Through one soldier's story, The Mitzvah reveals the startling history of tens of thousands of "partial Jews" who served in Hitler's military, most of whom were discharged in 1940. Nearly all were sent to forced labor camps — or worse. However, a few thousand who had an "Aryan appearance" and who were deemed by the Reich to be "valuable to the war effort," were exempted from the Nazi race laws. A “Declaration of German Blood” (a Deutschblütigkeitserklärung) — signed by Hitler himself — allowed these select few thousand mischlinge to fight for the Nazi cause. Most died in battle.
The Mitzvah, which has a running time of 21 minutes, is being presented with a post-performance lecture and Q&A led by Grunwald. In his lecture he explores the ways in which the Holocaust - and being the son of two German Jews - shaped him as a boy, teen and young adult. He examines the unique — and tragic — history that produced tens of thousands of half and quarter Jewish Wehrmacht soldiers (mostly junior and senior officers) 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.
The Mitzvah Project adds to the historical narratives about the Holocaust at a time when few survivors remain to tell their stories to younger generations. It was inspired by the lives of Grunwald’s mother and aunt, survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, respectively. It premiered at the Emerging Artists Theatre’s “Illuminating Artists: One Man Talking” festival in New York City and is currently being presented on the Zoom platform at high schools and colleges around the country. The Mitzvah was directed and co-authored by Annie McGreevey.
He segues to American history and examines the role that America’s Jim Crow Laws played in providing a model for the Nuremberg Laws. He explores the failed January 6th insurrection in our nation's capital and its connection to the recent upsurge in white supremacism and the ways in which prejudice in its many forms has been manifesting, most tragically, in our schools. "Young hearts and minds are up for grabs and the forces of intolerance, most especially the alt-right, have become more and more sophisticated at luring young people, in particular, but not exclusively, young white boys, into their web of hate," says Grunwald.
The last section of his talk examines how advances in human biology and genetics totally
debunk racialist mythology.
The play and lecture engage several socio/cultural/historical issues: Who decides what culture, race and ethnicity mean? What is identity? How did the American Eugenics movement influence Federal and State legislation in the U.S, which, in turn, inspired the Nazi’s promulgation of several Nuremberg Laws? What responsibility, if any, 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 a number of years my mother spoke in front of groups of students about her experiences during the war. What she and other survivors have done is teach this critically important history experientially. My 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 — The Mitzvah Project represents my promise to keep in focus the history that must never be forgotten." — Roger
Click here to read The German Law Journal article about the book: Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. The book is authored by James Whitman, Ph.D. (The article was published online by and appears courtesy of Cambridge University Press: June 24, 2019)
To learn more about the story behind the “mischlinge,” the two books at the top of my list are: Hitler's Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military and Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich both by Bryan Mark Rigg.
The other must read book is The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 by Amos Elon.