Remembering History: The Mitzvah Project

On the 19th of January, The Mitzvah Project will be arriving at the Old Fire Station; part play, part lecture and part audience discussion, it is mainly concerned with the history of the thousands of Germans of Jewish descent who served in the Third Reich Army during World War Two. Co-authored by Roger Grunwald and Annie McGreevy, I was lucky enough to speak to the former who gave me an insight into this production’s content as well as his own personal motivations for bringing the story to the stage.

The Mitzvah Project concerns itself with ‘Mischlings’, a derogatory term used by the Nazis to describe those of Jewish descent, usually those with one or two Jewish grandparents. Grunwald begins our conversation by explaining some of the background to this idea which is central to the production: “I explore the meaning behind Mischling. The Nazis tried to say that, in the Mischling, pure German blood, whatever that meant, was tainted, they made illegal in the mid to late 30s relations between German’s or Aryans and non Arayans, or what they called Rassenschade.” Grunwald plays a number of different characters in the play, including one of these Mischling; the character, named Christoph Rosebenburg, is a German Jewish lieutenant in the Wermacht. There is also Schmuel Berkowicz, a Polish Jew who crosses paths with Christoph, in what Grunwald describes as “the darkest days of the holocaust”. Both characters witness a great atrocity although Grunwald refuses to give me any more details, wanting to refrain from spoiling the play. The last character that is brought into the mix is a Jewish-American social critic, in the Greek tradition of the chorus.  This character is meant to poke fun at social norms. Grunwald tells me that this is an important character, both he and McGreevy, the co-author, identified the chorus as a “safety net” who could “provide respite from the more relentless and dark, upsetting moments.”

However, the play is only a third of this production, it is followed by a lecture delivered by Grunwald in which he discusses his history, his family and his reasons for writing. Grunwald’s personal motivations for writing The Mitzvah Project are clear. He notes that the history of Germans of Jewish descent serving in Hitler’s army is “a little known aspect of the German Jewish experience, that I felt was an important story to be told, and one that I have a particular relationship with, being the product of two German Jews myself, my father was a refugee and my mom was a holocaust survivor, she actually survived Auschwitz.” The importance of personal experience in Grunwald’s creation is clear when he describes his work as both “a privilege and a responsibility”. I learn that the idea for the play came about as a result of a visit to his mother’s sister, a 102-year-old lady who had survived Bergen Belsen. After being given a book from his aunt, written by Bryan Mark Rigg and entitled Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, Grunwald admits, “I couldn’t put it down, I would consider myself well read on this topic but I didn’t know about this, it was an important story with dramatic potential.” It was then that Christoph came into creation.

“the history of Germans of Jewish descent serving in Hitler’s army is “a little known aspect of the German Jewish experience”

When I ask Grunwald more about the influence of his personal history in the play he tells me that, “the play can not be separated from the personal, how I’ve lived my life, not just as a performance artist, but in the community, as an activist, my mother’s history has had a profound impact on my life but particularly on Mitzvah.” Grunwald reveals that his mother used to speak to young people about what she had experienced and the importance of remembering history. In a posthumous promise, he told his mother that he would use his skills to touch people, to keep the story in focus and this is central to the whole presentation. Grunwald revealed his feeling of responsibility to “carry the baton” and make sure what happened is never forgotten. He fears that this could be a possibility, commenting that the “time that produced the Mischling is still with us.” I question whether humanity has the capacity to change and Grunwald meets me with a good deal of optimism, saying “I wouldn’t be doing this work if I was a pessimist.” The optimism of someone with a family history so steeped in hardship is though-provoking and right there and then I resolved to go and watch The Mitzvah Project when it comes to Oxford; to make sure history is not forgotten.