Activism theater: ‘The Mitzvah Project’

Activism theater: ‘The Mitzvah Project’

Roger Grunwald will Zoom his one-man Holocaust show in mid-April for Kean University

Roger Grunwald as Shmuel in “The Mitzvah Project,” a three-character one-man play.
Roger Grunwald as Shmuel in “The Mitzvah Project,” a three-character one-man play.

You can talk all you want, Roger Grunwald thinks, but if you’re just lecturing, you can get teenagers to listen, assimilate, and remember only so much, particularly if you’re talking about a subject as hard to make sense of as the Holocaust.

You can bring survivors to talk to those kids. Often, that works. Their humanity, the depths of their stories, and the unassailable evidence of their ability to prevail over evil, for decency and life to win, is clear. But World War II was over in 1945, so even the youngest of those survivors, the ones who have no Holocaust memories of their own, are aging, and inevitably the survivors who can tell their own stories are dying.

So once you accept the fact that the story of the Holocaust must be told, and young people must hear it, how do you make it accessible?

Roger Grunwald, the son of a survivor, is an activist and actor, so the answer to that puzzle seems clear to him. You make it into theater.

He’ll perform his one-man piece, “The Mitzvah Project,” at Kean University in Union on April 16.

Both of Mr. Grunwald’s parents were born in Germany, but his father, Kurt, and Kurt’s mother made their way to the Philippines in 1933, long before the war began. “It was one of the few countries that accepted Jews,” Roger Grunwald said. Mother and son lived in Manila until the Japanese took over the country, then they went into hiding on the Filipine island of Mindanao. His mother died there. Kurt Grunwald was on Mindanao when General Douglas MacArthur’s forces retook the Philippines. During that time, “my father got to know a GI who was born a German Jew,” Roger Grunwald said. “They became friends. That GI wrote my father an affidavit that allowed him to come to the States.” That was in 1947.

His mother, Lotte Moses, was born into an Orthodox family in Frankfurt am Main. “In the mid to late 1930s, they tried to get visas to the United States, but they were unsuccessful, as were most Jews, given the anti-Semites in the U.S. State Department,” Mr. Grunwald said. “So they went to Amsterdam, as did many German Jews.”

That was safe for them, until, in 1943, it wasn’t. Most of the rest of her family was murdered, but Lotte survived Auschwitz, and her sister, Anni Bodenheimer, survived Bergen Belsen. They eventually found each other. Anni started a new life in Los Angeles, and Lotte did the same in San Francisco. She spent some time in New York. In the late 1940s, she went to a New Year’s Eve party at a cousin’s house on the Upper West Side. That cousin was the wife of the GI who had sponsored Kurt Grunwald. And that was that.

Roger Grunwald grew up in New York and San Francisco. His parents had two goals for him, goals that seem contradictory, at least on the surface, but are not. They wanted him to be as American as possible, and they wanted him to fight against injustice, because they knew first-hand what injustice can do.

His mother often talked about her experiences in the camps at high schools. It was a strong imperative for her, the need to describe what hatred can do, what bigotry leads to, and what survival looks like, including the scars it leaves.

As he grew up, Mr. Grunwald had two passions — for theater and for social justice — and he has made both of them, sometimes separately, sometimes together, his life’s work. “I trained formally as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and I did work in TV and film and theater, but I veered off into activism theater,” he said, because activism and theater can be so closely linked. Certainly not all theater is political, and most theater is not overtly political, but it’s a powerful way to highlight inequities, injustices, and solutions; and certainly not all social activism is theatrical, but often it is, and often that works.

When he worked with an influential acting teacher — Wynn Handmann, a student of the even more influential teacher Sandy Meisner of the Group Theatre —”a light went off for me,” Mr. Grunwald said. “I wanted to do something about my family history. My mom had died by then, but I visited my aunt in L.A. for more information, and she gave me a book called ‘Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers’ by Bryan Mark Rigg.

“This was a seminal work that explored the phenomenon of the thousands of half- and quarter-Jews who served in the Wehrmacht, and I realized that there was a great story to be told.”

That story became the basis of “The Mitzvah Project,” Mr. Grunwald’s one-man, three-character play. It’s not his own family’s story — there are no mischlings, as those part-Jewish Germans were called, in his family — but it draws viewers into the story of the Holocaust as it examines how someone who does not consider himself Jewish but who increasingly is considered a Jew by the world around him would make his way in that treacherous world.

“The Mitzvah Project” is aimed mainly at high-school students; Mr. Grunwald performed it at schools, shuls, and Jewish centers around the country. It’s accompanied by a teacher’s guide and links to many other resources.

And then the pandemic struck. But that didn’t stop Mr. Grunwald or his work, it just challenged him to rethink its logistics. The pandemic has done nothing to blunt the need for a work that evokes discussion of hatred, injustice, and bigotry — in fact, it has strengthened that need.

Luckily, the 20-minute play had been filmed in 2017, in front of a live audience. Mr. Grunwald now plays it and discusses it on Zoom. “My target audience is primarily public high schools, but private schools and colleges are in the mix as well,” he said. “My goal with this Zoom tour is to reach 100 high schools around the country, and we are well on the way to that.” He recently presented the program to schools in Brooklyn and in Marin County, California.

If there is anything good to come out of the pandemic, it’s our newfound ability to surmount distance. “I want to reach as many students as possible,” he said. “Only 16 states mandate Holocaust education, and the degree to which each high school emphasizes it and the way that it is taught varies enormously from district to district, from school to school, from class to class. And then there are the other 44 states that have no mandate.

“We are graduating generations of young people who are profoundly ignorant not only about the Holocaust, but about the history underlying it.”

That’s one of the many reasons that Mr. Grunwald does not want to perform “The Mitzvah Project” — the three characters he plays are the mischling, Christoph; Shmuel, a Polish Jew; and a Groucho Marx-like figure who functions as a Yiddish-accented Greek chorus — only to Jewish audiences. That’s “preaching to the chorus,” he said. Before the pandemic, he took the production to 23 states, as well as to Canada, the U.K., and Israel.

“Everybody has a different experience” watching the play, he said. “I just did a presentation at Hampshire College, and one of the educators said, ‘It hit me so hard I almost had to leave the room. It was just too intense.’ I’ve had people walk out during performances.” Others are less stirred and shaken, he explained. “It’s the same way that two people can look at the same painting and have radically different experiences.”

It’s a powerful production, Mr. Grunwald said; it doesn’t have a lot of laugh lines to break the tension. But when he was able to perform it in person, he said, he could feel the audience’s reaction, and “it’s life-affirming when you can feel the audience reacting, when you can feel that they’re not coughing, not rustling papers. When people are holding onto their bodily functions. When you can hear a pin drop.”

“I did a tour of Wisconsin, set up by the Wisconsin Holocaust Center, and I did a presentation at the Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha. There were 500, 600 students there in the gymnasium,” and judging by the lack of any sound, none of them were breathing, he said. “And there were a lot of questions about Judaism and Catholicism later.”

The experience on Zoom is necessarily different but no less intense, Mr. Grunwald said, and he’s glad to be able to use it to extend his reach as he continues to tell stories from the Holocaust. Now more than ever, we have to remember them, he said. And we have to learn from them.

Who: Roger Grunwald

What: Presents “The Mitzvah Project”

When: On Friday, April 16, at 2 p.m.

How: Online

For whom: Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center

Who’s the audience: Everyone is welcome.

How much: It’s free

How to register: Go to and click on the “Register” link.

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