David Strathairn brings World War II hero Jan Karski to shattering life, with a message for now
The Daily Beast
September 16, 2022
The actor stunningly plays Karski, a courier for the Polish Underground resistance who exposed the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi death camp—and who went unheard.
Jan Karski should be better known, and perhaps David Strathairn’s masterful and committed performance bringing him to stage life will help remedy that. In the Theatre for a New Audience’s New York premiere of Clark Young and Derek Goldman’s 90-minute play Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, directed by Goldman at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn (to Oct. 9), we see not just the unpeeling of Karski’s story but the urgent echoes his experience presents to our present day.
The play was created at the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, where—after his formative Second World War experiences as a courier for the Polish Underground resistance exposing the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi death camp—Karski was a much-loved and respected professor in the School of Foreign Service for 40 years.
The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Strathairn, before immersing himself in Karski’s character, has this to say to us directly: “We see what goes on in the world, don’t we? Our world is in peril. Every day, it becomes more and more fractured, toxic, seemingly out of control. We are being torn apart by immense gulfs of selfishness, distrust, fear, hatred, indifference, denial. Millions are being displaced, driven from their homes, impoverished, denied justice simply because of who they are, sickened, silenced, forgotten. We see this, don’t we? How can we not see this? So what can we do? Is there something we can do that we are not already doing? Do we have a duty, a responsibility, as individuals… to do something, anything? And if so, how do we know what to do?”
This is not a worthy throat-clearing exercise, but the essence of what Karski’s story represents—and how it reverberates. As this reporter writes these words, it is just another day in the universe right-wing politicians are seemingly intent on hurtling us toward—groups of migrants sent out of sheer political spite to Democrat-run towns and cities; and a debate and vote delayed in the Senate on marriage equality because the Republican votes in its favor are not there.
Marriage equality has been the law of the land for years but is having to go through this process because the Supreme Court, which originally passed the law, is now Republican-dominated and just struck down Roe v. Wade. The concern—bolstered by Justice Clarence Thomas’ stated animus—is that marriage equality is now unsafe too; hence the need for this vote, and the depressing confirmation that Republicans will do all they can to stymie it.
All of these events flow through one’s mind with Strathairn’s introduction; his caution that we are far down the ski slope to authoritarianism—and what responsibility do we have to counter its poison. It should be a foreign country that this rings in our ears as a warning about, a faraway equivalent of the Germany of 1932. But it is now, here, in the relentless attacks on democracy by former President Trump and his acolytes.
The play is a shaming warning bell on our present, just as it tells of a dark and awful period of modern history. Karski’s experience is of someone who asked what he should do, then did it—and then wondered to what end. Karski’s bravery, as Strathairn plays it, was very stubborn and admirable—a steadfast commitment to acting decently in the face of grotesque indecency.
The play’s message is made more acute by his character, because in World War II Jan Karski saw up and close and raw those suffering and dying and dead in a concentration camp, told the powers-that-be in Britain and America in 1943, and remained unheard and unheeded. We see him at the White House, overwhelmed at the décor and grandeur, and utterly deflated as it becomes clear that President Franklin D. Roosevelt has not heard a word he says.
Strathairn does not merely deliver a sermon. There are flashes of wit and lightness as he sketches Karski’s ramrod propriety and also his feelings of fleeting passion. He also—and ouch, it looks physical—throws himself around a relatively bare stage. A table and a couple of chairs are the only furnishings as we watch Karski go fast from callow youth to committed resistance fighter. We see Karski held in a POW camp, from which he escapes.
He is a loner by nature, an observer. Indeed, one of the play’s most painful moments sees him facing the horrors of the ghetto and death camp head-on, the scale of the undulating mass of people in pain he cannot grasp right in front of him. Yet he forces himself to observe, telling himself that by observing he will tell someone and help fight this terrible injustice.
Confronted with horror in front of him Karski wants to do something active, to scoop up the starved and beaten bodies in front of him, to do something. But he does not. That is what makes the lack of action on the part of the political leaders later so much worse for him—he goes unheard having willed himself to be an omniscient observer.
The play shows the power and importance, alongside the frustrating impotence, of his bearing witness, as presidents and leaders listen to him and ignore him. It is important that his contributions and bravery were later recognized, but tragic that they were not when they needed to be.
Zach Blane’s peerless lighting design is like a second character, moving us evocatively from a hiding place in the dead of night to terrifying wartime battle to torture room to death camp to White House. All the time, Strathairn is not just inhabiting Karski but those who Karski interacts with—from a terrified sister to vicious, sadistic Gestapo interrogators.
The play ends with Strathairn observing us again, just as he had at the beginning. He makes clear all of us have so much to ask ourselves, and only uncompromising, self-evident answers will present themselves.
Karski, Strathairn tells us, said that 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 how do we know what to do? How do we know what to believe? How do we know what to believe in? And what does it even mean—to know? These questions haunt me now. And I want it to be so.”
In short: Let this be a lesson—a very active, present lesson.