Jan Karski fled war-torn Poland to warn the Western Allies about the Holocaust, only to be disbelieved.
In a play co-written by Georgetown professor Derek Goldman and his former student Clark Young, Jan Karski is portrayed by Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, who through a masterful solo performance tells of Karski’s attempts to warn the Oval Office of the horrors of the Nazi regime. The much anticipated Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski comes to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre in October.
Karski was a prisoner of war in 1939 after serving in the Krakow Cavalry Brigade. He was subjected to horrific physical torture, and later escaped. He witnessed the inhumanity of the Warsaw ghetto and a death camp.
He was smuggled into the ghetto by the Jewish underground to witness the Nazi atrocities. He once said,
My job was just to walk. And observe. And remember. The odour. The children. Dirty. Lying. I saw a man standing with blank eyes. I asked the guide: what is he doing? The guide whispered. “He’s just dying.”
Beginning in 1940, Karski attempted to warn Western Allied leaders of the Holocaust, but he was paid no real heed. President Roosevelt and other leaders simply could not fathom that atrocities were being carried out at the scale Karski described.
Karski then lived out the rest of his life as a professor at Georgetown, keeping his story largely a secret until 1981 when he was invited by Elie Wiesel to serve as the keynote speaker at the International Liberators Conference in Washington, DC.
Karski’s story is becoming increasingly well-known, with the creation of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation and numerous conferences being held in his honor. The Jan Karski US Centennial Campaign was established in April 2011 to help increase awareness of Jan Karski’s story and legacy.
And at Georgetown University, Derek Goldman and his student Clark Young wrote a play that debuted through the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, aka The Lab, in 2014 at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. Originally featuring an ensemble of students who played the real-life students Karski taught as a Georgetown professor, the play evolved to star David Strathairn (Nomadland, Lincoln) in a solo performance.
“The initial birth of the piece was tied to the celebration of the Karski Centennial on Georgetown’s campus in 2014,” said Goldman in an interview over Zoom. “There was a larger effort to commemorate Karski on campus, and a colleague — knowing my long-time work not only around Holocaust education and the intersection of that with theater and the arts with plays like Our Class, but also with questions around memory — reached out to me and said, ‘We’re doing this, might we put something together?’
“I started to have the idea that it would just be an amazing story to try to imagine and dramatize, and to think about for this event in Gaston Hall we were envisioning.”
Following the current version of the work’s premiere in Gaston Hall at the School of Foreign Service Centennial Celebration in November 2019, Remember This was originally set for an international tour with performances in Edinburgh, Scotland; Poland; and DC. COVID-19 stopped it in its tracks. The tour is finally about to restart.
Goldman is particularly thrilled about Remember This being performed at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, given the capacity of the play to speak truths to those in Washington’s halls of power.
“It’s a play that speaks to fundamental questions about power, democracy, and truth,” said Goldman. “We knew we wanted it to be able to sit down in Washington in a space that the community that lives and breathes DC can grapple with. I mean, people who’ve been involved with the project include Nancy Pelosi and Samantha Power and Madeleine Albright. So I feel like it was a priority to find the right home for it in DC, and it was exciting for us that the Shakespeare Theatre wanted it.”
One particularly unique aspect of The Lab is its work with students in the academic sphere around performance. Last fall, a streaming version of the production served as the centerpiece for a new Lab-led course at Georgetown University, Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Jan Karski.
Much like The Lab’s course In Your Shoes, which recently received attention in The Washington Post as a place for students to better understand their peers’ perspectives by “performing one another,” Bearing Witness invites students to engage personally with the stories of others, as Goldman explained.
“[Bearing Witness] is really about taking the play and Karski’s life as a centerpiece and creating a kind of prism around it,” said Goldman. “It’s not a history class … it’s engaging with history, but it’s really a current events and personal engagement course for students to really reckon with one another and their own life and story, and what lessons, questions, and intentions that leaves them with.”
Goldman and the Lab have far-reaching plans for the future of Bearing Witness, which they hope — much like In Your Shoes — will roll out to schools beyond Georgetown.
“The class is something we envisioned not just at Georgetown, but part of our piloting as part of the wraparound for wherever the production goes,” said Goldman.
The class aligns with Goldman’s view that the play Remember This has the unique potential to speak to young people about the importance of engagement with the world, particularly humble, empathetic engagement.
“When [Karski] went to the Oval Office, he was still in his twenties,” said Goldman. “He’d gone through this whole journey. He tried to make visible to Roosevelt the scale of what was happening. He never blamed Roosevelt. It’s an interesting dynamic in that scene. He just reported what he saw and Roosevelt asked the questions. Karski was the humble messenger.”
What makes Karski’s story perhaps most poignant is that for much of his life, he reportedly considered himself a failure. Karski once attempted suicide. At one point, he stated, “I wanted to save millions, and I was not able to save one man.”
Remember This encourages audiences to see Karski’s story and personally reckon with it, consider how they can learn from it, and apply it to their own lives.
“What [David Strathairn] cares about is seeing young faces and young minds and young hearts engaging with Karski’s story and having it touch them, and have them reckon with the questions of what it means for them,” said Goldman. “That’s our big long-term goal. That’s why we’ve done a film version [of Remember This]. That’s the really big-picture goal. That’s part of why people — young people — should see it and talk about it.”
“[Karski] says of the war … nobody’s really engaging,” said Goldman. “[Both then and today], we just go about arguments… So, I think his story is a rallying cry against apathy, and distraction, and kind of the numbness in which many people move through the world.”
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski will be performed October 6 to 17, 2021, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre (formerly the Lansburgh), 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. Remember This is currently an add-on for Shakespeare Theatre Company subscribers, who receive first access and lower ticket prices. Single tickets for the general public will be available July 19.