Film About Legendary Georgetown Professor and Holocaust Witness Jan Karski Premieres on PBS
Remember This, a feature-film starring Academy Award-nominee David Strathairn that explores the life and legacy of Jan Karski will premiere on PBS on March 13. The film is based on the stage production Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, which was created by Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics, directed and co-authored by The Lab’s artistic and executive director Derek Goldman.
Karski, a Polish World War II hero, spy and diplomat best known for being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and providing some of the earliest reports on Nazi atrocities to the Western Allies, taught International Relations on the Hilltop for more than 40 years.
“Karski bore witness to the worst of humanity and revealed firsthand what happens when nationalism and populism turn to extremism,” said Goldman. “The example of Jan Karski speaks directly to our current moment, and is an inspiring and timely account of the importance of individual responsibility and moral action in the face of hatred and injustice.”
Goldman, a professor in the Department of Performing Arts, co-wrote the stage play with his former student Clark Young (C’09), adapting Karski’s own words to deliver a profound impact on audiences around the world.
Karski’s Testimony and Tenacity
A soldier who escaped from a German POW train, Karski joined the Polish resistance in 1939 and began acting as a courier for the Polish government-in-exile. With the help of the Jewish underground, Karski was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and into a Nazi camp. He provided detailed, firsthand accounts of Nazi atrocities to the Polish, British and American governments.
Sadly, Karski’s message fell on deaf ears, with Allied leaders doing little to address the realities of the Holocaust. In 1943, Karski met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office to apprise him of the on-the-ground realities in Poland. According to Karski, President Roosevelt didn’t respond to any of the details about the Holocaust, but only discussed victory for the Allies and the United States’ commitment to liberating Poland.
After the war, Karski remained in the United States and, in 1952, he was appointed to the faculty at Georgetown, where he earned his Ph.D. Karski went on two State Department-sponsored speaking tours and received numerous awards, recognitions and tributes over the years. Karski taught at the school until 1992. He died in 2000 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2012.
The Road to Remembrance
In 2014, Georgetown University enlisted Goldman to develop a theatrical project commemorating Karski as part of the centennial celebration of his life. Originally envisioned as an ensemble production, Goldman, Strathairn and Young realized the potential of a one-man show in 2019.
“This ultimately felt like the right form,” Goldman said. “Karski’s story has so much to say about the difference an individual can make. His life is defined by an unimaginable singularity of experience.”
Sponsored by Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the one-man show debuted in 2019 to acclaim.
“I was deeply moved to witness this brilliant production, anchored by David Strathairn’s astonishing performance, which captures the soul of Jan Karski,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California) after the opening performance.
In the ensuing four years, critics and audiences around the globe have praised Stratharin’s performance and the story of the incredible man he portrays.
“One of the things that is most remarkable in David’s performance is not just his Karski – but the dozens of other characters he embodies, some for only a flicker – and how specific and fully embodied each is,” said Goldman. “This extends the theme about individuals further – that implicitly each of us, as Karski said, has the capacity to be good or evil.”
Strathairn has performed Remember This in London at the 75th Anniversary Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in an extended run Off-Broadway at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, at The Wellbeing Summit in Bilbao, Spain and most recently in a series of performances across Poland.
Remembering on the Hilltop
At Georgetown, Karski’s presence is still felt. Outside of White-Gravenor Hall sits an iconic bench with a lifelike statue of Karski playing chess.
A course within the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Jan Karski Today, explores Karski’s resonance with the present day and with students across cultures and disciplinary perspectives. Co-taught by Ijeoma Njaka (G’19) in collaboration with Goldman and Young, the class invites students to not only examine Karski’s legacy but to activate their own ideas around moral courage, respect for others and bearing witness to history.
“Given that Professor Karski chose to teach for 40 years here at Georgetown, it truly is an honor to teach around his story and see current Georgetown students engage with his legacy,” Njaka said. “Students connect Karski’s lessons to antisemitism and racism as well as climate change, allyship and political polarization that they see today. It is special to see how Karski still matters to our current students.”
Airing nationally as part of the PBS Great Performances series, Remember This will be accompanied by a companion film, Remembering Jan Karski, that features behind-the-scenes interviews with Georgetown faculty, alumni and students.
Remember This will also be available to stream on PBS platforms for 30 days before a re-broadcast as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 16. The script of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski is available in a special volume from Georgetown University Press, accompanied by contributions on Karski from Madeleine Albright, Samantha Power, Timothy Snyder and GU faculty Aminatta Forna, Deborah Tannen and others.
-by Hayden Frye (C’17)