Jan Karski was a soft-spoken man with Old World manners. Lanky with piercing blue eyes and a gentle smile, one would have been hard-pressed to recognize his heroism as he walked the campus at Georgetown University. A popular professor of international relations and European history at Georgetown for 40 years, few knew the details of Karski’s life, of his time in the Polish Underground, of how he snuck into a concentration camp in order to give eyewitness accounts to Western Allied leaders during World War II.
Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn takes on the daunting role of Karski in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, through Oct. 17.
Strathairn agrees: “My feelings playing Jan [Karski] have … deepened. My gut feeling, my initial reaction emotionally and intellectually to the man has not changed. We’ve just honed the script more and come to a more incisive way to tell the story. He has not faded. If anything, he’s become much more clear, although there are still mysteries about him. I don’t know if I’ll ever plumb all the depths of him.”
Movie-goers may have seen Strathairn, 72, playing opposite Frances McDormand in 2020’s “Nomadland,” or as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck” from 2005. As a character actor, he is a chameleon and has been seen in more than 80 films and dozens of television shows from “Search for Tomorrow” to “Miami Vice,” “House” and “The Blacklist.”
“Remember This” follows Karski from his boyhood in Poland, through his short time as a diplomat, his courageous exploits in the Polish Underground and his life as an admired and beloved history and international studies professor, but one who was reluctant to broadcast his own story and inspiring role in history.
“The further away we are from World War II, these stories fade and become not as stark and apparent for young minds,” Strathairn noted about the importance of revisiting Karski’s story for the both the current and next generation of Americans. “What Karski did in the war … we hope awakens an awareness or a motivation in younger people to reflect upon their present time and ask themselves, ‘What is my responsibility?’ How do you address, as I said, the political issues of their time using Karski as an inspiration?”
Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1914, Karski joined the underground as a young man, serving as a courier to the Polish government-in-exile in London. Twice he was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and, disguised as an Estonian guard, into Belzec extermination camp in order to gather and provide eyewitness accounts of the Nazi horrors. Most famously, Karski met face to face with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House.
Karski’s story has been documented and told, in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah; at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, where he is honored as a righteous gentile; in Karski’s own memoir, the moving “Story of a Secret State”; in numerous historical accounts of the Holocaust; and on the website Jankarski.net.
Now Derek Goldman, chair of the department of performing arts and director of the theater and performance studies program at Georgetown, believes a new generation needs to learn about Karski’s heroism. Goldman, with writer and Georgetown alum Clark Young, developed a script, which initially included a cadre of students as supporting actors. The revised play has been recast as a one-man show. “The example of Jan Karski speaks directly to our current moment,” Goldman has written, “and he is an inspiring and timely account of the importance of individual responsibility and moral action in the face of hatred and injustice.”
Strathairn allows that it may sound academic to some, but he finds the production far from overtly didactic. “The beauty of theater is that it lets you share a visceral, emotional experience. Then people can reflect on it intellectually.”
In fact, that reflection is occurring throughout the semester at Georgetown University where the Laboratory for Global Performance with Goldman, Young and Ijeoma Njaka have developed a curriculum and college course, “Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Jan Karski Today,” which explores how Karski’s life, work and legacy connect history with current issues of morality, bearing witness and social justice.
“That’s our hope,” Strathairn says, “that students become more curious about their own time and the state of their own world. Our hope is that it’s not only academic, but students can relate to and humanize what Karski represents in terms of the political landscape.”
“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” through Oct. 17, Shakespeare Theatre Company Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 7th St., NW, Washington. All patrons are required to provide proof of vaccination and wear masks to attend any performances or events. For tickets or information: 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org/events/jan-karski-21-22.