The most poignant moments in “Remember This,” a one-man biographical play about the life of Polish resistance fighter and Holocaust hero Jan Karski, come right at the beginning.
Unfortunately, they are not part of the play itself.
Moments after the lights go out on a stage sparsely decorated with a wooden table, two chairs and a pair of men’s shoes, a projection screen comes to life. It shows an excerpt from Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary “Shoah” in which Jan Karski sits down with interviewers to talk about his wartime work – as a member of the Polish resistance he collected information about Nazi atrocities in Poland and brought reports from the first Hand with Holocaust to Allied leaders.
In the 1980s, Karski has become an easy-going professor, and for his interview he sits in a living room full of art, bookshelves and oriental rugs. But as soon as he remembers his experiences, he starts crying and runs out of the room, tripping over a velvet couch in his haste to escape the camera.
Written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, Remember This is currently playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. It dramatizes the events that Karski eventually shared with Lanzmann. The play compares Karski’s Poland to our own increasingly ‘toxic’ world and aims to be more than just a memorial. It uses the heroism of “a petty little man,” as Karski called himself, as a roadmap for ordinary people who want to be more than mere spectators in an era of rising authoritarianism and spreading humanitarian crises.
But through its meticulously detailed portrayal of the indifference with which powerful men greeted Karski’s reports and his inability to spur them to action, the play undermines its own mission and offers a sobering, if unintentional, meditation on the limits of witnessing.
Born in 1914 to a Catholic family in Lodz, Poland, Karski pursued a diplomatic career at his mother’s urging, holding posts in Germany, Romania and Britain. At the start of World War II he enlisted in the Polish Army and was promptly captured by the invading Soviets and held in a prison camp. a happily timed prisoner exchange saved him from the infamous Katyn massacre of Polish officers.
Returning to a Poland nearly devastated by German occupation, Karski joined the resistance, whose leaders ordered him to tour the country and gather information, which they then sent to the government-in-exile. Before a trip to London in 1942 where he would report to world leaders on occupied Poland, Jewish leaders asked Karski to sneak into the Warsaw ghetto as well as a Polish death camp and observe conditions there. His horror at what he saw there prompted him to make concrete appeals in favor of the country’s Jews.
But no one he spoke to—not Churchill, not Roosevelt, not the Jewish Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter—heeded him.
Karski became a professor in Georgetown and lived out the rest of his life in Washington, DC Although he put himself at enormous personal risk in breaking news of the Holocaust to the outside world, he carried with him a sense of failure that did not belong to him.
A poised and athletic performer, David Strathairn (known for his roles in Nightmare Alley and Nomadland) manages to play Karski and everyone he meets without confusing or boring the audience. In his story, the table and chairs become an opera house, a prison cell, a hospital, and even the Oval Office. Wearing a sweater vest, he becomes a boy whose mother sends him to stop his peers from throwing dead rats into Jewish courtyards. Suspenders make him a naïve diplomat impressed by Hitler’s speeches; As a commando on the run, he strips down to an army green tank top and shorts.
As Karski, he’s meek and persuasive, his modesty about his actions providing some much-needed comic relief. As a student witnessing discrimination against Jewish students, he advises himself not to get involved: “What if someone disfigures your face? Then you’re not attractive enough to be an ambassador.” (However, by voicing some of the other characters, he adds humor where it doesn’t belong: During Karski’s climax meeting with Roosevelt, his last and misplaced hope , it’s hard to focus on anything other than Strathairn’s impression of the President declaring that “we’re going to win this waaaaaar.”)
The play’s reduced format proves to be a suitable vehicle for Karski’s story. The atrocities Karski witnessed were almost unimaginable to him, so unbelievable that powerful men could easily dismiss them. How could anyone stage them in a small theater in Brooklyn? By allowing Strathairn to tell Karski’s story with as little intervention as possible, the play avoids sensationalism and comes as close as possible to the power of the actual survivors.
“Remember This” is a fierce indictment of the authorities Karski rightly trusted. But the play stumbles as it tries to turn his life into a playbook for modern day action. In the age of Instagram infographics, what Karski has done could be described as “raising awareness.” Everyone agrees that raising awareness is important. While it’s unlikely that any of the viewers engaged in espionage during the war, most of us were likely to have participated in awareness campaigns on what we consider to be the most important crises.
Raising awareness is often the limit of what an individual can do, which is perhaps why it appeals to so many of us to confront events that frighten us or repel us. But as Karski has learned first-hand, awareness is of little use when the power to act is concentrated in the hands of a few empathic people. His predicament offers a historic warning, not a way out. That’s why the weeping, overwhelmed Karski in “Shoah” is more compelling, more truthful than David Strathairn’s wise Elder Statesman, brimming with aphoristic advice about the importance of caring for one another.
Towards the end of the play, Strathairn loses Karski’s accent to become an unnamed American commenting on the story. The questions Karski raised “still torment me today,” he says. It’s an oddly smug closing note for a story about a man whose heroism earned so little. If Karski’s life teaches us anything, it’s that being haunted is often of little use.