mendelssohn in the 1700s who broke down the walls of the ghetto and began the process of assimilation and Jewish enlightenment. Most German Jews thought they needed to do more, to become more German; they wanted to get a seat at the table in a Christian-dominated culture.”
Part of what motivates Grunwald is continuing the legacy of his mother, who spoke at colleges and universities, talking about what it was like during the Holocaust, as a reminder for people not to forget.
“Her generation has pretty much died out and I look at it as my obligation to touch people emotionally,” Grunwald says. “I’m optimistic long-term, but my generation has to find ways to make connections between the Holocaust and the ‘othering’ of people. The Holocaust was unique in human history in its scale, but genocide is not unique, unfortunately, for the world. I feel it is my obligation as my mother’s son.”
“The Mitzvah Project” is being presented Wednesday, April 11, as a Yom HaShoah community commemoration at the JCC. The evening will begin at 7 p.m. with a candle-lighting ceremony and a brief talk by a March of the Living participant. Grunwald’s play and talk will follow. The event is free. For information, please contact Lindsay Gottheil at 613-798-4696 ext. 355.