"The Soap Myth" Does Not Cleanse the Nazis or Holocaust





4-17-12

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Soap Myth
Steinberg Center
111 W. 46th Street
New York, N.Y.

I try to read, watch, and see as much about the Holocaust as I possibly can, and the most horrific disaster in human history still startles and disgusts me. How could it possibly have happened? What did the world learn from it?

Yet another chapter in the story unfolds in The Soap Myth, a gut-wrenching play by Jeff Cohen about the longstanding myth that the Germans used the fat of dead Jews to make bars of soap during World War II. In the play, concentration camp survivor Milton Saltzman, after failing in several attempts to get Holocaust museum officials to accept his contention, based on his first-person account of a casket full of the soap bars at a funeral, corrals a reporter. He tells her the story and she goes to officials at a museum. They tell her that they had met with Saltzman but concluded that there was not enough evidence to support his claim.

The play, produced by the National Jewish Theater, is a tough examination of the Holocaust and its survivors. No punches are pulled. It is an emotional drama and an eye-opening history lesson.

Were dead Jews turned into bars of soap? No one is certain. At the Nuremberg trials, several witnesses said they saw this happen, but there is no written confirmation of it and no mention in Nazi records. Museums, then, do not use the story, horrid as it is.

The soap story is not the whole play. Half of it involves actual Holocaust deniers, like the English Brenda Goodsen. She dismisses the horrors of the concentration camps and suggests that the Jews must have done some terrible things to be put there. The soap myth, she and other deniers contend, is an example of the whole Holocaust "legend" that Jews made up.

The play is the tale of the soap myth and the deniers, but also a taut human story of the reporter and Saltzman. The reporter constantly wonders what will happen to the Holocaust story when all the survivors, like Saltzman, pass away.

The Soap Myth is an intriguing combination of theater and exposition and an engaging history lesson on stage. It is a must see for those interested in World War II and the Holocaust. It's a small play, with no real set, and more story than drama, but it hits home.

The play is another effort to counter Holocaust deniers. There are numerous deniers in the world, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who even convened a worldwide Holocaust denial conference.

There is, of course, incontrovertible proof that the Holocaust took place in German-occupied Europe during World War II. The victims included men, women and children. There are numerous documentaries, photo albums, books, magazine articles and newspaper accounts. Survivors told their stories to the Shoah Foundation, whose workers taped the interviews. The Allied armies liberated thousands of emaciated Jews from concentration camps at the end of the war. It happened.

Jeff Cohen has written a harsh play full of anguished accounts of the genocide. There are grisly and unforgettable anecdotes. The scene at the very end of the play, where the aging Saltzman (based on a real character) relives his concentration camp experience, is withering.

Director Arnold Mittelman does a fine job of telling the story on a stage with minimal sets and lighting. He gets a sterling performance from Greg Mullavey (yes, the star of the old Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman sitcom). Andi Potamkin also gives a solid performance as the reporter.

PRODUCTION: Sets: Heather Wolensky; Costumes: David Withrow; Lighting: Jay Scott. The play is directed by Arnold Mittelman.

The play runs through this Sunday.


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