The Soap Myth

The Soap Myth

Reworked play 'nails it' in portraying survivor archetypes

It was the early 1970s. I was a volunteer at the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn – really just an office at that Yeshiva of Flatbush that Yaffa Eliach, my teacher, had commandeered from the principal (her husband, David). It served almost as a drop-in center for the hundreds of Shoah survivors who lived in the immediate neighborhood, and was one of the building blocks of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan.

I do not quite remember how it happened. There was a free-standing glass case in the office, and one day I looked down at my right hand and realized I was holding a grayish cake of soap, about the size of one of those complimentary hotel bars left on the bathroom sink for guests. The soap in my hand made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and, like in every bad horror movie, I could feel the chills up and down my spine. This cake of soap had three letters on it. To me they looked like RJF, although I have heard others say the middle letter is an I. Either way, it basically meant Pure Jew Fat. I looked at Ray Kaner and Stella Wieselthier and said, “Am I holding my aunt? My uncle? My brother?”

A scene from “The Soap Myth.”

They did not say anything, but someone took it from my hand and placed it back in the glass case.

Years later, when I was editing a survivor group’s newspaper, a survivor called me and complained that we were ignoring the cakes of soap. I did not know what to do, so I called one of the experts, Michael Berenbaum, and he told me then, about 10 years ago, that the soaps had been tested and were negative for human fat. He said that there may have been experimental cakes of soap made in a lab, but it did not prove to be cost effective, so the Nazis dropped the program (unlike the program of weaving hair into blankets).

He noted, as well, that the Nazis were experts at psychological warfare. They had managed to create a system designed to strip the Jews of their last shreds of self-respect and dignity, so that it would not have been beyond them to make ersatz cakes of human soap. Then they would tell the Jews that is what they were using when they were allowed to take a rare shower.

Those same cakes of soap, and the kind of discussion Berenbaum had with me so many years ago, are central to the very compelling play, “The Soap Myth,” now in its second incarnation (an earlier version appeared in 2009). It is fascinating because it deals with an untouchable subject, reaching deep into the souls of the two main characters, a young woman and an old man, who both must come to terms with ugly reality, and find some solace and peace.

It is an intense evening, dramatic, and well-played, simply staged, but very sophisticated. In 85 minutes, it manages to deal with complicated concepts – the definition of history and truth; degrees of human depravity and duplicity; insidious Holocaust denial and perception management. At the same time, it captures the humanity of its characters, and delivers perfect archetypes.

Directed by Arnold Mittleman and presented by the National Jewish Theatre – now playing at the Black Box Theatre on West 46th Street in Manhattan – it stars Andi Potamkin as a young, naïve reporter for a Jewish national magazine; Donald Corren, who plays a number of roles, among them a thinly disguised version of David Marwell of the Museum of Jewish Heritage; and Dee Pelletier, who plays a version of Sara Bloomfield, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as well as a slimy, charming Holocaust denier. Greg Mullavey plays Milton Saltzman, based on Morris Spitzer, who made spreading the soap story his reason for being (he obviously did not believe it was a myth). Mullavey’s character is the perfect impassioned, bitter, furious, and obsessed Shoah survivor who simply cannot grasp why the soap story is not central to the history taught and remembered by Holocaust museums.

He did not understand DNA and lab tests. He understood that the soap was being ignored, even though he was an eyewitness to its use in the showers and a funeral of soap in his home town. And that ignoring of “truth” he could not tolerate – because he knew what he knew, was haunted by it, and wanted what he wanted. And yet, all the hounding of museum staff, abusing them, yelling and screaming at them and at the world, accomplished nothing – because the soap was not made of human fat, and the deniers would have a field day.

As I said to Michael Berenbaum later that night, “They nailed it – every role, every argument, every personality, especially Saltzman.”

“I’m coming to New York to see the play tomorrow,” Berenbaum said. “Will I be okay with it? Or will I get angry?”

I said I thought he would be better than okay with it.

“You were right,” he said after he saw it. “They nailed it. And the interesting thing is that it is just as the reviewer Jerry Tallmer said, a story about surviving survival. It was extraordinarily well done.”

And so it was. This play runs through Sunday. Try catching it this weekend.

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