The Mitzvah Project Revisits WWII Experiences


Anikka Sophia Villegas • The Student Life

In “The Mitzvah Project,” one soldier’s story revisits the Holocaust narrative, revealing the startling history of tens of thousands of “partial Jews.” This one-man play, followed by an informative lecture by the actor and playwright himself, was a powerful voice in representing the unseen victims of the Holocaust. The play focused on partial-Jewish soldiers fighting the war and the discrimination that they experienced despite their patriotism.

The artist and lecturer Roger Grunwald holds “The Mitzvah Project” close to his heart because his mother and aunt were survivors of Auschwitz, one of the worst concentration camps under Hitler’s regime. He takes on the responsibility of spreading the important messages of survival.

“The Mitzvah Project” will travel across the country to colleges and theaters to share its unique and often overlooked Jewish narrative. For example, a Jew passed off as German because Hitler himself declared him “German-looking” enough on a piece of paper. The play discusses this individual’s struggles as he sees men similar to him, from his hometown, being shot for being Jewish. He finally and happily loses his life when a Jewish doctor on the camps suffocates him under a cloth, and he finds freedom in death.

The play also touches upon the idea that if Hitler had won the war, he would have wiped out even the German-looking Jews, as he was prepared for a complete removal of Jewish blood from the world without any mercy—looking German would make no difference in the end. 

“The matter was heavy, so I didn’t come out feeling happy, but I certainly feel impacted,” Natalie Barbaresi PO ’16 said. “I loved that the play was followed by his presentation. The most moving points in ‘The Mitzvah Project’ were his ending quote about the human genome and us being all the same on the inside after centuries of mixed-race marriages.”

Grunwald spoke highly of speech as a medium because it passes on an emotion that writing often loses. For over four decades, Grunwald performed in Hollywood features and on television. Then he took up “The Mitzvah Project,” deciding to use his skills to honor his late mother through speech and performance. “The Mitzvah Project” was his way to connect theater with the historical lessons of the Holocaust and questions with regard to morality and responsibility. 

Following the experiences of German Jews chronologically, the performance explored a very personal struggle that one soldier’s family faced—immigration, death and losses included. From 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn to the arrival of over a hundred thousand Jews in the early 20th century, Grunwald meticulously illustrates their arrival and assimilation, and it is through raw, unforgiving history that he candidly exposes complex layers of identity, ethnicity and prejudice. 

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