Jan Karski thought his mission was a failure, and for 35 years he mostly didn’t want to talk about it.
Karski was a member of the Polish resistance during World War II who volunteered in 1942 to infiltrate the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews were rounded up and imprisoned by the Germans, as well as a Nazi death camp.
Afterward he met with high-level British and American officials – including U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt – but failed to convince anyone that the inhumanity he’d seen merited major action. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Karski – who became a political science professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. – began speaking publicly about his experience as a witness to the Holocaust and trying to impart lessons society might learn from what he’d seen. He died in 2000.
Now Maine native Clark Young is helping Karski’s story and lessons reach a new generation. Young, a 2005 graduate of Deering High School in Portland, co-wrote the one-man play “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” starring Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn. The play begins a world tour Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C., followed by a run in Chicago in November. It is not scheduled to play in New England.
“He felt like he failed his mission and wanted to share the lessons of his life,” said Young, 34, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. “(Karski) chose to begin speaking about what he saw as Holocaust denials started to re-surface.”
The play is firmly rooted at Georgetown University, where Karski taught and where Young studied theater and got his undergraduate degree. Derek Goldman, one of Young’s former teachers at Georgetown, asked Young to work with him on a play about Karski. Goldman and Young are co-writers of the play.
With Strathairn in the title role, the play follows Karski’s life from his childhood in Poland through his time as a resistance fighter – including when he was prisoner of war and tortured by his captors – through his years as a Georgetown professor recounting the horrors he had seen 40 years earlier. He’s also realizing in real time, on stage, what he’s learned through all his experiences, Young said. The set is simple, a table and some chairs, but Strathairn uses them to full effect in a very physical way as he revisits active memories – running, jumping, escaping – from Karski’s younger days.
The play was performed a few times before the pandemic but begins its first tour this fall, with possible runs in Europe next year, Young said. Georgetown University Press is also releasing a book version of the play in November, which features essays by diplomats, artists and writers, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who knew Karski, wrote in a blurb for the book that the play is “an essential reminder of what can happen if we let fascism, misinformation, and prejudice triumph.”
Young spent a lot of time researching Karski’s life. Strathairn says Young was “the keeper of all things Karski” as work on the play has progressed over the years.
“He’s been our Wikipedia, our Britannica, our search engine extraordinaire. There’s probably no one out there who knows more about the man than Clark,” Strathairn wrote in an email to the Press Herald. “He has that very rare skill of sculpting the biographical and the historical into a deeply emotive, dramatically compelling, vitally informative, hour and a half in the theatre.”
THE PLAY’S THE THING
Young grew up near Back Cove in Portland and got involved with the creative arts early on. When he was in the fourth or fifth grade he became involved in Odyssey of the Mind competitions, where teams of youngsters are given a problem and have to come up with an original solution and present it in a public setting. At Deering High School he grew to love literature, with the help of several English teachers, and was very involved in school plays. Even in high school he was more drawn to intense, thought-provoking drama than to lighter fare or musicals. He remembers being involved in a one-act play adapted from three short stories by Ernest Hemingway.
He went to Georgetown to study theater and later got a master’s degree in theater from New York University. After college, he acted around Washington, D.C., for seven or eight years, appearing in more than 20 productions. He’s also taught theater at both Georgetown and Bronx Lighthouse College Prep Academy in New York City.
When Goldman contacted him about co-writing a play about Karski, about seven years ago, Young was playing Scuttle the seagull in a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” at a theater near Washington.
“When we started working on this play, I’d work on it during the day and then be squawking in a musical at night,” Young said.
As part of the writing process, Young researched Karski extensively, reading about him and also works by him. While living in America before the war ended, Karski wrote a book called “Story of a Secret State.” It was popular and did include his time witnessing Germany’s planned extermination of Jews. But it was taken by audiences of the day more as a spy story than a call to action, Young said. After that, Karski didn’t speak publicly of his experiences until the early 1980s, when he was asked to attend a Holocaust conference.
Karski was born in the industrial city of Lodz, in Poland, and was raised Catholic, Young said. One of his early memories was of his mother asking him to watch out for Jewish children in the area who might be bullied. When the Germans invaded and took control of Poland in 1939, he became a member of the organized Polish underground, a secret group trying to fight against and destabilize the Germans. He worked as a courier, delivering messages to dangerous areas. He was captured at one point, and tortured for information, but eventually escaped.
As a member of the Polish underground, he volunteered for a mission to assess the condition of Jews in the notorious Warsaw Ghetto. He spent a few days in the ghetto, and witnessed horrors: People were starving to death. New mothers were so malnourished they could not feed their babies. He saw dead bodies piling up in the street. Then, disguised as a Ukrainian militiaman, he spent a day inside a German transit camp, where Jewish men, women and children were shipped to death camps. He saw people beaten brutally and tossed into railroad cars.
Karski reported what he saw to Polish, British and U.S. officials. High-level members of the British government said they would pass on his detailed information to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the U.S. he met with Roosevelt, who asked a lot about Poland but didn’t ask about the treatment of the Jews, Young said. He also met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was born into a Jewish family in Austria and immigrated with his family to New York when he was 12. Frankfurter found Karski’s story too horrible to believe. So he chose not to.
There is a line in the play, credited to Frankfurter, in which Frankfurter told another U.S. official he did not believe Karski: “I did not say that he’s lying. I said that I do not believe him. These are different things. And my mind, my heart … they are made in such a way that I cannot accept. I know humanity. I know men. Impossible. No. NO! NO!!!”
In the play, the character of Karski sums up some of the lessons from his experiences, including that “Human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient” and “The common humanity of people, not the power of governments, is the only real protector of human rights.”
At its height, the Warsaw Ghetto held more than 460,000 imprisoned Jews. An estimated 300,000 were killed either in gas chambers or by bullet and more than 92,000 are estimated to have starved to death. The ghetto and death camps were part of the genocide at the hands of the Germans that claimed some 6 million Jews.
ONE MAN IN HIS TIME PLAYS MANY PARTS
Young and Coleman approached Strathairn about playing Karski soon after they began writing. Both had worked with him before and thought he’d bring the right combinations of qualities to portraying Karski, a complex character who did heroic things but never saw himself as a hero and was quiet about the most noteworthy parts of his life for years.
Strathairn, 72, brings with him a resume of movie and TV roles that stretch back 40 years. He’s no stranger to playing real-life figures, either. His Oscar nomination, for best actor, was for playing Edward R. Murrow in the 2005 film “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Recently he had a major role in “Nomadland,” which won the best picture Oscar this year and is based on the nonfiction book of the same name about people living a nomadic life in trailers and RVs across the country, largely retirement-aged people who can’t afford housing or retirement.
When asked what’s kept his interest in the project for seven years, Strathairn says it’s the power of Karski’s story.
“Who he was and what he did. What he exemplifies. What he stands for. The relevance and resonance of his words and actions not only then, but now. For our time,” Strathairn wrote to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “And it doesn’t matter whether it’s me or someone else who is telling his story. His is one of those lives lived which should be acknowledged, honored, and forever shared.”
Since working on this play, Young has transitioned to writing and teaching and no longer works as an actor. He’s also working on a play that is a fictionalized account of the people responsible for decapitating and preserving the body of Red Sox legend Ted Williams. (Williams was frozen after his death in 2002 at the request of two of his children.) In the play, two brothers who happen to be Red Sox fans work for the company charged with freezing “the Splendid Splinter.”
Young hopes “Remember This” not only entertains but makes people think about the questions Holocaust denial raises and the questions Karski himself raised in the last two decades of his life.
“One of the things his life makes us think about is what we do when something is wrong in the world and we have a say,” Young said.