A production photo from Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski
David Strathairn in Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski. Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The stage is bare, occupied only by a well-worn wooden table and two simple chairs. Where the eyes expect the stage to meet the back wall, there is only darkness. Draped over the back of one of these chairs is a suit jacket, necktie, and sweater vest. Next to this chair is a pair of leather shoes.

Enter David Strathairn, in stocking feet, fingers fidgeting, suspenders hanging loosely around his waist, for the moment speaking in his own American accent: “We see what goes on in the world … our world is in turmoil …” Scenic designer Misha Kachman has with these simple strokes illustrated the theme of human beings on the threshold of the 20th century’s moral event horizon—a black hole we’re still orbiting.

For the rest of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, Strathairn plays Polish-accented Jan Karski, a witness to that moral catastrophe. Before the audience sees this transformation, they see the real Karski, dressed impeccably, in a brief film clip from 1978. The Georgetown University professor is only a few syllables into his interview before he breaks down tearfully and escapes off camera. The interviewer was Claude Lanzmann; it was the first time the professor of history and international relations had agreed to speak about his WWII experiences since the war’s end. Lanzmann would later use 40 minutes of the 8 hour interview for his 1985 documentary Shoah. Ten years after Karski’s death in 2000, Lanzmann would release a short film, The Karski Report.

Born Jan Kozielewski to a poor Catholic family that lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Łódź, he was quickly recognized for his gift for languages and photographic memory, and would be groomed for the diplomatic service of the newly independent Second Polish Republic. When the combined forces of Germany and the Soviet Union threatened to invade (though they would later become enemies, the Nazis and the Soviets were allies for the first 22 months of WWII), Kozielewski was called to the front. The Republic fell, and Kozielewski’s unit was captured by the Red Army while retreating from the Wehrmacht. Lying to his jailers, he escaped the Red Army’s massacre of Polish prisoners of war, and eventually became a spy and courier for the Polish Underground State, adopting Karski as his nom de guerre. He went to places like the Warsaw Ghetto and the transit camp in Izbica (a stop on the way to the Belzec extermination camp) to document atrocities. Between his eyewitness reports and the microfilm he smuggled to the the Polish government-in-exile in London, Karski provided the earliest comprehensive accounts of Germany’s aim to exterminate the Jewish people.

The government-in-exile sent Karski to give his testimony to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, but no meeting with Winston Churchill came. In 1943 the exiled government published the report The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland and distributed it to the United Nations. Karski was sent to America.

Playwright Clark Young and director Derek Goldman have been collaborating with Strathairn on this project for the better part of a decade, basing the script on interviews, archives, and Karski’s 1944 memoir, Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State. Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which Goldman co-directs, premiered an earlier version in 2014 in honor of Karski’s 100th birthday with Strathairn accompanied by an ensemble of mostly student actors. Remember This had been scheduled for last fall at Mosaic, when many thought coronavirus lockdowns would be brief, but moved to Shakespeare Theatre Company after Mosaic’s embattled founding artistic director Ari Roth resigned.

I attended the 2014 premiere, and judge the current, stripped-down solo show to be stronger, both in terms of dramaturgy and performance, than the earlier ensemble production. A welcome addition to this draft is Karski’s post-war marriage to the Polish-Jewish modern dancer and choreographer Pola Nirenska, whose In Memory of Those I Loved… Who Are No More was her response to losing most of her family in the Holocaust.

With a minimalist set and few props, so much of the action depends on Strathairn’s own body and his collaboration with movement director Emma Jaster. Whether miming hard labor at a Soviet work camp, the tumble from a speeding train, or falling to represent beatings at the hands of the Gestapo, his physicality provides an urgency that oratory cannot achieve on its own.

Strathairn also gives effective impressions of notable Karski encounters along his way, such as Justice Felix Frankfurter, who, despite being Jewish, is incapable of believing that the Germans and their collaborators could conduct the atrocities Karski is reporting to him (lest his faith in humanity be shattered), or President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is incurious about the destruction of European Jewry and instead asks Karski about Polish agriculture.

The history lesson is that governments either lacked the imagination to comprehend that the Germans were committing genocide, or lacked the interest to halt it. The moral lesson is one that Karski gave to his students (including a young Bill Clinton) over his 40 years teaching: “Governments have no souls … we have to take care of each other.”

At Michael R. Klein Theatre to Oct. 17. 550 7th Street NW. $35–$112. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.