“Remember This: The Lesson Of Jan Karski” Is Vital Watching For Our Time
January 27 marks Holocaust Memorial Day, a day devoted to remembering the millions persecuted and killed during the Holocaust. Such an event can feel far too large, far too devastating to do justice to. And though we may not be able to fully process the enormity of the event, we can do our best to remember and bear witness — which is exactly what Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski sets out to do.
This one-man show was created by The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and stars Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn, known for his work in Good Night and Good Luck and Lincoln. The play tells the story of the heroic resistance fighter Jan Karski. Karski twice infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto and posed as a guard at the Izbica transit camp, at great personal risk. He saw the atrocities of the Holocaust first-hand and reported what he had seen. He insisted on speaking truth to power — sharing what he found with men like British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, President Franklin Roosevelt, and US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Despite his warnings, they failed to act.
Directed by Derek Goldman — who co-wrote the piece with Clark Young — the play seeks to untangle issues of truth, of personal responsibility, and of history. This particular performance is being put on in conjunction with Human Rights Watch and it’s vital watching, now more than ever.
Our Current Moment
“The example of Jan Karski is one that speaks directly to our current moment, and his is an inspiring and timely account of the importance of individual responsibility and moral action in the face of hatred and injustice,” Goldman tells What We Seee. “My sense of the impact and special resonance of this story has evolved considerably over the more than five years we have been working on it. It’s an extraordinary life-story, just in the range of experiences and encounters Karski endured, as a soldier who survived the Blitzkrieg, as a refugee, a victim of torture, a spy, a witness, a teacher, and as someone who moved mountains in order to bear witness, and yet experienced himself and his efforts as largely a failure.”
Though this story is rooted in the most brutal historical moment in recent memory, it is also a deeply character-driven piece.
“For me, it is much less a Holocaust story in the way we think of that as an overwhelming history both essential and painful to revisit, and more a look at an extraordinary complex and inspiring man whose life surfaces very immediate, current questions about individual responsibility to one another as human beings, what it means to bear witness and to know, and how one acts upon that knowledge,” Goldman explains. “It is about dignity, silence and the cost of dehumanizing suffering. So many aspects of Karski’s life resonate with our current news-cycle, particularly around the diminishment and degradation of truth, fact and evidence.”
Responsibility To Know
The performance will be followed by a Q&A with Goldman, Strathairn, Baroness Arminka Helic, Professor Penny Green, and experts from Human Rights Watch. Teaming up with an influential human rights organization is a fitting and powerful choice for a play that delves into the boundaries between personal and collective responsibility.
“It’s a great honor to be collaborating with HRW as I have long admired the work of the organization in the name of dignity, the pursuit of justice and defending human rights,” Goldman says. “These are the legacies of Karski’s life and I can’t imagine a better or more apt organization with whom to partner and to be in dialogue with.”
Perhaps most importantly, the play serves as a reminder that horrors and injustices do not appear out of nowhere, that small acts lead to larger ones — and that we all have a part to play in preventing history from repeating itself. Though it can feel overwhelming thinking of atrocities like these and what our own role might be in stopping them, Goldman sees a crucial sliver of hope in the story.
“That as Karski himself often said, we have an individual responsibility ‘to know’ – our history, the world around us, the implications of our actions, and to act accordingly,” he explains. “Karski reminds us that ‘governments have no souls, individuals have souls…’ and that ‘great crimes start with little things… you don’t like your neighbor, because he is different from you’.”
“It doesn’t provide easy answers but, through Karski’s brilliance as a teacher, pulls us into the immediacy of posing and grappling with the questions. In this way I find the play quite hopeful — not because it offers a false happy uplift, but because it honors our individual capacity to know and to make a difference. We see it very much as a play for young people who are inheriting these challenging questions in today’s very fraught and polarized world.”