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. A suit jacket, tie and waistcoat are draped over the back of one of these chairs. Next to this chair is a pair of leather shoes.
Enter David Strathairn, in socks, wiggling fingers, suspenders floating freely around her waist, speaking for the moment in her own American accent: Misha kachman illustrated with these simple lines the theme of the human being on the threshold of the moral horizon of 20th century events – a black hole in which we are still orbiting.
For the rest of Remember this: The lesson of Jan Karski, Strathairn plays Polish accent Jan Karski, witness to this moral catastrophe. Before audiences see this transformation, they see the real Karski, immaculately dressed, in a brief clip from a 1978 film. The Georgetown University professor is only a few syllables away from his interview before s’ break down in tears and escape from the camera. The interviewer was Claude lanzmann; it was the first time that the professor of history and international relations agreed to speak about his experiences of the Second World War since the end of the war. Lanzmann would later use 40 minutes of the 8-hour interview for his 1985 documentary Holocaust. Ten years after Karski’s death in 2000, Lanzmann released a short film, The Karski report.
Born Jan Kozielewski to a poor Catholic family who lived in a predominantly Jewish quarter of Łódź, he was quickly recognized for his gift for languages and photographic memory, and would be prepared for the diplomatic service of the newly independent Second Polish Republic. When the combined forces of Germany and the Soviet Union threatened to invade (although they would later become enemies, the Nazis and the Soviets were allies during 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 as it withdrew from the Wehrmacht. Lying to his jailers, he escaped the slaughter of Polish prisoners of war by the Red Army and eventually became a spy and courier for the Polish Underground State, adopting Karski as his War name. He traveled to places like the Warsaw ghetto and Izbica transit camp (a stop on the way to the Belzec extermination camp) to document the atrocities. Between his eyewitness reports and the microfilm he smuggled into the Polish government in exile in London, Karski provided the first full accounts of Germany’s goal of exterminating the Jewish people.
Government-in-exile sent Karski to testify before UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, but no meeting with Winston Churchill came. In 1943, the government in exile published the report 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 collaborated with Strathairn on this project for almost a decade, basing the script on interviews, archives and Karski’s memoir from 1944, Courrier de Poland: The story of a secret state. Georgetown University Laboratory for Global Performance and Policy, which Goldman is co-directing, premiered in 2014 in honor of Karski’s 100th birthday with Strathairn accompanied by a set of mostly student actors. Remember this was slated for last fall at Mosaic, when many thought the coronavirus lockdowns would be brief, but were moved to the Shakespeare Theater Company after Mosaic’s founding artistic director struggled Ari roth resigned.
I attended the 2014 premiere and find the current, sleek solo show to be stronger, both in terms of dramaturgy and performance, than the previous ensemble production. A welcome addition to this project is Karski’s post-war marriage to the modern Polish Jewish dancer and choreographer. Pola Nirenska, of which In memory of those I loved … who are no longer was his response to the loss of most of his family in the Holocaust.
With minimalist decor and few props, much of the action depends on Strathairn’s own body and his collaboration with the director of the movement. Emma jaster. Whether imitating forced labor in a Soviet labor camp, falling from a high-speed train, or falling to represent the Gestapo beatings, his physical character provides an urgency that eloquence does not. can not achieve on its own.
Strathairn also gives effective impressions of Karski’s notable encounters along the way, such as Justice. Felix Frankfurter, who, despite being a Jew, is unable to believe that the Germans and their collaborators could commit the atrocities that Karski reports to him (lest his faith in humanity be shattered), or the president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is not curious about the destruction of the European Jewish community and instead asks Karski about Polish agriculture.
The history lesson is that governments lacked the imagination to understand that the Germans were committing genocide, or lacked interest in stopping it. The moral lesson is the one that Karski gave to his students (including a young Bill clinton) during his 40 years of teaching: “Governments have no soul… we have to take care of each other. “
At the Michael R. Klein Theater until October 17, 550 7th Street NW. $ 35 to $ 112 (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.