Monday, June 06, 2022

David Strathairn speaks for a Holocaust hero. It’s time to listen. (WaPo)

One of my favorite professors at Georgetown, portrayed by one of my favorite actors.  

The world ignored his warnings about the Holocaust, but Jan Karski's lessons live on.

Hopefully, this play will become a motion picture.

From The Washington Post:

David Strathairn speaks for a Holocaust hero. It’s time to listen.

The actor portrays Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski’s struggle to convince the Allies of the Holocaust’s enormity

David Strathairn in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.” (Rich Hein) (Rich Hein)

For nearly seven years, actor David Strathairn has committed himself to telling the story of Jan Karski, a World War II hero who, for decades after the war, refused to tell it himself. A diplomat recruited as a messenger for the Polish underground, Karski remained traumatized for the rest of his life by his inability to convince the Allies of the magnitude of the Holocaust atrocities he had witnessed.

Strathairn has been waging a campaign to illuminate Karski’s courageous acts from the stage in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” a show first developed at Georgetown University that has since toured and now returns to the campus. The production has become a mission for Strathairn, who has often appeared in serious plays but made his name in prestige movies such as “Good Night, and Good Luck,” for which he received an Oscar nomination, and the more recent “Nomadland.”

It’s a project with deep roots at Georgetown. The script was written by Derek Goldman, chairman of the university’s department of performing arts, with his former student Clark Young, and it’s about a resistance figure who would come to Georgetown and teach government and international affairs for the next four decades. Such was the significance of Karski’s efforts on behalf of European Jewry that in 1982, Yad Vashem, the memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem, named him one of the Righteous Among the Nations — the honor bestowed on non-Jews who helped save Jews from Nazi atrocities.

You sense in conversation and performance the degree to which Strathairn has committed himself to Karski. Over the 90 minutes of the play, directed by Goldman, the 73-year-old actor goes through a physically demanding regimen, dramatizing, for instance, Karski’s escape from Gestapo captivity. During a recent performance, after leaping off a table onstage at Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre, he rose from the floor with a fresh wound on his arm. You could safely say that he has given his own blood to this endeavor.

“The more time I spend with him, his legacy continues to amplify,” Strathairn said in a Zoom interview. “And not only as a teacher but more as an exemplary figure, for the kind of courage it took, the self-sacrifice it took — twice, even three times potentially dying on his journey. And all these things I think need to be kept alive, especially in a world today where, in the tsunami of information, people can be drowned. He was there, he saw it, and therefore it was the truth.”

David Strathairn in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.” (Teresa Castracane)

That truth is the crux of “Remember This,” a piece that has evolved meaningfully since I first saw an early version of it at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan in 2015, when it was called “My Report to the World.” Its extraneous devices, including a multipurpose Greek chorus, have been stripped away, allowing its strongest elements — Strathairn and his moving narration — to tell the harrowing story. Karski was recruited by the resistance to survey the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, visit a death camp set up by the Nazis in Poland and travel with the news to London and Washington. “Remember This” — which was presented in D.C. last fall by the Shakespeare Theatre Company — recounts how he attempted to rally Allied officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, only to encounter doubt and buck-passing.

Karski’s anguish was such that he didn’t speak of his wartime experiences until French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann came to Georgetown to interview him for “Shoah,” his nine-hour 1985 Holocaust documentary. A moment of Lanzmann’s footage, in which Karski breaks down and walks off camera, attests to the level to which Karski was haunted. All of this became material for a course, “Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Jan Karski Today,” that Goldman has offered at Georgetown several times. Strathairn has been a featured player in the curriculum, taking up Goldman’s invitations to discuss his work on the show.

“We have a large group of graduate and undergraduate students who have been deeply engaged in the play, thinking about why Karski matters to young people now,” Goldman said. “The questions of the U.S.’s involvement are deeply resonant. It’s one of those pieces that gets more relevant — and oh my God, now it’s thunderously relevant.”

It takes no effort to recognize the contemporary relevance in the story of an Eastern European man who testifies to atrocities committed by a foreign invader based on what he has seen with his own eyes. That Poland has offered itself up as a primary haven for Ukrainian refugees only magnifies the moral parallels.

“There it is — it’s happening in the now,” Strathairn said. “You know, people in Poland have been saying: ’1939. 2022. Blitzkrieg. Invasion of Ukraine.’ There’s a case to be made for the twinning of these events. And to have someone like Karski, to have an awareness of what this man went through, if you can somehow carry a little bit of that into your daily experiences, then it may just help you contextualize not only your emotions but also what’s happening on the street and in the world.”

The play will continue to have a life after Georgetown: It will travel to Bilbao, Spain, early next month to be performed for the Wellbeing Summit for Social Change, a gathering of government and business leaders and social-change advocates. And plans are being finalized, Goldman said, for an off-Broadway run in the fall.

“Even seven years since we started this, a whole other generation of students and young people who we’re bringing this to may not have ever even known about Jan Karski, even at Georgetown University,” Strathairn said. “It’s very, very emotional. And its application to now is undeniable.”

Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, by Derek Goldman and Clark Young. Directed by Goldman. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Zach Blane; music and sound, Roc Lee. About 90 minutes. Through Sunday at Davis Performing Arts Center, 37th and O Streets NW.

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