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Remembering Jan Karski


“Remembering Jan Karski,” is a companion piece to the remarkable film, “Remember This.” In a stunning one-man performance, actor David Strathairn portrays Karski, a Polish hero who tried to warn a disbelieving world about Nazi atrocities. Exploring Hate goes behind the scenes to interview the filmmakers and people who knew Karski and examines how his story continues to resonate today.


Their minds cannot absorb that it was really real. It was really so.

It becomes a myth.

I always felt that I was in the presence of nobility, of greatness.

You have to be willing to do the work in order to find out the truth.

He did the work.

So here is a man who alerted the world to genocide as it was taking place.

He felt that he was a failure in delivering the message.

I think he lived it every minute of every day.

He came to say I became a Jew.

I'm a Christian Jew, but I became a Jew.

♪♪ Jan Karski.

A man who told of the annihilation of the Jewish people while there was still time to stop it.

Rarely do we get an opportunity as performers to share this kind of material.

Our world is in peril.

Every day it becomes more and more fractured.


I experienced David's performance and was just blown away.

We can't imagine a more resonant story for this moment and for this time.

I asked Derek, 'Could I help you?'

'Could we capture this on film?'

♪♪ I ask you, what is your duty as an individual?

Every generation takes on a new revolution.

A lot have no idea who this man was.

So it is a kind of a gift to them.

And he did.

Jan Karski -- he came from a different place.

It was a place of dignity.

And integrity and a place of true patriotism.

I was struck by it because it was a story of failure.

And I find stories of failure to actually be more generative than stories of success.

They teach us what we've done wrong in relationship to what's happening in the world right now.

Then descends on one point alone, a man -- medals on his chest -- light glowing around.

I felt like there was a way that we could translate it on film in a way that was, you know, going to feel like a cinematic adaptation.

The scale and vision grew from a live capture of David with maybe three cameras.

We decided, 'No, let's film this like a movie.'

Turning the camera, in a sense, into kind of the extension of an experience that we'd built for an audience.

And seeing the kind of complementary, but also different rules and opportunities.

You know, it was a very intentional choice to shoot at single camera.

So there's not a cutaway in the piece.

We have no alternate angles that we can cut to, that we can work around if we find ourselves in a pinch with how we shot it or something.

So everything had to be worked out exceptionally precisely.

The camera follows David and get so close that you are just in Karski's world.

I understand my mission.

I am not supposed to have any feelings. I am a camera.

It's a dance, the piece in a certain way and in a sens, on film, that dance became, you know, so much about focal shifts, like the difference between looking into the camera and off the camera and off the aside.

It felt to me like he was moving through these sort of three different worlds in a way.

You know, there is this light world where there's the hope for like, you know, moral clarity and justice.

A poem by Mickiewicz.

I wanted us to like also then see Karski in this light gray sort of memory world.

And then there is this other world, which is this like black, dissociative, chaotic world where you are adjacent to all the atrocities that are happening.

One of the other choices in conjunction with that was to switch around the lensing.

So for those white worlds, we went with a very clean, clear, like modern lens. For those gray memory worlds and the black world, we switch to like a very flawed vintage lens that you know, contributed to helping you land yourself inside Karski's head a little bit more and to to feel like what his psychological state was at any given point in the story.

It was not part of humanity.

Carrying his lesson or his legacy -- it's a real privilege, but it's daunting.

To carry that weight of that man, of what he did forward.

Someone who did so much at such a young age and and yet learned through that process the power of his own insignificance in relation to the size of humanity and humanity's greatest crimes.

I taught at Georgetown University with Professor Karski, and I had all of my students see the Claude Lanzmann documentary 'Shoah.'

They saw him as an old man in what appeared to be a documentary, which they thought was taken, you know, 40, 50 years ago. Thought that he is that cannot be the same person that person who is in the show is dead.

After I showed that to my students, I would get a call.

Inevitably from Professor Karski in which he would say: 'Professor Berenbaum, you tell your students that I am very much alive.

There will be plenty of time for me to be dead.'

When I became president of Georgetown in 1989, I of course got to know Jan because he was so prominent in the School of Foreign Service. Classes ended at five.

And that's when the cocktail hour began.

And that was fine with me.

Karski was a diplomat.

He was educated as such.

He stood ramrod straight, always immaculately dressed.

I don't know whether David has ever worn such good clothes as Jan wore.

He was very European in dress.

Pocket handkerchief, always.

Part of the reason he was chosen as a courier was he had a photographic memory.

He used the language, 'I am a tape recorder.'

His name was Kozielewski, but 'Karski' became his courier name and stayed with him.

He was a heavy smoker, but somehow he talked himself into believing that if he smokes only the end of the cigarette, it's healthy.

It's still okay.

He is more than the president of the United States.

I see a lot of humanity.

Karski used to mimic Roosevelt.

Long cigarette.

Would go like this: 'You tell your people that we shall win the war, and then we shall do something about the refugees.'

And his response for that was, 'By then, it will be too late.'

Karski never wavered, never.

He knew that there is just one truth, no different takes on that.

He was willing to try to save people who were not coreligionists.

He was Catholic.

They were Jewish.

And that's part of the courage and morality of Karski.

We can organize for you to visit Jewish camp.

We can organize for you to visit Jewish camp.

He almost had no choice. He had to become a Jew, as he said, and he had to identify with the suffering people he saw.

Let's remember also the Warsaw ghetto was the capital of Poland.

So although they were not his coreligionists, they were citizens of his country.

♪♪ I had the unique privilege of speaking at his funeral in Saint Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the very spot where the coffin of John F Kennedy had stood.

As a tribute to Jan Karski the Jewish community of Warsaw had sent over a Jewish star.

We placed it in his coffin because he was the voice of the Jewish community of Warsaw when they desperately needed a voice.

[Reciting Kaddish] And I had the opportunity to recite the Jewish mourners prayer, the Kaddish, perhaps the first time that the Kaddish had been recited in the cathedral.

And one of the very few times the Kaddish had been recited for non-Jewish person.

If I was looking for a definition of righteousness, I would just say Karski.

Now, I remember... There was a sort of underlying sadness about him rather than being triumphant about his courageous ventures into the Warsaw ghetto.

There was a sadness about the fact that he hadn't broken through to President Roosevelt, to Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, to the American public.

They either didn't want to believe or might have believed, but felt it was inconvenient to believe.

It didn't make sense that a country of Bach and Beethoven of of Kant, of Heidegger and Hagel would be capable of doing such things.

How could they become? We presume that that was going to be a barbaric act. So we dismissed it.

Karski somehow seeing it and being in Poland in 1942, he understood it ahead of time and really he understood what was happening.

I don't think that a lot of the victims, a lot of Jews understood what was happening.

Probably those who understood died, because they, they lost any kind of hope.

You know, the hope was in many cases what would carry people to survival.

This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time.

It haunts me now and I want it to be so.

When he said I want to be haunted by this, he never wanted to forget what he had seen, what he had tried to accomplish, and what from his perspective, he had failed to do.

It's a powerful idea to want to be haunted by something and to make that choice.

And it took Karski, I think, a while to say that. He said it in 1981.

He thought that he had written two pretty good books.

Karski's memoir, 'Story of a Secret State,' which he wrote, you know, before the war ended.

That was a book of the Month Club, a bestseller.

But what he really had done was teach a great many students who would never forget him.

For years, Jan Karski's students at Georgetown University knew he was a great professor.

What they didn't realize was he was also a hero.

Alone on stage, dancing barefoot, a girl, Polish girl of outstanding beauty.

Her name is Pola, Polish girl named Pola. Pola Nirenska.

He married a very beautiful, very talented dancer of Jewish origin.

It was a terrible, terrible affliction.

For him when she took her own life in 1992.

She lost something like 16 members of her family in the Holocaust.

And I think finally it was just too much.

Try to imagine the people who see their loved ones dragged away to their deaths every day.

There are those moral, ethical, personal questions and challenges that Karski raises.

And if you're working in the theater, you're constantly thinking about: 'What do we need to bear witness to today?'

And now we have this 'Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Jan Karski Today' that we've been developing at Georgetown.


It plays a huge role in our lives because it conveys social meaning and language... There are these all these sort of different touch points that come from Karski's life, resonates in these students.

And then these students are sort of going out in the world in different ways.

They're really motivated by his sense of action and a sense of purpose.

We need figures like Karski in the world.

And there are so many.

And one of the best parts about teaching the course is that students come in.

They come in from all over the world.

They come in from all disciplines, and they talk about their Karski's.

I stand here not as a prophet but as a humble servant.

I compared Jan Karski to models like Nelson Mandela on our continent.

It felt impossible for them to overturn sort of this powerful, large structure that was oppressive.

And the fact that they tried is a surprise and a miracle in a sense.

♪♪ You think about the status of truth.

How do we know what to believe?

The sense of disinformation ation and of competing and alternate truths is so pervasive and such a crisis in the world.

But in particularly, I think, in the lives of students as they're trying to process and understand who to be and what to do When I walk past the bench, I remember.

I get a feeling of what it means to be brave and to try hard to do something good.

If there is no effort at allied intervention.

Within the year, the Jewish people of Poland will cease to exist.

For me, it was not only the importance of this Holocaust story and this one individual, but the lessons that he represented.

I feel like it's incredibly relevant to what we're experiencing around the world.

Misinformation, disinformation. Who do we believe?

Who do we know is telling the truth?

What is the truth?

How relative are these truths to each other?

One line in the film that human beings have infinite capacity... Have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.

And how do we stay engaged?

Interested? What can we do?

I think the best way to honor Jan Karski's memory, his courage, his morality.

We can't all be Jan Karski's.

They're few and far between.

But it does mean speaking out when you see injustice not turning a blind eye.

We need to interrogate.

We need to grapple. We need to acknowledge. all those young All those I am reporting to are very important people.

And I am an insignificant little man.

Bearing witness and talking about the truth and being honest about the truth and the things that we're seeing.

Those are the things that enable us to have a future.

And my hope is that it enables us to have a just future.

We don't, I think, have false illusions that a work of art is going to radically change some of the core issues that this play asks us to think about or grapple with.

But just as Karski did, I think significance comes from then individuals who, in witnessing it, find themselves taking more or different responsibility or wanting to live with some of the values and principles that Kasrki insisted on and espoused.

And that to me, as an artist, that feels like enough.

I'd like to read something that Jan wrote: 'I am old and no longer strong I don't need courage anymore.

So I teach compassion.'

How wonderful.



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