One of the most horrifying stories to come out of the Holocaust is the one about the Nazis turning Jews into bars of soap. But is it true? In Jeff Cohen’s new play, “The Soap Myth,” which is now in previews Off Broadway, a Holocaust survivor pits his eyewitness version of the truth against historians and museum curators who insist on documentary evidence. The play asks searching questions about how the Holocaust should be remembered and understood in an age in which survivors are dying out and Holocaust deniers spew their own hateful views.
The play is the first New York production of Arnold Mittleman’s National Jewish Repertory Theater, which has until now focused on national tours of productions from other theater companies, such as Theodore Bikel’s recent one-man show that came to the Folksbiene in 2009. Mittleman has formed a Holocaust Theater Archive dedicated to the preservation of Holocaust dramas, and chosen “The Soap Myth” to be what he calls his theater’s “premiere showcase piece in New York.”
Directed by Mittleman, the play focuses on a journalist, Annie Blumberg (Andi Potamkin) who interviews a Holocaust survivor, Milton Saltzman (Greg Mullavey), about his crusade to have the Holocaust Museum in Washington display an old photograph of a macabre Jewish funeral in his hometown of Sighet, Romania, where the soap was buried. Rebuffed by both the museum curator, Esther Feinman (Dee Pelletier) and a prominent Holocaust historian, Daniel Silver (Donald Corren), because of the lack of any documents to corroborate his claim, Saltzman turns to Blumberg to take up his cause.
As Blumberg is told by historians that Saltzman’s claims cannot be verified, an enraged Saltzman accuses the scholarly community of “denying” the truth of his experience in a way that he fears will pave the way for anti-Semites to question the overall validity of the Holocaust. Blumberg, who grows increasingly sympathetic to Saltzman’s cause, learns what may be at stake when she attends a lecture by a British Holocaust denier, Brenda Goodsen (Pelletier), who accuses the “greedy” Jews of vastly exaggerating the number of victims of the Nazi genocide.
Cohen, the former head of the Tribeca Playhouse, now serves as the artistic director of Dog Run Repertory Theatre. His previous plays include “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller,” based on Christopher Stokes’ short story of the same name about the still-unsolved 1961 disappearance of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s son during an anthropological expedition to New Guinea, and “Men of Clay,” about the playwright’s father and his Jewish tennis buddies in the Druid Hill Park neighborhood of the playwright’s native Baltimore.
In a telephone interview, Cohen said that the Holocaust survivor in “The Soap Myth” is based on an actual survivor, Morris Spitzer, who was featured in Moment magazine several years ago for his efforts to have the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum display a bar of soap made from the fat of Jewish corpses. His aim in the play, he said, is to show the “potent and toxic” grappling among Holocaust survivors, scholars and deniers about what really happened under the Third Reich.
“The Soap Myth,” he said, is about who makes history, and how it is made — and unmade. “There’s a gap between the survivor testimony and what is provable,” Cohen noted, “and this leaves room for the despicable and insidious propaganda of Holocaust deniers who call themselves historical revisionists.” By casting doubt on even a single aspect of survivor recollection, he said, they seek to undermine the validity of the Holocaust itself. “If they lie to you about turning human bodies into soap,” Cohen paraphrased the Holocaust deniers, “then what else will they lie to you about?” The speech given by the denier at the end of the play is, Cohen declared, “one of the most incendiary speeches ever given on a New York stage.”
Michael Berenbaum, the former director of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, is mentioned in the play as one of the foremost Holocaust scholars. In an interview at his home in Beverly Hills, he told The Jewish Week that the allegation that the Nazis turned Jews into soap first surfaced at the Nuremberg Trials, when a manufacturing plant at the Danzig Anatomic Institute was identified as the site, in 1944, of the mass production of soap from body fat. This made a certain amount of sense, Berenbaum said, given that the Nazi ideology was to view human beings as what he called “consumable raw material to be discarded in the process of manufacture and recycled into the Nazi war economy.”
The problem, Berenbaum said, is that there is no evidence that the turning of humans into soap actually occurred. Tests of soap, he said, have been inconclusive. “Soap inevitably gets human DNA mixed in it when it is both made and used,” he pointed out. “While we know that human ashes were made into fertilizer, we don’t know that the victims’ body fat was made into soap.”
While he said that historians do strive to honor survivors’ memories, they are also “duty bound to tell the truth as we know it, which means verifying what we hear.” Whether or not the Nazis made soap out of Jews, he pointed out, “makes no difference in terms of their criminality. It doesn’t make them a tenth of a percent better or worse.”
Soap may seem relatively benign, Cohen said, “but if this is something that you believe happened, then it haunts you every time you wash your hands.” What makes a bar of soap so prosaic, he noted, also makes it a powerful symbol of the survivor’s need to cleanse himself or herself of the horrors of the past. The fact or falsity of the myth is not the point, he insisted. “Whether or not they made soap from Jews doesn’t let them off the hook from six million other things that they did.”
“The Soap Myth” opens on Monday, March 26 and runs through April 22 at the Black Box Theatre of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $50-60, call TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101.