In approaching Jeff Cohen’s play, The Soap Myth, coming to Philadelphia on January 31, Michael Berenbaum thinks “trust but verify” is a good motto.
“It is worthwhile to consider the relationship between survivor testimony and historical fact,” Berenbaum writes. The director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles explains that The Soap Myth is ostensibly about the question of whether or not, as some Holocaust survivors attest, the Nazis rendered human fat into soap — but the bigger question is how we determine the truth. Do we listen to recollections of survivors, or to scholars who comb through the historical evidence?
Berenbaum notes that “there is insufficient evidence” to support survivors’ personal claims about this heinous act, but he also quotes Elie Wiesel: “Only those who were there will ever know, and those who were there can never tell.”
So who can tell the story? That’s what Cohen’s play asks, taking place more than 50 years after the end of World War II, when a young journalist meets a “cantankerous” Holocaust survivor who insists that the stories of the Nazi soap atrocity are true. According to its Philadelphia host, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, The Soap Myth explores “how a survivor survives surviving” and wonders who should write history: people who lived it, people who study and protect it, or people who would distort and desecrate it?
The play premiered off Broadway in 2012 at the Roundabout Theater, produced by the National Jewish Theater Foundation. The current production, directed by Pam Berlin, is making a seven-city East Coast tour, starring Ed Asner (of UP! and Mary Tyler Moore fame) and two-time Tony nominee Johanna Day (who appears in TV shows including The Americans and Masters of Sex).
“Survivors have spoken and historians have listened,” Berenbaum says. After decades of study and more than 70,000 video testimonies from Holocaust survivors, historians have drawn on “literature and poetry, psychology and religion, sociology and anthropology” to weave the truth together.
This work, and performances like The Soap Myth, can change the encounter between historians and survivors: “The former would be prepared to listen and to learn … and the latter would be heard respectfully and might even be willing to concede that we, who were not there, know something.”
Congregation Rodeph Shalom (615 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia) hosts Jeff Cohen’s The Soap Myth on Wednesday, January 31, at 7pm (doors at 6:30). The performance is part of a tribute to the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The performance runs 90 minutes, followed by a 30-minute Q&A. Tickets ($18-$75) are available online.