The story of Jan Karski, Polish hero, premieres at Jewish Film Fest

‘Remember This,’ first a one-man play, debuts as dramatic one-man film

In “Remember This,” the stark, one-man play, now a one-man film playing at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, American actor David Strathairn tells the story of Polish war hero Jan Karski with nothing but a table, two chairs and his prodigious skill.

Karski, a diplomat and soldier during World War II, vowed to bring accounts of the slaughter of Jews and others to Western allies but was caught and tortured. He escaped and completed his mission, but he was ignored by Western powers.

Later he immigrated to the United States and taught at Georgetown University for 40 years. Karski didn’t speak of his war-time mission until French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann tracked him down, interviewing him in 1978 for the exhaustive Holocaust documentary, “Shoah.”

He also spoke in 1981 at an international conference for those who liberated the concentration camps.

The play was developed in 2014 through Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics to celebrate the centennial of Karski’s birth. The film grew out of an effort to spread that story to a wider public and uses the same stark setting: One man, a table and two chairs. Atlanta’s screening will be its Southeastern premiere.

Laboratory founder, co-writer and co-director Derek Goldman never met Karski, who died in 2000, nor did Strathairn. But through studying film, recordings and interviewing his many former students, Strathairn captured his personality, and even his voice. (Karski’s jaw was broken during beatings by his Nazi interrogators, leaving him with a unique speech pattern.)

“From the very first reading I had people coming up to me, shaken visibly, saying it was like (Karski) stepped out of the grave,” said Goldman, who also directed the play. “There was some just serendipity, some resemblance, but it was deeper than that, right from the beginning.”

Goldman said he was drawn to Karski’s story because of the way it generates empathic connections that transcend issues of race and religion.

“There’s something for me about the way this particular story both is, and isn’t, a Jewish story: He’s a Catholic. It’s a story about ally-ship, about witnessing,” he said.

The fact that Karski met with many Western leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and yet most did little to intervene, caused him to refer to himself as a failure.

Strathairn, in an email, said, “It is deeply disturbing that his report to the world of the horrors of the Holocaust was dismissed at the time and may seem futile, but his legacy as a teacher, inspiring people to interrogate our history and perhaps avoid repetition of our mistakes, is nothing short of hope.”

Part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, “Remember This” screens 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta; 7:40 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 12, Georgia Theatre Company Merchants Walk, 1301 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta; 11:55 a.m., Monday, Feb. 13, Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. $18. AJFF.org