“Roger Grunwald, veteran actor and playwright, evokes the gamut of human emotion in The Obligation, his outstanding one man, multi-character tour de force that examines the horrors and harsh realities of the Holocaust. — Susan S. Finkelstein, Board Chair, Olney Theatre Center, Olney, Maryland
It was several years ago that Roger Grunwald conceived of and began to develop an original Holocaust-themed solo stage work. Shortly thereafter, in collaboration with co-author and director, Annie McGreevey, they developed The Mitzvah. Since 2014 Grunwald has been touring The Mitzvah to great acclaim along with an original lecture.
Over the course of 2016, Mr. Grunwald re-conceived and reworked the combination short play and lecture (known as The Mitzvah Project) transforming it into a new, full-length one-person stage drama called The Obligation. The new play, which had its theatrical (and world) premiere October 12, 2017 at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco under the direction of Nancy Carlin, incorporates, expands upon and deepens the narratives, characters and themes of The Mitzvah Project.
“Roger Grunwald manages to combine art and history in his dazzling performance... Seldom have I witnessed the ability of an actor to infuse characters with such passion and clarity so as to make time travel a reality. When watching Roger perform, you never have to suspend disbelief to savor the moment and the significance of his message. Today, when events unfold with terrifying velocity, it's critically important to remember the past. Just one of the many reasons not to miss Roger's mission and mastery." — William S. Cohen, Former United States Senator/Secretary of Defense
At its core, The Obligation is the life story of Schmuel Berkowicz, a Polish Jew from Bialystok (and a central character in The Mitzvah*, the short one-person play at the heart of the original work). The Obligation follows Schmuel’s life from his tween and teen years into young adulthood as the world around him descends into The Second World War and The Holocaust.It’s a story of boyhood crushes, innocence lost, survival and liberation.
The Obligation also features the strange and shocking story of Christoph Rosenberg — another character from The Mitzvah. Christoph is a German half-Jew who was an officer in Hitler’s army. We get to know Christoph when he crosses paths with Schmuel during the darkest days of The Holocaust.
In addition to Christoph and Schmuel, The Obligation also includes a character called The Chorus who appears in The Mitzvah as well. He’s an American-Jewish comedian/social critic, who leavens the play by injecting edgy commentary and satirical observations. The Chorus probes the boundary between the absurd and the horrific.
In The Obligation, the audience comes face-to-face with a man who is the personification of remorselessness and evil — a human being that history has largely forgotten but, as Schmuel says at one point in the play:
“This man, — this Nazi — though now dead, is still among us and we must recognize him. But, he’s not wearing a Black uniform with an armband anymore. And we must also recognize the people that give him, and those that are like him, their power — because they are also among us. Some of them put the gun in his hand and some of them — are just silent…”
“The Obligation has great personal meaning to me,” says Grunwald. “It represents the fulfillment of a promise to honor the memory of my mother — and that of other survivors and victims of The Holocaust -- by using my performing and writing skills to connect the theater and its capacity to touch people with the the historical necessity of keeping the lessons of The Holocaust alive."
Conflicts and Moral Dilemmas in The Obligation
“The choice-less choice” facing The Ghetto Jew: This conflict played out within the confines of the Nazi-controlled ghettos — between the desperate ghetto Jews, the Jewish Council (The Judenrat) and the Jewish underground. Members of the underground, once they became aware of the Nazi plans for mass extermination, tried to prevail upon the councils and the ghetto population that fighting the Nazis — for their collective dignity, even though death was a virtually certainty — was the only true course. What they were up against were the Nazi-appointed Councils, convinced (and duped) by the Nazis that “work,” i.e. slave labor, would “save” the ghetto Jews. The starved, disease-ridden and brutalized Jews desperately hoped — and wanted to believe — that they could save themselves through work. It was but another cruel and deadly Nazi deception.
Reparations (Wiedergutmachung): Another conflict that is played out in The Obligation is the post-war fight between survivors who refused to take reparations from Germany — calling it “blood money” — and others who applied for and received compensation because they were “owed by the Germans” — owed for the monstrous crimes that had been committed against them, their families and the Jewish people.
Post-War Survivor Suicide: The Obligation also engages the tragedy of post-war survivor suicide. Many survivors took their own lives — in some cases, many years after liberation — unable to live with their guilt at having survived while family, loved ones and so many millions of others perished. Some took their lives, unable to endure their own unremitting psychic pain — memories of what they themselves had lived through and witnessed.
The Auschwitz Survivor: The conflict of the Auschwitz survivor — scarred on their forearms — branded as slaves with crudely etched numbers identifying them forever as living victims of Nazi terror, was uniquely tragic. When confronted with questions — perhaps many years after liberation — such as “what is that?” or “what does that mean?” — often from well-meaning, although ignorant individuals, many Auschwitz survivors faced a conundrum: “how do I tell this stranger what this tattoo on my arm is?” “How do I tell them how and why I got it?” “How do I have a conversation with someone who has no idea what Auschwitz is?”
The preceding are some of the major themes in The Obligation. For inquiries and more information, click here.