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Ed Asner on "Speaking Truth to Power" in The Soap Myth

Ed AsnerEXPAND
Ed Asner
Courtesy of Artist Management

On January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the world will solemnly commemorate the millions of Jewish, disabled, gay, and minority people murdered by the Nazi regime during World War II. The day of remembrance, which was designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, falls on the date when German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. The day both memorializes the victims of Nazism and promotes educational programs to remember the Holocaust and prevent future acts of genocide, bigotry, and violence.

To honor this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, actor and activist Ed Asner, a seven-time Emmy Award winner celebrated for his role as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the '70s and as the voice of Carl Frederickson in the 2009 Pixar film Up, will perform in a staged reading of The Soap Myth at the Adrienne Arsht center Monday, January 22.

“I’m delighted that there is a day set aside for International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Asner says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop holocausts. When man and his pettiness and his meanness decides enough is enough, maybe one day we can truly celebrate the Holocaust remembrance.”

The Soap Myth, a drama written by Jeff Cohen and directed by Pam Berlin, is an exploration of the detrimental consequences of Holocaust denial. The play was originally produced by the National Jewish Theater Foundation for an off-Broadway run in 2012. In the one-night performance at the Arsht Center, Asner stars alongside Johanna Day, Ned Eisenberg, and Blair Baker.

The drama’s central conflict focuses on stories of Nazis boiling fat from Jewish corpses to produce bars of soap, which were then given to the prisoners to be used at the so-called showers. Asner’s character, Holocaust survivor Milton Saltzman, aims to reveal the atrocity to the public by connecting with a young journalist named Annie Blumberg. As she investigates the story, Blumberg encounters conflicting facts from Holocaust scholars who are reluctant to acknowledge the soap story because of the lack of concrete documentation. The historians fear that the lack of verifiable evidence will only fuel hostility and skepticism from Holocaust deniers.

Asner says the practice of soap-making from Jewish corpses was well supported by testimonials at the Nuremberg Trials. Over time, because of political distractions and other causes, some people began to doubt the veracity of the practice. “It should not have been doubted, as is proven by our hero in this play, my character. He finally gets it published by the media and by acceptance of the institutions. It should not have been bandied about,” Asner says.

The Soap Myth is based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Morris Spitzer, who vehemently fought for academic and public acceptance of the Nazi soap practice until his death in 2005. It is still debated today whether and how the soap was actually made or if it was the subject of a cruel Nazi tale designed to strike further emotional devastation in Holocaust victims.

Asner asserts that the lesson of The Soap Myth lies not in the actual facts of the story but rather in the journey to seek truth and justice. “The best lesson that can be gotten away from this has nothing to do with the Holocaust. It is the idea, or the ideal, of challenging authority, speaking truth to power. And our hero does it, unstintingly and very strongly, and he achieves a certain amount of triumph by doing so,” he says. “We have to do this in many areas of daily life and daily confrontation. And if we don’t do it, we are the weaker people for it.”

The actor’s statement resonates loudly in 2018. A vocal leftist activist throughout his 50-plus-year career, Asner tweeted to his 43,400 followers last week: “We need inspiration in this country. One of the important realizations from the reaction to Oprah’s wonderful speech is that it is all too rare a commodity. But where are our leaders? Where are those that are meant to inspire, represent, and lead us?”

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Remaining unapologetically critical of the president and the current administration, Asner tells New Times: “We saw how our president spoke like a guttersnipe four or five days ago,” referencing Trump’s “shithole countries” remark. “It is up to people, no matter what their affiliation, to speak up. The proof is there.”

Asner, 88, puts his sharp comedic skills to good use in his political activism. This past September, he published The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs and tweeted dryly to the public: “To all those tweeters who thought I was dead. I’m not. But I did write a book.” Asner says he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon; he's in talks with producers for several films and will continue to tour with the comedy stage play A Man and His Prostate.

As he prepares for his dramatic role in The Soap Myth at the Arsht Center, Asner remains frank and thoughtful. “It’s a beautifully written play. I enjoyed the character and the way he was used, and it’s a very worthwhile subject that needs to be talked about.”

The Soap Myth. 8 p.m. Monday, January 22, in the Adrienne Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets start at $25.

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