In Telling Jan Karski's Story of Holocaust Resistance, Filmmakers Turned to Testimony

Thu, 07/27/2023 - 11:00am

How could the Nazis have systematically murdered six million Jews, and how could the world have stood passive as it happened?

These momentous questions are neither rhetorical nor unanswerable to Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic diplomat who brought eye-witness reports of Nazi atrocities to Western leaders as early as 1942, and who is the subject of a new film, Remember This

“God gave us a soul. Call it consciousness, whatever it is. And we have infinite capacity to do good,” Karski said in his 1995 testimony with the USC Shoah Foundation. “And every one of us has infinite capacity to do evil. And we have a choice—one or another...Everything is possible as a result. Everything is possible."

Karski's formulation of personal accountability served as a guiding principle for the creators of Remember This. The theater and film production, both starring David Strathairn (Nomadland, Good Night, and Good Luck, Lincoln) in a masterful one-man performance, transports viewers through the complex, haunting narrative of Karski’s futile attempt to convince Western leaders to act to stop a genocide while there was still time to stop it. 

The film, directed by Jeff Hutchens and Derek Goldman and produced by Emmy Award-winning producer Eva Anisko, will be screened at a sold-out USC Shoah Foundation event with Aspen Film on July 31, followed by a panel discussion.

Writers and producers had a rich storehouse of information to draw from, including interviews with Karski’s students and colleagues at Georgetown University, a 1994 biography by E. Thomas Wood and Stanisław M. Jankowski, and Karski's 2013 memoir, Story of a Secret State, with a foreword by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But co-writer Clark Young says it was Karski’s USC Shoah Foundation testimony, recorded five years before Karski died at the age of 86 in 2000, that helped the writers and producers navigate the intricacies of Karski’s character and provided emotional resonance to the film. 

“I felt like I was sitting with him, reflecting on everything in a more global way, a more emotional way,” said Young. “It was like sitting down with your grandfather for the last chance to hear a story that's really important, that you want to get right and that you want to complete.”

Young said the hard-won wisdom Karski offered in his USC Shoah Foundation testimony is “embedded in the DNA of every moment of Remember This,” and charged the script with contemporary relevance. Among Karski’s principles that guided the project:

Governments do no have souls—individuals have souls.

Humans have infiinite capacity to choose good or evil.

Avoid disliking people because they are different.

The testimony was often playing in Strathairn’s dressing room before a production or on a day of shooting, Young said.

“Whether that was to get in tune with the accent or the spirit of the man, or that David just found that particular interview to be most moving, I don't know. Probably all of the above,” Young said.

Strathairn delivers his virtuoso performance on a minimalist set comprised of a desk and two chairs, with only a piece of paper and Karski’s finely tailored suit as props. The film’s subtle but powerful use of costume, lighting, and sound, as well as Strathairn’s almost exhausting physicality, help transport the audience through layers of storytelling in an engrossing narrative that conveys Karski’s moral clarity, frustration, and humility with compelling artistry.

The theater production, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, also starring Strathairn, appeared off-Broadway in the fall of 2022 and was a NYT Critics Pick. It later traveled to several U.S. cities and recently finished a sold-out tour of four cities in Poland in partnership with the Jan Karski Educational Foundation. The play, featuring a new lead actor, opens at Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta in January 2024 and producers are in conversations with other theaters around the world.

The film premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2022 and won audience awards at several other film festivals. It was released in select theaters nationwide in January 2023, later aired on PBS’s Great Performances, and is now available for community and educational screenings. An illustrated script of the play, with essays from diplomats, thought leaders, and the creators, was published by Georgetown University Press in 2021.

Clark Young co-wrote the theater script and the screenplay for Remember This with director Derek Goldman, his former theater professor and co-founding director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, where they now co-teach a course about Karski’s life. 

The two were originally tapped in 2014 to create a one-night tribute at Georgetown University, where Karski served as a professor in the School of Foreign Service from 1952 to 1992.

Karski was known to deliver highly theatrical lectures, and throughout the 95-minute film, Strathairn channels the characters Karski encounters as he retells his story.

In recreating a formative scene from his childhood, which he reflected on in his USC Shoah Foundation testimony, Karski dons a vest, sits cross-legged on the floor, and reenacts both himself and his mother. She instructs young Jan to alert her if he catches the neighborhood boys continuing to drop dead rats atop the Sukkah, a ritual hut where Jewish neighbors dined during the autumn holiday.

Strathairn tumbles across the stage as he jumps from a train when he reenacts how Karski, a soldier in the doomed Polish army at the outset of World War Two, escaped Soviet and German captivity. We see him as he joins the Polish underground and then gathers and delivers intelligence to the Polish government-in-exile in a 1940 report.

“I become a tape recorder, a camera, a messenger,” Karski says, with the same self-deprecation he uses to deflect any later attempts to call him a hero.

We watch Karski reel with remembered pain as he describes being interrogated by the Gestapo when he is captured in the mountains of Czechoslovakia in 1941. With a sadness deadened by guilt, he relates that the 32 doctors and nurses who helped him escape were tortured and executed for aiding him.

Karski then inhabits the tormented Jewish Underground leader Leon Feiner, who convinces Karski to go beyond his original assignment so that he can gather even more compelling evidence to show to the world. Karski dons an armband with a Star of David and enters the Warsaw Ghetto in the fall of 1942, after  most of its 400,000 inhabitants had been deported to death camps. 

Strathairn shepherds viewers through Karski’s internal struggle to do his job—capture and convey information—while encountering the stench and suffering in the streets of the ghetto, a level of evil, degradation, and inhumanity he cannot comprehend but is determined to communicate. 

From Karski’s lips, we hear the directive from another underground leader, Szmul Zygelbojm, not long before he kills himself.

“Remember this,” he tells Karski.

In 1943 we accompany Karski as he delivers his report on the Nazi war against the Jews to, among others, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Felix Frankfurter, a Jewish Supreme Court justice. In face-to-face meetings—with Karski/Strathairn playing all the parts—he warns these leaders that the Nazis are systematically wiping out the Jewish people and implores them to do something to stop a genocide that is already under way. None of Karski's efforts in the halls of power succeed.

After the war, Karski marries a Polish Jewish dancer, and earns his PhD at Georgetown University. For 35 years, he does not speak of his involvement with the underground or his failed attempts to marshal Western resistance, until director Claude Lanzmann convinces him to sit for an interview for Lanzmann’s epic 9-hour documentary, Shoah, released in 1985—a difficult decision Karski recalled when he recorded his testimony for the Visual History Archive ten years later.

Using that testimony, Remember This empowers Karski — ever the messenger, the resistor, the storyteller — to engage a new audience in confronting the injustices and atrocities humanity currently faces.

Strathairn opens the film with a challenge that frames the entire story:

“What can you do? What can I do? What can we do that we are not already doing? Do we have a duty, a responsibility as individuals, to do something, anything? And how do we know what to do? How do we know what we are capable of? It’s not easy knowing. Human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”

USC Shoah Foundation’s July 31 special screening at Aspen Film’s Isis Theatre is sold out. 

The film is available for educational and institutional screenings.

Watch the trailer for Remember This

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.