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1/28/2024        REMEMBER THIS:  THE LESSON OF JAN KARSKI        Theatrical Outfit                                                       


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This play is a document of a failure.  It is a common trope that “we learn from our failures.”  But is that always the case?


In 1943, Polish diplomat Jan Karski bore witness to the ongoing inhumanity of the Nazi “Final Solution.”  He was a courier for the Polish underground who experienced torture at the hands of the Gestapo, witnessed the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and even saw a “Transition” facility that “warehoused” prisoners prior to transport to the Bełżec Death Camp.   He is reported to have had an eidetic memory (“I am a camera.  I am a tape recorder.”) and brought his report to Allied leaders in London and in Washington, even to Roosevelt himself.


In essence, he brought news of the Holocaust to the west while there was still time to stop it.


In essence, he brought his witness to a bureaucratic infrastructure who chose to believe but to ignore.  When the truth is inconvenient, pretend it isn’t so.  Though many believed the Jews were no longer alive, they chose to believe they were not dead.


So, have we learned his lesson?  Have we learned to embrace our common humanity, to choose compassion over hatred, to honor our differences even if those differences are rooted in diametrically opposed beliefs and values?

On the same day I witnessed this extraordinary play, a conservative friend posted on Facebook  – “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?”  Every single response was along the lines of “Biden” or “Liberals” or “Democrats” or “gays” or some other “other” group standing in the way of “Making America Great Again.”


I myself wanted to respond with “Misinformation.”  Or “Disinformation.”  Or “Anger.”  Or “Cruelty.”   Or, even more basically, “Violence.”  But I have a policy of never putting politics onto social media.  The best I can do is to ignore posts like this that sadden me to the core.  To accept that half my friends disagree (vehemently) with the other half and none (on either side) have any interest in mediation or peacemaking or finding common ground or listening to anything that contradicts all they know and hate in their heart of hearts, “facts” that their chosen “information well” feeds them hour after hour after day after day. 


That is the real failure of Jan Karski’s mission – not that he couldn’t make the ongoing holocaust a reality for those in a position to stop it.  The real failure is that we haven’t learned from his failure.  We.  Haven’t.  Learned.


I first learned of this play last summer when I watched a video adaptation of it on PBS’s “Great Performances.”  In that, actor David Strathairn creates an astonishingly complex and compelling portrait of a man experiencing the worst of mankind yet retaining his optimism in the perfectibility of man.  There are no bad governments or countries – only men (at the time there were so few women in positions of power) making choices that result in bad things  -- choices that may seem insignificant in the face of the total tapestry of events – “I’m voting for this candidate because they say they’re on my side and the other side is evil.”  But, when magnified by the millions of “small choices” that seem so logical and so right, the world explodes, a people vanish from the earth, and we are left wondering, “What could I have done?”


This is essentially a monologue, the actor playing Karski also plays those with whom he interacts.  In Theatrical Outfit’s remarkable production, Andrew Benator gives a bravura performance as he lives Karski’s odyssey, his struggle, his failure.  The staging, the set, and even the lighting of the New York production that was filmed by PBS, are skillfully re-created here.  Director (and co-playwright) Derek Goldman (who was also instrumental in creating the video version) creates an adaptable space that Mr. Benator inhabits as easily as he inhabits Karski.


It is significant that this was the first time in my (admittedly failing) memory that an entire sold-out audience remained silent and rapt and engaged for the entire ninety-minutes of the play.  I found myself leaning forward through most of it, so eager to not miss a word.


So, let me recap a few highlights of Karski’s life:


Karski was Catholic, not Jewish.   He was one of eight children, some of whom “disappeared” following the Nazi invasion.  He reunited briefly with his sister, whose own family were murdered.  My research tells of a brother who survived Auschwitz and the war, moved to America, and ultimately committed suicide, though the play does not mention him.  It does mention his marriage to a Polish (and Jewish) dancer, Pola Nireńska, 20 years after he first saw her dance in London.  Most of her family perished in the Holocaust, and she, too committed suicide.  After the war, Karski became an American citizen and a professor at Georgetown University.   He was featured in Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Shoah, a short clip of which opens this play (though he denounced the documentary for being selective and incomplete).   He was awarded (posthumously) The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As part of his mission, he conveyed his report to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (who refused to pass along his report to Churchill), to  Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish member of the Polish Government in Exile (who committed suicide when it was obvious all of his efforts were fruitless), to Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (who could not believe him but knew he wasn’t lying. -- “I know men!  I know humanity!”), to President Franklin Roosevelt (who squeezed him in before his “next meeting”).  Roosevelt’s told Karski that his solution was to win the war --“[By that time] the Jewish people of Poland will have ceased to exist.”


His entire mission, to rally the Allied governments to step in and stop the slaughter, was a total failure.


And yet …


In 1944, Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board to rescue and resettle persecuted Jews (which is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of lives), which he did based on Karski’s report.


But yet …


Even today, populist leaders, demagogues, rise to power based on scapegoating and engendering hatred for specific groups.  Even today, common people of every political persuasion use social media to spread rumors and conjecture and intimations of the “evil in the other.”   Even today, anger is a much more attractive choice than compassion, or understanding, or even silence.


The play ends with the actor talking to us directly, in his own voice:


What can we do?    What can you do?    What can I do?


Do we have a duty, a responsibility, as individuals … to do something, anything?


Karski said, “Great crimes start with little things … You don’t like your neighbors.   You don’t like them because they’re different.   Avoid this.  Avoid disliking people.  Don’t make distinctions.”


But how do we know what to do;  how do we know what we’re capable of?


How do we know what to believe?   How do we know what to believe in?


Is there anything we can do that we’re not already doing?


These questions haunt me now …


And I want it to be so.


I too remain haunted by these questions, by my own impotence in the face of public inhumanity.  By wondering if my own “information well” is as tainted as that of those with whom I disagree.


I, like Jan Karski, find a glimmer of hope in optimism, in the POSSIBILITY of the redemption of humanity.  I point to the rapt silence and attention of this play’s audience as evidence of this possibility.  And I cling (desperately) to that possibility.

     -- Brad Rudy (    #toRememberThis  )

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