Scratching the surface of a complex man

by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

Remembering. That was the most important tool Jan Karski had. The Polish-born Catholic, an officer in the Polish Underground during World War II, is best known as the first eyewitness to report to President Franklin Roosevelt on the nature of the concentration camps where incarceration, torture and extermination were carried out toward Hitler’s Final Solution.

On April 24, in advance of Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University presented a world premiere staged reading, Remember This: Walking with Jan Karski in the stained-glass setting of the campus’ Gaston Hall. The play dramatizes Karski’s life as a professor in the university’s School of Foreign Service for more than 40 years and looks back on his contributions as a righteous gentile — the honorific bestowed by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, upon those who risked their own lives to harbor or rescue Jews during the Holocaust and, in Karski’s case, to report on the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany, Poland and elsewhere.

The event, which included invited dignitaries from the Polish embassy, colleagues of Karski’s and current Georgetown students, coincided with the centennial of the late professor’s birth. Derek Goldman, professor of theater and performance studies, wrote and directed the piece drawing from interviews with those who knew Karski and Karski’s 1944 memoir, Story of a Secret State, detailing his experiences in Poland and on the run throughout Europe as a courier for the Polish Underground. A remarkable document, that memoir, which became a Book of the Month Club selection, was widely read as one of the first eyewitness reports on the conditions of the Jews and events of the Holocaust.

The play featured Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn as Karski, and an ensemble of seven Georgetown student performers, who play students eager to learn about their professor’s exploits and his indelible role in history. Strathairn, lanky with sharply etched features, has a remarkable resemblance to Karski, a tall, thin man with sunken cheekbones, the result of losing his teeth during a prison beating at the hands of Gestapo. Recalling Karski’s most important mission, Strathairn said as Karski, “I was a camera. I swore to do my work with impartiality.” His work was to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and the Belzec death camp to give eyewitness reports to the Allies, most significantly President Roosevelt.

For Peter Fanone, a 21-year-old junior majoring in theater and government, taking part in Remember This was a way to learn more about an exceptional figure. Fanone, an Alexandria native, noted that his father was a Georgetown graduate from the class of 1971 who spoke highly of Karski. “It was incredible for me to learn more about this story … it should be plastered on every wall and his life should be more well known.”

Joe Jeffs met Karski when the recent Polish emigre was a graduate student at the university. Then a library aide, later director of the campus library for 30 years, Jeffs recalled how Karski would come in at night and they would chat. His memoir had recently been published, and he confided in Jeffs that he was overwhelmed by the 100,000 letters he received from readers. “He felt he had to answer every one.” Jeffs, 89, recalled that Karski used the book royalties to hire a secretary to assist him. “Jan was a very modest man, he didn’t want to take credit for what he did … he also was never publically critical of Roosevelt. Maybe he could see Roosevelt’s side,” Jeffs said, alluding to the fact that Roosevelt declined to take definitive action to save Jews after learning of the ghettos and death camps.

Jeffs and Karski were lifelong friends but Jeffs, a World War II vet who landed at Normandy, never asked Karski to talk about his Holocaust and concentration camp experiences. “I felt that would be invading his privacy. What he wanted to tell he put into a book.”

For those who knew him (including this reporter), Karski, who died in 2000, was a man of great integrity. Yet he lived a quiet and unassuming life as a teacher and scholar, particularly considering he was often praised by world leaders. He loved and admired his wife, the Polish-born modern dancer and choreographer Pola Nirenska, who as a Jew lost more than 70 members of her family in the Holocaust. Karski was her greatest fan and built a dance studio in their Chevy Chase home. He collected and kept scrapbooks filled with gorgeous black-and-white photos of his wife and newspaper clippings about her dances.

Actor Strathairn, who hopes to perform the role of Karski again, said, “I didn’t become the man. I couldn’t do that. I gave a very cursory impression of him and hopefully as respectful as I could but I can only scratch the surface of such a complex man.”

Jan Karksi’s book, My Report to the World: Story of a Secret State has been reprinted by Georgetown University Press on the occasion of his centennial.

Visit http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/story-secret-state for information.

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