Amid the darkened walls of the University of Pittsburgh’s Studio Theatre, Christoph Rosenberg ascended a box, raised his hand and hailed Hitler.
“The hand is good for killing. The hand is responsible for millions of deaths. A hand doesn’t feel guilt. A hand simply follows orders,” Rosenberg, the half-German, half-Jewish member of the Wehrmacht, explained.
He continued by bemoaning his dual identity. He pleaded for acceptance. With a markedly foreign accent, he recited the mourner’s kaddish. Thirty minutes later, Rosenberg ended his monologue to heavy applause.
Rosenberg and the one-person Holocaust drama, “The Mitzvah Project,” are the creation of Roger Grunwald and Annie McGreevey, two actors with a distinguished history in the arts.
In commemoration of the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, students, academicians and community members gathered to observe Grunwald deliver two presentations: first, as the fictional character Christoph Rosenberg; second, as himself — an American born actor with an interest in mischlinge, a German term used between 1933 and 1945 to denote persons possessing both Aryan and Jewish ancestry.
Including a subsequent question and answer session, the two presentations lasted 90 minutes and attracted nearly 75 attendees.
Grunwald explained that as the child of two German Jews, he was motivated to create “The Mitzvah Project” both to learn “what gave rise to this and what can we learn from this.”
During the latter presentation and question and answer session, Grunwald described mischlinge, their motivation for serving in the Wehrmacht (German armed forces between 1933 and 1945) and his rationale for pursuing the topic.
Mischlinge, according to Grunwald, were people with either one or two Jewish grandparents. While citing Bryan Mark Rigg — a Cambridge University-educated historian who has published several books on mischlinge — Grunwald maintained that as many as 150,000 mischlinge served in the Wehrmacht as both soldiers and officers.
In explaining the phenomenon, Grunwald claimed that mischlinge were often raised with a “modicum of Judaism; others didn’t even know they were Jewish.”
More startling, Grunwald claimed that some “full Jews” served in the Wehrmacht as well.
For both mischlinge and full Jews, motivation was often preservation.
“Mischlinge got into the army not only to save themselves, but to save or protect a family member,” said Grunwald.
Once in service, some even excelled. Pinchas (Paul-Ludwig) Hirschfeld, a full Jew, was a first lieutenant in the Wehrmacht and received military awards, including the Wound Badge, a War Merit Cross 2nd Class with Swords and a Sharpshooter Badge.
According to Grunwald, Hirschfeld told Rigg that every day before he went out to battle he said the Sh’ma.
While some mischlinge and full Jews successfully survived the war, most were deported.
Grunwald maintained that those who lived offered little explanation for alternative actions. Options were limited: outing oneself as Jewish or challenging Nazi beliefs virtually ensured death. In a sense, serving in the Wehrmacht became the ultimate assimilation.
At the conclusion of Grunwald’s presentation, one listener remarked, “Perhaps the moral is the utter falsity and foolishness of German Jewish hopes of assimilation.”
Retorting against the pejorative treatment of assimilation, Grunwald responded, “I don’t begrudge their efforts to find a seat at the table. People try to find a way to be acceptable in a culture that doesn’t accept them. It’s not a Faustian compact. There was every reason to believe that they were on a road to become a part of German culture.”
The problem, Grunwald maintained, is the notion of racial distinction. Pure races no longer remain, he claimed.
“We’re all an amalgam,” he said. “We’re all mischlinge. There’s no other. The other is us. We’re more alike with all the people on the earth than we are different. As a species, we have a lot to learn.”
“The Mitzvah Project” and Grunwald (its sole performer) were warmly received.
“He was really enjoyable. He talked about things I never heard of,” said Rhonda Coplan of Monroeville.
“The speaker was extremely well informed and gave a well-rounded presentation,” said Nina Butler of Squirrel Hill.
“It was a thoughtful presentation of a little known piece of Holocaust history and a fascinating meditation on some of the complexities of identity,” wrote Adam Shear, director of Jewish studies, in an email following the program.
“The Mitzvah Project” brought together an assemblage of university departments and groups. Sponsors included the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of German, Jewish Studies Program, Cultural Studies Program, Theater Arts Department, European Union Center of Excellence/European Studies, Humanities Center, associate dean for undergraduate Studies in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and Hillel-Jewish University Center and the City for the Cultures of Peace: International Interdisciplinary Institute.
Citing the diversity of sponsoring groups, Butler added, “I’m glad to see all the departments coming together. It was a win before the production even started.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.