Oscar-nominated actor reprises Jan Karski role in Warsaw

David Strathairn plays Polish resistance fighter who warned Allies about Nazi atrocities

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

David Strathairn stars in Georgetown University production of 'Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski.' (Rafael Suanes/Georgetown Univ.)
David Strathairn stars in Georgetown University production of 'Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski.' (Rafael Suanes/Georgetown Univ.)

Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn is in Warsaw this week to reprise his role as Jan Karski in a play marking the centennial of the Polish WWII underground resistance hero’s birth. The staged reading, titled, “Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski,” premiered last April at Washington, DC’s Georgetown University, where Karski was a professor for four decades.

Karski, a resistance fighter representing the Polish government in exile, risked his life to bring first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities to the Allies. He twice infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto and posed as a guard at the Izbica transit camp, where he witnessed Jews being herded on to train cars bound for death camps.

Karski urgently reported in person what he witnessed to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and to US President Franklin Roosevelt and US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, all of whom failed to act.

The new production at Teatr Imka, a leading professional theater in Warsaw known for emerging and innovative work, is an accompanying event of the grand opening of the core exhibition of POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

David Strathairn (center) stars in Georgetown University production of 'Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski.' (Rafael Suanes/Georgetown Univ.)
David Strathairn (center) stars in Georgetown University production of ‘Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski.’ (Rafael Suanes/Georgetown Univ.)

Strathairn will be joined on stage in Warsaw on October 29 and 30 by an ensemble comprised of six students from the National Academy of Theatre Arts in Krakow and one student from the United States. The script, based in large part on Karski’s “Story of a Secret State,” a report of his wartime experiences published in 1944, has been expanded, and a Polish translation of the English dialogue will be projected for the audience.

Strathairn said in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel prior to his departure for Warsaw that he was looking forward to playing Karski again, and to building on the success of the initial presentation at Georgetown.

“We all came away with the sense that we had somewhat succeeded in at least giving a flavor of the man and an overview of what he went through,” he said.

Jan Karski (photo credit: © Carol Harrison)
Jan Karski (photo credit: © Carol Harrison)

Bringing “Remember This” to Karski’s native country is exciting, but a bit daunting, for the cast and crew.

“It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s thrilling. We could not have been more honored to have been asked to come,” said Derek Goldman, the Georgetown professor of theater and performance studies who co-wrote the script.

Goldman embraced the invitation to bring the play to Warsaw as an opportunity to dig more deeply in to Karski’s life and work, and to interview more people whose lives had been impacted by him.

Strathairn, having been greatly affected by the man and his legacy, will return to the stage as Karski .

“Our presentation at Georgetown may have been a kind of a cursory overview, but my having read about what he went through and then actually saying his words… all of that is very affecting,” he said.

‘He lingers as someone who is very powerful’

“He lingers as someone who is very powerful. He’s not one of those characters who you can dispense and leave on the shelf somewhere. He remains present. He will remain a memorable character.”

The Warsaw performances anticipate a 10-day professional workshop of the play in New York and Washington, DC later this year, with the hope that this will lead to a fully staged professional premier in the United States. In addition, The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University is shaping the play to be the centerpiece of an educational program that can bring Karski’s story to countries around the world.

Karski remained silent for decades after the war about what he had seen and tried to do. It was only after his testimony appeared in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” in 1985 that his heroic efforts came to be widely known.

“It’s sad. You feel for him,” Strathairn said about the pain Karski obviously felt at having been unsuccessful at persuading the Allies to act to prevent further destruction of European Jewry.

“It’s stunning that he was just one man, and he was so much more than that. His efforts, to put it mildly… to have been just ignored, I can’t imagine what that was like. That’s why he’s an extraordinary figure,” he said.

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