David Strathairn: John Lamparski/Getty Images; Jan Karski: Tomasz Gzell/AFP/Getty Images
David Strathairn (L) and Jan Karski. David Strathairn: John Lamparski/Getty Images; Jan Karski: Tomasz Gzell/AFP/Getty Images
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Playing Jan Karski

David Strathairn stars in a new production about the Holocaust whistleblower

Gabriela Geselowitz
July 30, 2015
David Strathairn: John Lamparski/Getty Images; Jan Karski: Tomasz Gzell/AFP/Getty Images
David Strathairn (L) and Jan Karski. David Strathairn: John Lamparski/Getty Images; Jan Karski: Tomasz Gzell/AFP/Getty Images

A new Holocaust-themed play called My Report to the World, which just concluded a seven-performance run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (with a brief stop in Washington D.C.), tells the story of Jan Karski, a key yet often unknown figure in the Polish underground of World War II. His contributions to the resistance included a secret visit to the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi transit camp for Jews, and then communicating to world leaders, including FDR, about the atrocities he had witnessed. Karski, who escaped the Soviets’ Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish officers in 1940, ultimately immigrated to the U.S., where he became a professor of government at Georgetown University. He died in 2000.

I attended the sold-out, second performance of the play, still a theatrical work-in-progress, on the evening of the July 15. As the show is an early workshop incarnation, virtually everything is subject to change; even the subject matter is so wide-reaching that what themes take prominence may shift. Although the play seeks to highlight the life of a war hero, what makes it most compelling is what he witnessed, his unique place in World War II as a man between the persecuted and the safe.

“We’re trying to engage history in an unusual way for a history play,” the director and co-writer of the play, Derek Goldman, told me in an interview. “There’s an invitation for people to not participate in a literal way, but a kind of opening out—to a kind of connecting oneself to a history that’s both knowable and unknowable.”

Broaching this unknowable history is Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck), who plays Karski from childhood to his later years as a teacher. (Strathairn is by now used to playing Karski, such as in 2013 reading of a similar work by the same creative team as My Report to the World, entitled Remember This—Walking with Jan Karski, as well as a subsequent workshop in Warsaw.) A small ensemble cast plays a multitude of other roles, from Nazi officers to Jewish underground figures, such as the story of Szmul Zygielbojm, the tragic Jewish figure who tried to advocate for his dying people while in exile, are as important to the narrative as Karski himself.

While the set was sparse, the cast, through choreographer’s Emma Jaster’s vision, created strong imagery by performing much of the play as movement or dance. These moments, ranging from a daring escape from a hospital window to the suicide of a loved one, brought horrifying moments of Karski’s life into being. In one moment, to show senseless death in a Nazi POW camp, Strathairn and other actors stood up against a wall with their arms up. Each time a Nazi officer stamped his foot, one fell; another slumped partway down the wall. The moment where Strathairn as Karski waits for the shoe that never drops is palpable.

Beyond My Report to the World’s suspenseful moments, some common questions relating to the events leading up to the Holocaust rear their heads: How could humanity perpetuate the horrors of World War II? Why did the Allies not do more to aid Jews? To what extent were non-Jewish Europeans complicit in the genocide? But what’s different about this play is not necessarily the questions, but who’s leading the exploration: Jan Karski.

Born in Łódź in 1914, Karski, a religious Catholic Pole, is an unlikely figure in a Holocaust narrative. But as the title of the play suggests, Karski depicts himself as a reporter, a camera. He insists that he should not be a focus, but that his real work is telling the stories of others. In the play, Karski is affected by the atrocities he witnesses internally, but outwardly, as a whistleblower, Karski is meant to be a messenger to the world of the Nazis’ war crimes. Strathairn seemed to effortlessly fills Karski’s skin, with a convincing Polish accent (to uneducated ears) and a quiet, still presence of a man who commands attention despite his better efforts. Strathairn’s Karski can be almost frustratingly stoic and matter-of-fact through some of the most horrific parts of his life, but that is a painfully deliberate choice. Karski remains ever the professor, a storyteller above all.

The play is denser than lead, reckoning with multiple narratives, which were near-impossible to fit into one piece. Perhaps to keep the play as camera-like as its central figure, much of the text is documentary, including from Karski’s 1944 memoir, Story of a Secret State. In a review of the book from that year, New York Times reviewer Edward Whiting Fox, wrote:

Because of its literary power, there is real danger that the Story of the Secret State may be read as fiction instead of fact, or propaganda instead of scrupulous reporting. We can ill afford to misunderstand its purpose. The book makes no attempt to win sympathy or aid; it is the result of Karski’s heroic effort to make possible some communication between two worlds.

Karski, as a communicator, desperate to make contact, is a resonant image in My Report to the World.

“I think Karski is our foundation absolutely,” said Goldman.”But were learning that that life is so complex and multiple that part of what this workshop is about is really kind of trying to distill to: What are our core questions? We’re learning it’s what had to do with silence.”

Silence in the work has many meanings. As a hero, Karski’s life has several notes of tragedy, such as his suicide attempt after being tortured by the Germans during the war. Particularly, despite all his efforts, and the ultimate outcome of the war, his warnings about the ongoing genocide of the Jews largely fell on deaf ears, most infamously when he met with a passive FDR in the Oval Office. After his dispatch went unheeded, he began his long silence about the war, only to eventually open up to educate others and prevent future tragedies.

Goldman likens Karski’s personal process to artistic projects—a bit like the play itself. “He’s someone who kept so many of those scars and burdens silent for so long and then worked them out in public,” he said.

“What I feel about this story that haunts me is that Karski was able at some point in his life to say, ‘I want to be haunted by this,’” said the play’s co-writer Clark Young. “And I think that’s a really profound notion that someone is able to come to terms with and own fully, something so horrible for the good and the betterment of those around him.”

Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.