Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski

Business Culture
The Lesson of Jan Karski
The Lesson of Jan Karski/ Photo credit Tsipi Ingberg Ben-Haim

by Tsipi Inberg Ben-Haim

For 90 minutes, the actor David Strathairn re-lived on stage, for us, the audience, a mesmerizing, painful lesson of Jan Karski. The sold-out space was full of people whose eyes and attention focused on that one person on stage! No one moved. Deep quiet, and still.

He captivated our imagination as we dived into this incomprehensible story, from the minute he walked on stage. 

Please help us out :

Will you offer us a hand? Every gift, regardless of size, fuels our future.

Your critical contribution enables us to maintain our independence from shareholders or wealthy owners, allowing us to keep up reporting without bias. It means we can continue to make Jewish Business News available to everyone.
You can support us for as little as $1 via PayPal at [email protected].

Thank you.

Jan Karski, a young Catholic Polish diplomat who was recruited by the Polish underground at the beginning of WWII, was silent about his experience for 35 years.

The play opens with a black-and-white clip of the first moments of his first interview for Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 iconic documentary Shoah.

You see this handsome older man still dressed immaculately, struggling with telling his story, the horrendous story of the Jewish People and of humanity. He was dutifully compelled to speak. “You have a historical responsibility to speak.”

As the film background goes black, the actor takes over the struggle of Karski and, at the same time, every other voice and person he comes in contact with during his unbelievable Journey. He switches from one to the other with such ease, filled with compassion and worry, while he takes every one of us with him on his Journey.

It’s a problematic Journey for a young man in his early 20s that left his birthplace, Lodge, to study Law and Diplomacy. He realizes very early in life that “human beings tend to behave according to what is convenient for them in life”. 

His photographic memory was the reason the Polish underground told him “Poland needs you” and chose him to become their special messenger to report what he sees happening to the Polish government in exile. First, about the Polish people and their beloved homes, businesses, and institutions, and then about the terror the Nazis inflicted on the Jewish people.

“Poland lost the war to the Nazis in 20 minutes.” The Blitz tore Poland apart. Devastation all around everything vanished as if it didn’t exist. It was described powerfully on stage with white smoke, and the sounds of artillery as the actor rolled on the floor, trying to hide under the wooden table as the two wooden chairs found themselves misplaced. With such simplicity, Director Derek Goldman who’s also the co-writer of the play with Clark Young, achieved the highest and most profound emotional impact.

The darkness that he lived through and re-lived daily while the war was going on, being beaten and tortured, didn’t change his courageous dedication and commitment to reporting the honest truth.  His deep disappointment stemmed from the fact that the Polish government didn’t spread his reports to the public and didn’t do anything about it! “Governments don’t have souls. People have souls,” he states with deep sorrow.

The more significant unreal report to heads of state was his alarming call about what he saw in the Ghettos and the Auschwitz death camp. 

His internal human struggle exposed us to his pain, shared his agony, and understand how unbelievable all these sceneries were to him. He speaks to himself, trying to convince himself that it simply can’t be happening. “I know humanity, they can’t do that. Why are these people naked? Why is that mother naked as she is trying to feed her baby from a flat breast with no milk coming out?” No feelings just look,” he tells himself as he passes through the horrors of the death camp.

It’s challenging to visualize the mind can’t absorb these atrocities. He talks again to Szmul Mordko Zygielbojm, a Jewish leader and member of the National Council of the Polish government-in-exile.

Karski seeks guidance from Zygielbojm to see what and how he can report to the leaders of the world that have the power to stop these Massacres of the Jewish people Zygielbojm urges him again and again, “talk to them, tell them.” He ends up committing suicide on May 11, 1943. So did Pola Nirenska, Karski’s wife the beautiful Polish Jewish dancer he describes with infinite love. She lost over 70 people from her family while she was moving from Poland to Italy to London escaping, as a dancer. ” The Holocaust was alive in her imagination. She threw herself from our balcony.”

He finally gets a meeting with President Roosevelt. Karski says, “I see a Lord of Humanity seated behind the table.” He tells him in detail how millions of Jewish people are sent to the death camps and he should stop it while there’s time before the Nazis Massacre them all.

To Karski’s disbelief, Roosevelt asks him about the horses in Poland “but not even one question about the Jewish people.” And then politely, the president says: “excuse me, I’m late for my next meeting.” After the war, Karski points out that the leaders pretended as if the thoroughly planned Jewish extermination by the Nazis wasn’t known to them “they behaved as if it was a secret they didn’t know about.”

Following the end of the play,  a Standing Ovation and tremendous applause greeted the actor David Strathairn for his breathtaking one-person performance.

The director allowed asking questions and voice their thoughts. The primary and looming question was: “History is about to repeat itself!  Antesimism is on the rise! What do we do about it?”

Shulamith Bahat CEO, of ANU – Museum of the Jewish People in America, who met Jan Karski as Associate Director of AJC, underscored, in a final comment from the audience, that while Karski was silent about the past, he was active and vocal about the present and the future.  He was a  passionate lover and supporter of the miracle of ISRAEL and fought against anti-Semitism and discrimination where ever he saw it.  

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.