The British premiere of the play on the life of Jan Karski

It is no coincidence that on January 27, the day when ceremonies commemorating the liberation of the German Death Camp in Auschwitz were occurring all over the world, the British premiere of the monodrama dedicated to Jan Karski and his mission took place in London.

The play, “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” was performed in the 800-seat historic People’s Palace Hall in Queen Mary’s University, in East London.  The auditorium  was filled to the brim with an invited audience who came to watch a solo performance by David Strathairn, the American actor and Oscar nominee for the film ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ The monodrama was directed by Derek Goldman from the University of Georgetown in Washington, where Jan Karski had been a lecturer for over 40 years.

Picture 1: David Strathairn, who took the role of Jan Karski, enthusiastically applauded by his audience at the end of his solo performance. Taking photos during the performance was forbidden.

The whole monodrama lasted an hour and a half, and audience was impressed by David Strathairn’s acting talent and, in particular,  his ability to engage with and so convincingly enter into, another character. He was able to show in an extremely moving way the tragedy of a man who wanted to alert the Allies to German crimes and the tragedy of the Holocaust victims, but the world did not want to listen. The reactions that the courier of the Polish Underground State met with were utter disbelief or blatant indifference.

Afterwards, there was a discussion concerning the ethics of human behaviour between the audience and the panel of experts, including the director, Derek Goldman, Professor Penny Green form the International State Crime Initiative, Meenakshi Ganguly from Human Rights Watch and the actor, David Strathairn. The discussion was expertly moderated by the popular BBC News presenter, Razia Iqbal.

Picture 2: From the left: Razia Iqbal, Meenakshi Ganguly, Penny Green, Derek Goldman and David Strathairn, the actor who played Karski.

The director Derek Goldman said to the British Poles portal about the British premiere: “It was so meaningful for us all to be in London to share Karski’s story and to have such a warm response (…) Of course we would love to return to London with the show, ideally for a proper run at some point. It’s a genuine honour for us to share the story with new friends who are so deeply connected to this history”. 

This play was staged previously in ensemble form in the USA (in New York and Boston), once in Poland in Warsaw (in 2014 at the Imka Theater, on the occasion of the opening of the Polin Museum), and today had its British premiere as a monodrama in London. Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, the President of the Jan Karski Foundation, recalls: “London was a very important place for Karski’s missions. After his escape from occupied Poland, he arrived there in December 1942, not only as a courier of the Polish Underground State but also as a witness of the horrendous atrocities of the Holocaust, the martyrdom, hunger and degradation of Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Izbica transit camp (…) He was shocked, and determined to report what he saw to Free World leaders. He risked his life travelling through occupied Europe and was able to reach representatives of the British government and parliament. The lack of reaction in London forced both the Polish government in exile and Jan Karski to undertake another mission and journey. This time, Karski flew to the United States to meet the world’s most powerful leader of the time, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Karski was only 29 years old at that time. His mission and determination, however, proved to be futile.”

The indifference Karski encountered from those in power proved a huge influence on his entire life. In one of his university lectures in 1981, he said: “I am a practising Catholic and although I would not like to offend anyone or say anything that would sound like heresy, I would like to confess that  my faith keeps telling me that humanity has committed ‘original sin’ once again. This sin will be haunting all of us until the end of time. This sin haunts me all the time, and I feel that is right.”

Picture 3: Professor Antony Polonsky, Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University is asking a question during Q&A discussion time.

In the USA, Karski described his dramatic experiences in a book entitled “Story of a Secret State,” originally published in 1944; it became a bestseller with sales reaching 400,000. Karski began to receive invitations for lecture tours about the genocide and tragedy of Poland during WW2.

His book was first published in Poland 55 years after the first American edition and was entitled “Secret State”.

Maciej Kozłowski, the author of the Karski biography entitled “Emissary: the history of Jan Karski” said years later: “It would be difficult to find another man who felt so deeply, bitterly, and painfully, the abandonment of Poland by the Allies during World War II.”

Despite his personal feelings, Jan Karski remains an icon of integrity, heroism and dedication for his contemporaries. Karski’s mission proved to be futile, but his personality and character have become for us an icon of morality and a model of determination in fighting for human dignity and rights. The standing ovations the audience gave David Strathairn in the title role is the best proof that Karski’s message will never die.


Written by Maria Byczynski

Translated by Jolanta Pitera

Pictures: British Poles

The statements cited in the article were used with the consent of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation.