It was an encounter with an elderly Holocaust survivor in Manhattan in 2002 that inspired American playwright Jeff Cohen to write “The Soap Myth.” Morris Spitzer had approached Cohen, who is also a producer, and handed him a large envelope. Inside was a copy of a story by Josh Rolnick, published in Moment Magazine in 2000, that detailed Spitzer’s unsuccessful attempts to convince Jewish historians and researchers for Holocaust museums that the Germans used the corpses of murdered Jews to mass-produce bars of soap, and that these sacred remnants should be included in their exhibits.
Cohen’s play focuses on the friendship that develops between Milton Saltzman (a character based on Spitzer) and a young Jewish journalist, who is torn between her sympathies for Saltzman and the many Holocaust scholars who – despite extensive eyewitness testimony and anecdotal evidence – have reversed their once-conventional belief that the Nazis engaged in the mass manufacture of soap from human fat.
For several decades after the Holocaust, scholars did accept this as fact. Concentration camp survivors told stories of being handed soap to wash themselves – only to be cruelly told by camp commanders that it had been made from the bodies of their loved ones. This was mentioned in testimony offered at the Nuremberg trials, and hundreds of photographs and ceremonies documented Jews burying bars of soap after the war in accordance with Jewish law, which requires that every remnant of a human corpse be given a burial.
First performed successfully off-Broadway a decade ago, a concert reading of “The Soap Myth” was filmed last April and is available for free streaming.
On its most basic level, the play considers a single, ostensibly factual, question: Did the Nazis make soap from the corpses of murdered Jews? But the play, set in the 2000s, quickly moves beyond this factual level to ask more profound questions about the nature of memory, the different meanings of truth, and who has “the privilege” of writing history.
In one scene, Esther Feinman, a middle-aged Holocaust scholar played by award-winning actress Tovah Feldshuh, loses her composure. She growls at Saltzman, played by Ed Asner: “I have dedicated my life to honoring you and everyone that has been touched by the gruesomeness of the Holocaust. But I also have a job to do. The question of soap no longer meets our standards of evidentiary criteria.” Enraged, Saltzman sputters in response, “Standards of evidentiary criteria?! What the hell does that mean? There is eyewitness testimony! There is a photograph! I was there! Were you there? No, you were not! I am a witness!”
Spitzer, for example, had a copy of a photograph of a 1946 funeral procession in Sighet, Romania, in which men in suits and black hats, surrounded by dozens of mourners, carry a casket to burial. Spitzer, who was there, claimed that the coffin was filled with bars of soap made from the fat of murdered Jews.