FDR knew. In 1943, Jan Karski told President Roosevelt firsthand about the Holocaust, after Karski, a Polish diplomat turned Resistance fighter had been smuggled into both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Belzec extermination camp in order to serve as an eyewitness to the atrocities. He traveled both to London and Washington to report his findings.
In “Remember This: The Lesson Jan Karski,” a solo show at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center through October 9th, David Straitharn recreates the scenes with Roosevelt and with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, both of whom are polite, and do nothing to save the Jews. The more surprising scene occurs when Karski debriefs Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who reacts bluntly: “I do not believe you.”
The Polish ambassador, present at the meeting, protests: “He is not lying.”
“I did not say that he’s lying. I said that I do not believe him….And my mind, my heart… they are made in such a way that I cannot accept. I know humanity. I know men. Impossible.”
Straitharn is a remarkable actor (best known for Lincoln, Nomadland, Good Night and Good Luck) and he tells the story of a remarkable man, who had a photographic memory and spoke numerous languages, and whose real-life heroism during World War II often has the feel of an action movie. He escapes death several times — scenes made exciting, despite a stage containing just two chairs and a table: Straitharn jumps on top or off of it dramatically, accompanied by bursts of smoke and sound.
At one point, the Nazis capture him, then beat and torture him until he attempts suicide to avoid spilling the secrets of the Polish Underground; his suicide is unsuccessful, and the Nazis, determined to break him, bring him to a local hospital – where the staff help him to escape. “The ones who save me…thirty-two Poles, doctors, nurses, are tortured by the Germans all summer long,” Straitharn as Karski tells us. “No one gives in. So, they are lined up and shot to death.”
In 1944, Karski wrote a best-selling book, “Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.” He then stopped talking about his experiences for the next four decades, serving as a professor at the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown University, until he was tracked down by the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann who came to Georgetown to interview him for “Shoah,” his nine-hour 1985 Holocaust documentary. We see a clip in the play of the real Karski “Now I go back 35 years,” Karski begins, and then breaks down, says “No. I don’t go back,” and runs from the room distraught.
It was only after that documentary that Georgetown discovered what he had done. “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” is directed by Derek Goldman, a professor at Georgetown, who co-wrote it with a former student, Clark Young, as part of the university’s “Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics.”That it began in a university makes sense; this is the kind of play that would probably be most effective before an audience of students. Its origins also seem reflected in the full title, which I find off-putting: awkward, pedantic. What exactly is the lesson we learn? The narrative is bookended by short lectures that attempt to hook the story to the present day, and seem designed to prompt classroom discussion: “Millions are being displaced”; what is our responsibility as individuals to do something about it? And “Great crimes start with little things…You don’t like your neighbors. You don’t like them because they are different. Avoid this. Avoid disliking people. Don’t make distinctions. We have to take care of each other.”
But the only clear lesson in this play about a man who tried to stop the Holocaust is that we need plays like this, in order to remember.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski
Polonsky Shakespeare Center through October 9
Running time: 90 minutes
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 director Emma Jaster
Cast: David Straithairn