Theater Review: ‘Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski’

NEW YORK—Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor Jan Karski (David Strathairn) may have thought of himself as “an insignificant little man,” but as “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” makes clear, he was far more.

Written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, who also doubles as the director, this one-person show at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center examines Karski’s experiences in the time leading up to and during World War II, and his attempts to tell of the horrors the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews of Europe.

Born into a Catholic family in Lodz, Poland, at the time “a center of culture and politics,” Karski (1914–2000) trained to be a diplomat, a career path drastically altered by the invasion of Poland in September of 1939. His life of order and protocol which, in an ironic twist, had once caused him to be invited to a rally in Germany where Hermann Göring was the speaker, was becoming one of suffering, captivity, and more than one daring escape.

Due to his diplomatic background, and because he was blessed with a photographic memory, Karski was recruited into the Polish underground to carry messages to the Polish government in exile, while reporting on everything he saw.

David Strathairn stars as Jan Karski in a one-man theater production of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.” (Hollis King)

It is in this latter capacity that he is taken to a Jewish ghetto and later a death camp, in order to attest that he saw the Nazi atrocities with his own eyes. Yet, when presented with these reports, those with the ability to act on this information, failed to do so. Karski was haunted for the rest of his life by what he saw as the failure of his efforts.

Not For Naught

More than a story about one man trying to make a difference, the show points out how, too often, “governments have no souls,” something Karski would often tell his students during his 40 years as a professor at Georgetown University. In the same vein, the play stresses the importance of the individual and the responsibilities we all have to watch out for one another.

David Strathairn stars as Jan Karski in a one-man production of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.” The show points at issues that seem to grow more out of control every day, and millions of people suffer because of them. (Rich Hein)

The show also carries a warning about the dangers of larger-than-life personalities and how easy it is to fall under their sway. Karski recalls how captivated he was by Göring’s magnetism and how, at that instant, he wished he could have been born a German. For then he, too, would be a superior man, one with a place in Germany’s new world order, an order which seemed, for at least that second, perfectly logical.

Some of the most poignant moments of “Remember This” occur at the very beginning when Strathairn talks about the continuing troubles of the world. There are issues that seem to grow more out of control every day, and millions of people suffer because of them.

One can literally hear the mournfulness in the actor’s voice as he speaks, leaving the audience to insert, with the bitter knowledge that comes from hindsight, the names of global hot spots to which the story about to unfold can apply.

The creative team take pains to put the personal elements of Karski’s tale front and center, something Karski himself was loathe to do. He rarely spoke of his war experiences and only allowed his part in it to be told when tracked down by a documentary filmmaker.

A nice touch was the decision to balance the seriousness of the subject matter with moments of humor, as when Karski recalls first seeing the woman who would become his wife, and what happened later when he first tried to talk to her. Why people drink in Poland as opposed to Poles in America is also amusing.

Strathairn gives a masterful performance, bringing forth both the quiet determination and resolve of the title character as someone exposed to unspeakable horrors yet bound by his mission and the diplomatic rule to observe and report objectively.

The only fault with the show is that it could easily have been expanded. Indeed, there is more information about Karski in the program notes than the show itself, although the play certainly succeeds in making one want to learn more about him.

Most telling of all is Karski’s incredulity when he realizes that, despite everything he has been through, his efforts have come to naught. Those who ignored him may have seen their response as politically convenient, while others may have thought Karski’s reports simply couldn’t be true. Yet as the title demands, “Remember This” shows quite clearly how the best way for would-be conquerors to succeed is for those with the power to act against them to do nothing.

David Strathairn stars as Jan Karski in a one-man theater production of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.” (Rich Hein)

‘Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski’
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Pl., Brooklyn, New York
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Oct. 9, 2022


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