Sunday, October 14, 2018

"The Obligation"

The Obligation
Roger Grunwald
The Mitzvah Project in association with Playground

Roger Grunwald
The April 12, 2018, edition of The New York Times printed the following findings from a survey released a few days earlier on Holocaust Remembrance:
- 31% of Americans and 41% of Millennials believe that two million or less Jews were killed in the Holocaust (not the actual six million or more).
- 41% of Americans and 66% of Millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was.
- And an astounding 52% of Americans think Hitler came to power by force (versus by vote of the electorate)!

Roger Grunwald, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, is dedicating much of his creative talents and his time to ensure the collective memory of what happened does not continue to fade until hardly anyone in future generations remembers “a world gone mad.” 

Taking a story he first told in a short play, The Mitzvah, and turning it into a fuller, one-man show in which he stars, Mr. Grunwald returns to the Potrero Stage in order for the Mitzvah Project in association with Playground once again to stage the 2017, much-lauded, world premiere, The Obligation.  A story of the Holocaust told primarily through three disparate characters he masterfully interchanges, The Obligation is Roger Grunwald’s wake-up call to us, his audience, to be on constant outlook for ingrained, insidious prejudice that can emerge any time – and in fact is showing its ugly head even now. 

Continuously smashing the boundaries of time, space, and persona during the one-hour, twenty-minute performance, Mr. Grunwald skips back and forth between 1936 and the present and many points in between.  With him, we travel from Bialystok, Poland to Auschwitz, to New York and back again.  And with hardly a pause for breath, he switches between the heavily accented voice of a Polish Jew named Schmuel Berkowicz to the vile gruffness of a half-Jewish lieutenant in the German army named Christoph Rosenberg to the wry, witty comments of an unnamed comedian looking, acting, and sounding much like Groucho Marx.  And along the way, sometimes he is just Roger Grunwald, looking directly to us in the audience, and urging us with eyes unwavering in their intensity, “We have to stop making a demon, a devil, out of the other.”

Roger Grunwald
After reenacting Schmuel’s emotional first glimpse of Lady Liberty once finally arriving in the U.S. after his harrowing, hellish experiences at the hands of Nazi Germany, Roger Grunwald becomes the eleven-and-a-half-old Schmuel (rolling up his rough, woolen pants to become a boy’s knickers) in his mid-1930s hometown of Bialystok.  In a pre-pubescent, squeaky voice that is often full of youthful wonder and curiosity, he describes in meticulous details some of the sights and sounds of the Germans as they arrived in increasing numbers on the streets of his neighborhood.  The boy’s voice turns to nervous worry and stunned horror as he tells us of the day one thousand men and boys were locked up in the Great Synagogue (only to be burned alive) or of the day his father and brother disappeared, never to be seen again.

Roger Grunwald
As his story takes us into the Bialystok where the 50,000 Jews of the city were confined – only 250 of which survived the war --, Mr. Grunwald removes his sweater and persona of the now-adult Schmuel to become a German-uniformed officer.  As he swears and grits his teeth in disgust, Odilo Globocnik describes how and why Poland “had to be cleansed” of Jews in order to make way for the hard-working farmers and factory workers of Germany who needed more land.  As he talks matter-of-factly to us in a ‘just between you and me’ manner about being “the Nazi you never heard of” who “made a career out of being anti-Semitic,” he erotically strokes the Nazi symbol on his coat.  He also snidely reminds us that it is America’s laws about how whites treated blacks that helped inspire Germany’s “cleansing operation.” 

Roger Grunwald
The recreated scenes that Mr. Grunwald so masterfully, chillingly delivers of the stark, still-shocking-each-time-heard-again realities of those times are often enhanced by the vicious sounds of barking dogs, marching boots, and angry orders to screaming victims – all part of the sound design of Theodore J.H. Hulsker who also provides snapshot videos to remind us of the times before, during, and after the horrors.  Brittany Mellerson’s lighting gives a shadowy effect of emerging memories while the set design of Director Nancy Carlin allows the costumes of Brooke Jennings and the locations/moods of the story to be switched seamlessly even as Mr. Grunwald hardly pauses to catch a breath in the frequent transformations.

Roger Grunwald
There are times when the many changes in time, place, and person become a bit confusing; and some of the sideline, almost-lectures border on being pedantic while still being overall powerful in message.  Frequently, Mr. Grunwald leans to the right, raises a cigar in hand, and makes a Groucho-like remark as a kind of sarcastic commentary on the story at hand.  The net effect is interesting, allows some comic relief, but also is somewhat distracting.

One of the most impactful messages Roger Grunwald delivers is in the description of Schmuel’s friend, Duhvid, who was with him in the concentration camps.  The story of how -- twenty years after arriving in New York to become a successful furrier – “Auschwitz hung on to him and never let him go” is heart-breaking and a firm reminder why our memories must never let go of what happened to the six million as well as to all those who amazingly survived beyond the war.  

In a letter his father wrote for his own memorial, Schmuel’s son, Peter, reads, “For years I lived in Death’s House; I know him.”  In The Obligation, Roger Grunwald brings us face-to-face with both the victim and the perpetrator, of the inhabitant and of the architect of that Death House.  We leave Potrero Stage hopefully recommitting to “never stop, never stop” our own obligation to remember and to tell others of them both.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Obligation continues through November 4, 2018 by The Mitzvah Project and in association with Playground at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or at

Photo Credits: Leo Correa

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