Roger Grunwald as Shmuel, an Auschwitz survivor, in "The Mitzvah."
Roger Grunwald as Shmuel, an Auschwitz survivor, in "The Mitzvah."

One-man play goes online to deliver Holocaust lessons to new generation

Roger Grunwald was on a roll. For years, he had been touring the globe with his Holocaust-themed, one-man, multiple-character play, performing it at synagogues throughout North America, Israel and the U.K. and at universities such as Oxford, Penn State and Ben-Gurion.

But right when he was all set to take the expanded version of that play on a major 2020 tour, the pandemic hit and Grunwald had to quickly rethink his career strategy.

The gist of his new plan? Goodbye live theater, hello Zoom.

For several months, the San Francisco native has been offering a program called “The Mitzvah Project” to high schools. This new online version includes a filmed version of his one-man play, “The Mitzvah,” as a jumping-off point to teach teens about the Holocaust. He’ll be presenting the project to schools in Marin, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties at various dates in January and February, scheduled around International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27.

“So far the response has been very strong from educators and students,” said the experienced actor-playwright, who had a role a few years ago in the pilot episode of “Vinyl” on HBO, which was directed by Martin Scorsese. “Yes, they get a visceral experience [when ‘The Mitzvah’ is performed live] that they might not get in the same way seeing the video. But from the response, they seem to be impacted.”

Nancy Grabow, the German-language teacher at Walnut Creek’s Northgate High School, hopes students at her school will be among them. Grunwald will present “The Mitzvah Project” to her students, along with drama and European history students, on Feb.3.

“I jumped at the chance,” she said of Grunwald’s presentation. “We have to learn from history or we’re going to make the same mistakes.”

The son of an Auschwitz survivor, Grunwald co-wrote the play with Annie McGreevy. It tells the fictional story of a Nazi military officer who had a Jewish mother (yes, Hitler did allow some mischlings — the offspring of a Jewish and an Aryan parent — into the Wehrmacht) and a Jewish concentration camp prisoner, and how fate brought them together. There is also a Groucho Marx-like character, who serves as a sideline commentator on the events. Grunwald performs all the roles, switching seamlessly from one character to another.

The play (in-person or online) is almost always followed by a lecture and Q&A session, aka “The Mitzvah Project.”

Woven throughout are words such as “mitzvah” and other details that not every teenager of today is going to understand.

Grunwald tackled that problem by creating a study guide that is given to students ahead of time. It presents an overview of the Holocaust, who the Nazis were, what Auschwitz was and how genocide was effected under Hitler.

“I have to accept the fact that there are young people for whom this goes right over their heads,” he said of the complex subject matter. “But there is some value in seeing something they hadn’t been exposed to before. Out of 100 students, if there are 20 who get a significant experience — or even one — I’ve accomplished something.”

Born in San Francisco and a 1969 graduate of Lick-Wilmerding High School in the city, Grunwald grew up hearing his mother’s stories of her girlhood in Frankfurt, the rise of Hitler and her deportation to Auschwitz, where she clung to life for two years before liberation. In later years, his mother was active in Holocaust education, doing her part to make sure something like that never happened again.

Meanwhile, after graduating from UC Berkeley, Grunwald had moved to New York to launch his acting career and to do community organizing on the side, especially on behalf of New York City’s most vulnerable populations. He went on to become a theater, film, TV and voice actor, and has appeared in more than 70 stage productions in the United States and Europe, according to his website.

After reading Bryan Mark Rigg’s 2002 book “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers,” which recounts the little-known history of Germans with partial Jewish ancestry serving in the Nazi army, he had found a topic for a play. And if the matter seemed urgent then, perhaps it’s even more so now, with at least one recent study showing that two-thirds of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was.

In light of the Jan. 6 right-wing insurgence at the Capitol, Grunwald sees the lessons of the Holocaust as more urgent than ever. With blatant hatred of Jews on display among some in the pro-Trump mob, and the use of plenty of white-supremacist symbols (such as the Confederate flag), the siege, some would say attempted coup, was a warning that the hatred that fueled the Holocaust is still alive.

“The message of the play is there is no ‘other,’” he said. “The ‘other’ is us. Lying never was more widespread, shameless, systematic and constant than it is today. Lies don’t even need to be plausible to work. It’s part and parcel of the Eurocentric big lie that brought about Holocaust denial and the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ Our democracy, for all its robustness in 200-plus years of existence, isn’t invulnerable, as we have just seen.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.