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 25 minutes, is being presented with a post-performance lecture and audience discussion led by Grunwald. The lecture traces the fateful chronology of Jews in Germany — from Moses Mendelssohn, through the arrival, in the late 19th and early 20th century into Germany, of over a hundred thousand Jews from the Pale of Settlement (so-called Ost Juden) — to the rise of Hitler. Grunwald charts two centuries of German Jewish assimilation, intermarriage and conversion — the collective aspiration of generations of German Jews — to find a seat at the table within Germany’s dominant Christian culture. After having converted to Christianity in 1825, Heinrich Heine, the
German Jewish poet, believed he had “bought an entry ticket to European culture.” For hundreds of thousands of German Jews under Hitler, Heine’s entry ticket became a one-way train ride to oblivion.
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 in theaters, universities and Jewish organizations around the country and internationally. The Mitzvah was directed and co-authored by Annie McGreevey.
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."
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.