Roger Grunwald works to keep Holocaust survivor stories alive in ‘The Obligation’

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The Holocaust may have happened more than 70 years ago, but Roger Grunwald is making sure it continues to be talked about. At least, that’s one of his main motivations in creating “The Obligation.”

“The Obligation” is a one-man show written and performed by Grunwald, and it explores stories of the individual lives that made up the bigger picture of the Holocaust. Representing both sides of the genocide, the characters reflect the many layers of complex events that occurred during World War II. Directed by Nancy Carlin, “The Obligation” will play at Potrero Stage in San Francisco from Oct. 11 through Nov. 4.

The play is actually an extension of a different show Grunwald had written and performed called “The Mitzvah Project,” which consisted of a short play in conjunction with a lecture on the topic.

One of my inspirations is that I myself am a product of two German Jews. My mother was an Auschwitz survivor and my father was a refugee. I was curious to dig and drill down into what the history was,” Grunwald said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “So (‘The Mitzvah Project’) was my first crack at kind of getting this aspect of the Jewish experience during the war, but it was more of a one-off presentation and I wanted to do something more, in the theater. So I started expanding on it.”

Grunwald’s mother is one of the many Holocaust survivors who have given talks on their experiences to young people, mostly in high schools. Grunwald pulled the idea of her talks to structure his own play.

“Many survivors, as a feeling of obligation to make sure that what happened to them wouldn’t be forgotten, spoke to young people, mostly high school and college age. To make sure that that history that they lived through and (the history of) so many others wouldn’t be forgotten,” Grunwald said. “So, in (‘The Obligation’), the theatrical conceit is that the character, who survives Auschwitz and ends up coming to the United States after the war, speaks to a class at a college. He’s speaking to the (show’s) audience, which is substituting for a college audience. And he’s telling his story, he’s giving his testimony. And over the course of the play, as he describes different people, they start coming to life.”

Grunwald wanted to depict many different Jewish experiences from this tumultuous time. On top of pulling from his own family history, Grunwald conducted extensive research to create his characters.

“I interviewed a lot of people, survivors. I went to Israel for interviews. I interviewed my aunt, as well as my mother. And (I did) a lot of reading, a lot of memoirs,” Grunwald said. “(The characters are) amalgams of different, real people, as well as from my imagination. They fit in the particular world of ‘The Obligation.’ They represent different aspects of the Jewish experience.”

After growing up with the aftermath of the Holocaust as a major part of his upbringing and family history, Grunwald came to realize that some people don’t know the history as well as he does. While people like his mother are dedicated to keeping their stories alive, Grunwald is aware that the survivors’ generation is aging. Grunwald has written these plays out of a sense of obligation to keep their stories alive in a medium he knows well: theater.

“Pretty soon the testimonies of eye witnesses will be a thing of the past. So how do we adequately and effectively teach the next generation?” Grunwald said. “From my years in the field as a performer and Holocaust educator I’ve learned that theatrical presentations make a lesson of the Holocaust particularly impactful, for young and old alike.”

Grunwald believes that the entertainment value of the theater makes the history more accessible and easier for audiences to digest.

It touches people emotionally and intellectually,” Grunwald said. “It’s different from a lecture in a class. You’re getting the same facts, but it will also hopefully touch people.”

Additionally, the topics of the play have a very — albeit, unfortunately — timely nature to them. Grunwald notes that with Nazism still very much occurring, “The Obligation” holds even more weight.

“There’s more urgency now that I get this in front of young people, to give them a piece of history in a way that can maybe move them to see that they have a responsibility. We all do, really, to make a world that is more inclusive, more accepting,” Grunwald said. “It’s not just about stopping Nazis; we have to stop making a demon out of the other.”

“The Obligation” will play at Potrero Stage in San Francisco from Oct. 11 through Nov. 4.

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].