The grisly reality of ‘Canned Goods’

The grisly reality of ‘Canned Goods’

Lawyer/painter/playwright’s work about the Nazis to debut in Jersey

Erik Kahn
Erik Kahn

Erik Kahn of Tenafly is a polymath and, no, that does not mean he can do algebra and geometry at the same time.

A partner in a prestigious New York City law firm, he is also an artist whose work sells in the mid-four figures at galleries in East Hampton and in Piermont, in Rockland County. And as of May 9, he officially will be a produced playwright, as well. (And in New Jersey, no less!)

His first play, “Canned Goods,” will be presented by the American Theater Group at its Hamilton Stage in Rahway from May 9 to May 11, and at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge from May 16 to May 19.

It’s about a real Nazi operation called Grandma Died, a false flag ruse in which German soldiers invaded a German language radio station in Gliwice, Poland. Nazi prisoners from Dachau — the Germans called them canned goods — were dressed in Polish Army uniforms, murdered, and left behind at the scene, their faces disfigured to make identification impossible.

It was one of several different “provocations” that Hitler used as an excuse to invade Poland and start World War II.

Mr. Kahn became aware of the operation reading William Shirer’s magisterial classic, “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich.” Intrigued, he did further research, including transcripts from interviews related to the Nuremberg trial.

“This felt like fiction to me, almost like something you’d watch on ‘The Sopranos,’” he said. “The idea of faking attacks to justify an invasion and using human beings as pawns in that operation seemed very interesting to me.”

He uses a combination of real participants, including SS Major Alfred Naujacks, and fictional characters to talk about the complex relationship between the Nazi officers and the prisoners who are about to die. It’s a story he hopes “will elicit interest, thought, and outrage about how human beings treat each other. And, also, about the fact that some of the people who were the perpetrators of the worst crimes were largely ignored by the West after the war for political reasons.”

“Canned Goods” took about 4 1/2 years from inception to production. “I was bringing it to people, adjusting it, editing it, doing readings of the play,” Mr. Kahn said. “There’s a whole process between writing it and getting it to where it is now.”

One of his paintings.

His hope is that “the play will have a long life. I have interest from a theater in London, and a number of theaters in Manhattan have expressed interest as well.”

He has already finished a second play he’s not yet prepared to talk about, but it, too, has a Jewish theme. He’ll say only it’s about a Jewish family in Berlin at the time Hitler came to power.

Mr. Kahn, whose paintings are abstract, is self-taught. He experimented with various materials until he came up with something he liked. “An art dealer in East Hampton saw photos of a couple of my paintings and asked to see them in person,” he said. The dealer, Russ Steele, “started representing me, and the paintings sell to wealthy collectors.”

He likes balancing writing and painting because “they operate from different sides of your brain.” He says he creates an average of one new painting a month. “I don’t watch a lot of television,” he said. “So where someone else might watch a TV show for an hour, I’ll go down to the basement to paint or write.”

Of course, let us not forget his day job, as a partner in Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, where he specializes in intellectual property law and has represented large corporations, the artist Christo (who came to one of his exhibitions), and Monica Lewinsky.

Mr. Kahn is from Scarsdale but moved to New Jersey to help care for his ailing mother-in-law. He and his family liked it so much that they stayed and live in Tenafly now.

Growing up, he celebrated the Jewish holidays, but Erik and Hebrew school were not a match made in — you should pardon the expression — heaven. It would be inaccurate to say he was a Hebrew school dropout. He was actually a Hebrew school kicked-out.

An argument with his teacher and a refusal to apologize ended with a rabbinical student as a bar mitzvah instructor. Now, Mr. Kahn says that “part of my issue was that I probably had some attention deficit thing combined with pretty dramatic dyslexia. So learning Hebrew really was not for me. I’m not religious, but I’m very interested in Jewish history and culture.”

That interest may be how “Canned Goods” made it to the stage. Mr. Kahn has written other things — short stories, a couple of novels — none of which has seen the light of day. “I’ve always been writing but I never pursued anything with it,” he said. “Getting stuff out there is a whole different game than getting it written.

“But this one — ‘Canned Goods’ — was different. I wasn’t going to write this one just for my own benefit. I was going to get this made.”

Now, more than four years later, you can get tickets at

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