By Victoria L. Dammer
No one should forget what happened to hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland during the Holocaust, and the story of what took place should be told repeatedly.
No one should claim the events didn’t happen.
Writer Clark Young and Derek Goldman brought the story of the events over 50 years ago to the stage in a riveting play, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski. David Strathairn stars as Karski, the Polish soldier, resistance fighter, and diplomat who became a much-loved and revered professor at Georgetown University. The production begins with Karski (Strathairn) speaking to the audience like we are students in his classroom about what he lived through, so we do not forget the horrors.
“And if so, how do we know what to do? It’s not easy—knowing. Human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski brings to light a period in world history that should not be ignored.
Karski, a Catholic born in 1914 in Lodz, Poland, was just a citizen, educated in the field of law and diplomacy. Upon his return to Warsaw after his university schooling, he receives his mobilization papers and is taken to a labor camp in what is now Soviet-occupied Poland. Karski is tortured, starved, and forced to sleep on the ground. Strathairn is the persona of Karski, falling to the stage, showing us the pain inflicted on his body as he twists and writhes, bringing us into the unimaginable episodes he went through at the hands of the Russian invaders. We cannot deny these events happened, for Karski, unlike others, escaped.
“I survive. The others will be taken to the edge of a pit and shot in the head. Stacked neatly in mass graves. 22,000 in the massacre at Katyn Forest.”
This is just the beginning of Karski’s story as he joins the Polish underground. He observes, remembers, and documents the horrors of what is going on in his country. He travels and tells world leaders in London and the U.S. what is occurring, but the world looks away. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt dared to claim they didn’t know what was happening, as well as governments, scholars, and writers. Strathairn is undeniably the character of Karski, and his performance is gripping as we feel Karski’s pain of being shoed away from telling his observations.
“Jews were left alone to perish.”
Karski is left wearied. The story would have died with him had it not been for his devotion to teaching, trying to “enlighten the world about what he had witnessed and attempted to expose.” The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown produced his story. Strathairn’s considerable acting skills bring this true-life story alive for generations to remember long after Karski’s death.
Those audience members who remained after the show for a talkback heard Father Leo Donovan, a colleague of Karski, say, “The story has to be remembered, who witnessed it and the testimony has to be preserved.” Children of Holocaust survivors were in attendance and their personal stories were compelling. When I asked Strathairn what was most challenging about this role as Karski, he replied he had a “responsibility to somehow evoke his sound, embody his informative teaching.” Strathairn said he strove to portray his “visceral display of what he knew and his good relationship with his students.”
After this powerful show and talkback, Karski’s story should be told so that no generation forgets.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski starring David Strathairn. Written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman; directed by Derek Goldman; scenic design by Misha Kachman, costume design by Ivania Stack; lighting design by Zach Blane; original composition and sound design by Roc Lee; movement direction by Emma Jaster; production stage management by Laura Smith; press representation by Blake Zidell and Associates.
Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.
Performances of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski take place September 10, 11, 14-17, 21-24, 29, 30, and October 1, 2, 5-8 at 7:30pm; and September 17, 18, 24, 25, and October 1, 2, 8, 9 at 2pm at Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn).
Season subscriptions—with benefits including priority booking, flexible exchange policy, discounted guest tickets, discounts at Food & Drink and the Book Kiosk in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center lobby, and more—are available online at tfana.org/season; by phone at 212.229.2819 x10; and in person at the box office.