The Mitzvah Project is a combination theater, history lesson and conversation in which actor and child of survivor, Roger Grunwald, explores one of the most shocking aspects of the Jewish experience during the Second World War. Through the story of Christoph Rosenberg, a German half-Jew, the one-person drama — created with director and co-author Annie McGreevey — reveals the surprising history of tens of thousands of German men known as "mischlings" — the derogatory term the Nazis used to characterize those descended from one or two Jewish grandparents — who served in Hitler's army. Grunwald's lecture delves deeper into the history that produced these 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. After the lecture, Grunwald leads a discussion with the audience.
The Mitzvah (the play) has three central characters: Schmuel, a Polish Jew from Bialystok whose family and community were wiped out by the Nazis; Christoph, a German half-Jew who was an officer in Hitler’s army; and The Chorus, an American-Jewish comedian.
The Mitzvah’s goal is to give audiences an opportunity to experience humankind’s recent, dark history in a new way. It is an important addition to the historical narratives about The Holocaust at a time when few survivors remain to tell their stories to younger generations.
The Mitzvah was inspired by the lives of Grunwald’s mother and aunt, survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and premiered at the Emerging Artists Theatre’s “Illuminating Artists: One Man Talking” Festival in New York City.
Christoph (the German half-Jew) personifies the tragic legacy of German Jews — their centuries-long desire to find acceptance by Germany and their Fatherland’s final, unequivocal and genocidal rejection. The Mitzvah sheds light on the little known — and startling — history of those Germans of partial Jewish ancestry (the Nazis called them “mischlinge” or “mixed-breeds”) who served in Hitler's military. Several tens of thousands of mischlinge were discharged from the German armed forces beginning in 1940. Nearly all were sent to forced labor 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.
The Groucho Marx-esque Chorus uses his cleverness and wit to probe the boundary between the absurd and the horrific.
The Mitzvah attempts to engage several socio/cultural/historical issues: 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? Do human beings have the capacity to learn from history?
For many years Grunwald’s mother spoke in front of groups of students about her experiences during the war. What she and other survivors did — and continue to do — is teach history experientially. His mother died in 2001 and more and more Holocaust survivors are dying every day. As a child of a survivor, as a performing artist and as a human being — born less than six years after the end of the most murderous decade in the history of the world — Grunwald wants to use The Mitzvah as a vehicle to keep in focus the history that could too easily be forgotten.
The Mitzvah Project is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a 501(c)(3) public, tax-exempt foundation established by the New York State Council on the Arts in 1971 to work with the arts community to develop and facilitate programs in all disciplines.