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.
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Holocaust historian Joachim Neander writes in an academic article in 2006 that from an anthropological point of view, the burial of soap bars in consecrated Jewish cemeteries would have been a means of asserting that the “Nazis were no longer governing the Jewish dead,” and that the Jews could mourn their tragedy.
But over the years, scholars of the Holocaust began to doubt the story. Indeed, according to some historians, stories about German factories using corpses to produce soap and nitroglycerine also circulated during World War I, and may well have been part of British or French propaganda efforts in that conflict. Similarly, with the release of documents after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became apparent that at least some of the testimony at the Nuremberg trials about the manufacture of soap from human corpses was deliberately falsified as part of the postwar Russian propaganda effort against the Germans.
Others noted that Jews interpreted the letters RIF that were embossed on actual bars of soap as standing for “Rein Judisches Fett” (Pure Jewish Fat) or “Reichs Juden Fett” (State Jewish Fat). In fact, RIF stood for Reichsstelle für Industrielle Fettversorgung – the National Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning, which was the German government agency responsible for wartime production and distribution of cleaning products.
By 1990, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, had unequivocally determined that the manufacture of soap was no more than a “mere rumor.”
“The Nazis did enough horrible things during the Holocaust. We do not have to go on believing untrue stories,” preeminent Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at that time.
In response to a query from Haaretz, a spokesperson from the Yad Vashem museum and research institute wrote that “Despite the persistence of these rumors … which began even during the Holocaust, there is no evidence that soap was mass produced from the bodies of Jews.”
Yet in contrast to Yad Vashem, the Chamber of the Holocaust museum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem prominently displays a bar of soap purportedly made by the Nazis from the fat of Jewish corpses. While acknowledging that the idea that the Nazis produced soap from their Jewish victims has been largely discredited among scholars, a museum official said that the museum is not a research institute, but rather a place for survivors and their descendants to express their pain. Therefore, he continued, soap remains on display because “It was brought here by survivors and family members. This is how whoever brought these bars of soap chose to mourn his loved ones and his community. We have no right to say otherwise.”
Actress Feldshuh says that the Jewish world not only has the right to say otherwise – it has the responsibility to do so. In “The Soap Myth,” in addition to her role as the research scholar, Feldshuh also plays the role of a Holocaust denier, Brenda Goodsen.
“Behind her friendly, gentle, seemingly-kind persona, Goodsen is a vicious anti-Semite,” Feldshuh says. “I play her as charismatic, charming and likeable because I wanted to show how she can fool people. In this age of growing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, if the deniers can show that one atrocity attributed to the Nazis is false, then they will be able to claim that all is false.” Giving credence to falsehoods, she says, “will give power to the deniers, and undermine all of our efforts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”
But doesn’t this allow the deniers of the truth to set the agenda for the discussion of truth?
Feldshuh sighs. “Perhaps it does. But the stakes – for the Jewish people, for the chance that we can prevent another Holocaust anywhere in the world – are just too high to allow otherwise.”
(The question of lampshades made of human skin has raised similar issues – although documentation of at least one lampshade does exist. None are exhibited in any museum, however, quite possibly due to Jewish religious commandments regarding burial of all human body parts.)
Survivors, Feldshuh continues in an interview with Haaretz, “tell a different truth, and we must respect that truth, even if we do not think it is factual. That is why, in the play and in reality, survivors are encouraged to present their testimonies, their truth as they know it.”
In the play, Saltzman is not satisfied with the opportunity that the museum, in an attempt to bridge the gap between its own research and the survivors’ memories, offers him to record his testimony. He demands not only to be heard, but to be fully believed. “How could I know that ‘hard proof’ would be needed to corroborate what I lived through and witnessed?’ he asks.
The opportunity to record his testimony also did not satisfy Morris Spitzer, who died in 2005. His son Jeffrey, an attorney in Jerusalem, says that his father died an angry, embittered man. “He was financially successful, and he was a generous – although demanding – philanthropist. But he could never let go of the soap. For him, the fact that the bars of soap were never officially exhibited was like a denial of his experience, as if he were being called a liar, as if his suffering in the Holocaust had not been real.”