Joel Friedman and Louisa Flaningham in a scene from The Soap Myth
Author: Jeff Cohen
Description: A young journalist explores the controversy surrounding the Nazi atrocity of making soap from the fat of murdered Jews – weighing a holocaust survivor’s eye-witness testimony against scholars’ insistence on evidentiary fact as a primary criteria and the pressures imposed by historical “revisionists” – i.e. anti-Semitic holocaust deniers. The play explores how history itself is determined.
Year Written/Copyrighted: 2009
Date Added: 11/13/2011
Content Advisory: Adult themes. No profanity, no sexual content
Characters are Mostly Seniors ·
Characters are Mostly Young Adults ·
Single Set ·
Small Cast Size ·
1 Act, 90 Minutes
2 Females, 2 Males
The English language stock and amateur stage performance rights in this Play are controlled exclusively by the playwright. No professional or nonprofessional performance of the Play may be given without obtaining, in advance, the written permission of the playwright. Inquiries concerning all rights should be addressed to Joan Kovats at email@example.com.
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From the Author:
The Soap Myth has taken an atypical if not extraordinary journey. It took @ 8 years to write before it was originally presented as a workshop/showcase in 2009. After that production, I went back to work on it and wrote a new and substantially different draft. I sent that draft to producer/director Arnold Mittelman who had just started a new venture called The National Jewish Theater Foundation. Arnold was intrigued by the play and soon became its greatest champion. In 2012, he produced and directed a small Off Broadway production at the Roundabout Theater’s Steinberg Theater Center. Towards the end of that 6 week run he convinced me to allow the production to be filmed (I should note that Arnold can be a very persuasive man). My own production company, Burke Cohen Entertainment, produced the film and brought in documentary filmmaker Ron Kopp to co-direct it.
The remarkable cast of Greg Mullavey, Andi Potamkin, Dee Pelletier and Donald Corren, along with Arnold’s spare and evocative staging, translated very well to the medium of film. Less than a year later, the film was acquired by American Public Television – the prime distributor of content for PBS – and had its premiere on January 27th, 2014 on Miami’s PBS affiliate WPBT2. That same day, “The Soap Myth” film was launched on Britain’s prestigious Digital Theatre site where it is available for international live streaming – joining filmed productions from the RSC, the Royal Court, The Globe and Olivier-Award winning productions from the West End. [to view the film go to http://www.digitaltheatre.com/production/details/soap-myth-national-jewish-theater]
A national PBS broadcast is being scheduled for late April, 2014.
The following description of the play is from American Public Television:
“The Soap Myth dramatizes the powerful confrontation between survivor memory and historical memory and depicts the insidiousness of sophisticated Holocaust denial. More than a half century after World War II, at the desperate urging of a passionate survivor, a young investigative reporter finds herself caught between numerous versions of the same story and trying to separate fact from fiction. Did the Nazis make soap from the corpses of their murdered Jewish victims? Played out against the backdrop of deadline reporting and journalistic integrity, Jeff Cohen's critically acclaimed play The Soap Myth uses this horrific possibility as its catalyst. It questions who deserves the right to write history — those who have lived it and remember, those studying and protecting it, or those seeking to distort its very existence? And finally, what responsibility should others take once they know the truth?”
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Original Production Information
An earlier version of The Soap Myth was originally presented by Dog Run Rep in association with Pat Blake as an AEA Showcase at South Street Seaport in July, 2009, with the following cast and credits:
Annie Blumberg: Katia Asche
Milton Saltzman: Joel Friedman
Esther Feinman/Brenda Goodsen: Louisa Flaningam
Comic/Daniel Silver/Col. Smirnov: Victor Barbella
Rabbi Schmooey Potash/
David Kaufman/Mazur/Neeley: John Plumpis
Director: Larissa Lury
Producer: Deanna Henson
Stage Manager: Donovan Dolan
Set Design: Heather Wolensky
Lighting Design: Jay Scott
Costume Design: Justin Hall
Press Rep: Shirley Herz
Though many of our leaders past and present would suggest otherwise, current events are never cut-and-dried, black-and-white, good-or-evil; and as they pass into the annals of history, they are even less so. The great strength of Jeff Cohen's important new play The Soap Myth is that its author understands this. A topic that seems on its face to be clear and simple is instead revealed to be more and more complex and difficult to parse as its layers are peeled away.
That topic is the persistent idea that the Nazis used the fat of murdered Jews to manufacture soap. The play's title relegates the idea to the stuff of legend and rumor; we learn during the play, in fact, that such a rumor was circulated in France during World War I about the Germans. But Milton Saltzman, the (fictionalized, based on fact) central character of The Soap Myth insists otherwise. He says that he was in a concentration camp, that he saw evidence of the soap being made; he shows a photograph of a group of men carrying a casket that contains bars of soap instead of a body.
What Milton wants is for the institutions that nowadays control the history and legacy of the Holocaust to grant him validation and recognition. He wants his evidence to be displayed in museums. He wants his memories to be accepted as true and placed into the permanent record of Nazi atrocities.
But the powers-that-be are not ready to do this. There's not enough corroboration in the records—the Nazis were obsessive recordkeepers, after all, so where is the documentation of soap-making among the other meticulous files on forced sterilizations, experimentation on human guinea pigs, etc.? If there's even a bit of doubt of the veracity of the claim, Holocaust deniers will pounce, and use the possibly falsehood/exaggeration to solidify their case. As one of the gatekeepers trying to keep Milton at bay concludes, what does it finally matter whether the soap myth is true or not—isn't the list of proven and known Nazi atrocities long and horrific enough already?
Cohen gives Milton and those whom he wants to convince but ultimately opposes equal time in this balanced, intelligent play. Everybody has a point to make, and everybody gets a chance to do so persuasively and articulately, including Brenda Goodsen, a British Holocaust denier (whom Cohen says is a composite of several actual persons) whose arguments ultimately feel pretty repugnant and hard to hear. Indeed, it's the dazzling objectivity and even-handedness of the play that gives it real moral heft that only wavers in its final moments when Cohen has his protagonist—a young journalist named Annie Blumberg who has written an article about Milton's story—arrive fervently at a conclusion that might better be left for each audience member to find on his or her own.
The Soap Myth is helmed by Larissa Lury with passion and directness on a stark multi-leveled set designed by Heather Wolensky. Katia Asche (Annie) and Joel Friedman (Milton) anchor the cast with solid performances; Louisa Flaningam convincingly and compellingly plays Brenda Goodsen as well as a woman who is in every way her opposite. Victor Barbella and John Plumpis serve as a kind of chorus, taking all of the other necessary roles.
The Soap Myth doesn't solve the mystery, such as it is, of whether Nazis actually did what Milton says they did. In the end, whether they did or not is far less important than what Milton's story shows us about ownership of memories and stewardship of history. Something in human nature seems to resist learning the right lessons from our monstrous past; maybe work like this can help us navigate toward the correct path.
review of the original production in 2009
Review by Anita Gates, New York Times (2012)
"The Soap Myth" is about the long-held belief that among the horrors perpetrated in the Nazi death camps was the manufacture of soap made from the body fat of Jewish corpses. This solid, thought-provoking production, from the National Jewish Theater, does not actually question whether that really happened, although characters do refer to accounts of it as myth and rumor. Instead, it asks if denying the highly probable truth of an old evil is justified in order to deflect a newer evil.
The Soap Myth
SALTZMAN: (To Annie) You want to know how I felt? I knew that the next time we were herded into the showers we would be gassed. And I felt relief at this. I longed for this. That’s how I felt. You understand?
BLUMBERG: I understand.
SALTZMAN: And then there was the liberation. Death did not come. I questioned whether this was God being merciful or God being cruel. I still have that question. For weeks I simply wandered with the dozens of people down the roads. Our dozens were joined by others, their dozens by others and soon there were hundreds and soon there were thousands of us, all wandering, all vacant, all numb. Let me ask you a question now, Annie.
BLUMBERG: Ask me anything.
SALTZMAN: How often do you bathe?
BLUMBERG: What do you mean?
SALTZMAN: How often? Wash your hands? Wash your face? Draw a bath? Shampoo your hair? Stand in the shower? Every day?
BLUMBERG: Every day.
SALTZMAN: Twice a day?
BLUMBERG: Twice a day.
SALTZMAN: Maybe more?
BLUMBERG: Maybe more.
SALTZMAN: Now imagine you are me. Every day. Twice a day. Maybe more. Always reminded. Always reminded. Always. (A beat.) I think that is why.
BLUMBERG: Why what?
SALTZMAN: Why I cannot let this go. I think, maybe, if someone will listen to my story. If someone, maybe, will take my photograph and display it, will take a piece of the soap and display it, and all the world can look at it and read the testimony and see what they did, what they did to me – that maybe, then, I can have peace from it. I can’t quite imagine what that would be like. To bathe with a bar of soap. And to have peace.