The Theater for a New Audience is staging Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski. Playwright Derek Goldman is Georgetown University Professor of Theater and Performance Studies “with a joint appointment in the School of Foreign Service as Professor of Global Performance, Culture and Politics.” His “mission” is “to harness the power of performance to humanize global politics.” Playwright Clark Young was a Georgetown student of Goldman. Young went on to teach high school. Goldman requested Young’s help in crafting a play about Jan Karski, who had taught at Georgetown. Previously, Young had known nothing about Karski.
Remember This reflects its origin as a play written by an American who didn’t know much about Poland and a professor with a political agenda. An ad for the play features Nancy Pelosi and Jamie Raskin, both of whom participated in the impeachments of Donald Trump. Other featured respondents include Aminatta Forna, a writer of African and Scottish descent; Azar Nafisi, an Iranian-American writer; other, unnamed black men and women; and a smattering of unnamed, young white people, perhaps students.
The Theater for a New Audience “was founded in 1979 by Jeffrey Horowitz with the mission of creating contemporary productions of Shakespeare and other works considered classics … that would appeal to more diverse audiences … Black Lives Matter. We … are committed to identifying, uprooting and dismantling white supremacy.”
David Strathairn stars as Jan Karski. Strathairn was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Good Night and Good Luck. In that 2005 film, Strathairn played journalist Edward R. Murrow during his 1953 conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Strathairn has supported Democratic candidates, including Kirsten Gillibrand and Barack Obama.
Remember This is a biographical sketch of Jan Karski, with most attention devoted to his work as a Polish underground operative during World War II. Karski met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office on July 28, 1943. Karski’s report is said to be the first eyewitness account of the Holocaust received by Roosevelt.
Karski’s mission and subsequent events are often summarized thus: Karski was “one man who tried to stop the Holocaust;” he failed because Winston Churchill and Roosevelt didn’t care; the Allies did nothing to save Europe’s Jews.
Strathairn’s performance is the most compelling feature of Remember This. He is, by turns, urbane, amusing, agonized, clever, overwhelmed, and crushed. Though this is a one-man show performed on an almost bare stage, Strathairn compels throughout. He exhibits intense physicality, acting out being tortured, escaping from captivity, and meeting with a world leader.
Before the play begins, and after the play ends, Strathairn earnestly addresses the audience, not as a celebrity, but as a fellow citizen. The world is in trouble; people are selfish; powerful forces are tearing us apart, he says. What can we, as average citizens, do to conquer evil and make the world a better place? His addresses are clearly meant to communicate that this play about a man whose most famous deeds were performed seventy-nine years ago, a man who died in 2000, is acutely pertinent to the people in the audience.
Remember This is now a film. No doubt this film will be used in classrooms throughout the world to educate students about the Holocaust. Students will be encouraged to ask what they might have done in Karski’s shoes, and how his example has encouraged them to work to make the world a better place.
After the September 25, 2022 performance, the theater hosted a talk featuring Bianca Vivion Brooks and Joshua Harmon. Playwright Harmon’s most recent project, The Bedwetter, addresses comedian Sarah Silverman’s incontinence. Brooks, an African American woman, has written for National Public Radio and the New York Times. She is also a podcaster.
In the talk, Harmon acknowledged that he had never seen the play till that afternoon, and many of its historical facts astounded him. Brooks commented that she could understand Karski because she is an artist and Karski was an artist. Karski was in fact a military officer, an underground operative, a diplomat, and a university professor. Brooks also said that she could understand Karski because he had lived through World War II, an historical event, and she had lived through COVID, an historical event. Just as Karski had been a self-described “human camera” who recorded Nazi atrocities, Brooks said, she had photographed persons in face masks on the subway.
Audience members asked what had inspired Karski, how people keep going against impossible odds, and how ideas of God play into discussion of the Holocaust. Both discussants shrugged at these questions, and acknowledged that they lacked answers. Brooks said that she thinks the world may end soon.
Many reviewers relate Remember This to Donald Trump. A New York Times reader wrote, “It’s a story which must be told again and again … in light of a large segment in this country having been captured by the vitriol of demagogues who have brainwashed them. Dividing and weakening American Democracy. Diminishing human rights, controlling the media, spreading anti-immigrant and xenophobic hate, mixing a stew of propaganda and lies, removing the rights of women to control their own bodies, and on and on. This play could not be more timely.”
In his poorly-written review, the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman commented,
“As this reporter writes these words, it is just another day in the universe right-wing politicians are seemingly intent on hurtling us toward — groups of migrants sent out of sheer political spite to Democrat-run towns and cities; and a debate and vote delayed in the Senate on marriage equality because the Republican votes in its favor are not there … the Supreme Court … is now Republican-dominated and just struck down Roe v. Wade. The concern — bolstered by Justice Clarence Thomas’ stated animus — is that marriage equality is now unsafe too; hence the need for this vote, and the depressing confirmation that Republicans will do all they can to stymie it. All of these events flow through one’s mind with Strathairn’s introduction; his caution that we are far down the ski slope to authoritarianism — and what responsibility do we have to counter its poison. It should be a foreign country that this rings in our ears as a warning about, a faraway equivalent of the Germany of 1932. But it is now, here, in the relentless attacks on democracy by former President Trump and his acolytes.”
Polish critics of Poland’s current conservative government also use the play as a cudgel to bash their opponents. Justine Jablonska writes, “Today’s Poland has veered away from Karski’s message of unity, humanity, and hope, embracing antisemitism and nationalism, declaring that the LGBTQ+ community is ‘an ideology worse than communism,’ and enacting oppressive anti-choice laws.”
Ijeoma Njaka “serves as the senior project associate for equity-centered design at the Red House and the inclusive pedagogy specialist for the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown. She specializes in inclusive pedagogy and anti-bias education.” The Red House “confronts systemic injustice.” Njaka, along with playwright Young, has created school materials entitled, “The Legacy of Jan Karski Today.” One way to bear witness is to resist Islamophobia. “Voices of Muslim Identity” combats America’s “violence towards Muslims.” Another production depicts the Pledge of Allegiance as a hypocritical text. “The creation and sharing of art is inherently political,” the project’s website states.
The reservations I voice below are in no way a criticism of Jan Karski, a hero above reproach. Rather, my criticisms address how facts are massaged to serve a narrative that I believe to be both inaccurate and unhelpful.
I am the author of Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype. This book examines how a stereotype of Poles distorts Holocaust history. This stereotype is pertinent to Remember This, pertinent to how Karski is being used by leftists, and pertinent to American politics.
The Brute Polak stereotype depicts Poles as stupid, brutal, drunken, and hateful. Remember This traffics in the Brute Polak stereotype. Approximately fifteen minutes into the play, Karski identifies Poles as drunks. He implies that Poles are stupid and that Jews are intelligent; he says he relied on Jewish students to help him with his science schoolwork. Karski described himself as a “good” Pole and a “good” Catholic, in opposition to “bad,” “brutal” Poles and Catholics. Karski alludes to the numerus clausus, a controversial measure designed to address inequity in interwar Poland. A disproportionate percentage of Poland’s white collar professionals were Jews, with the majority of Polish Catholics being poor peasants. Quotas were put in place to increase the number of Polish Catholics at university. Remember This states that no Poles objected. This is false; many Polish Catholics did object to the numerus clausus and other incidents of interwar anti-Semitism. See, for example, Jerzy Kluger’s memoir. Kluger records Poles taking action against anti-Jewish discrimination in schools.
But, you may be thinking, how can Remember This traffic in stereotypes? It celebrates Jan Karski, and not some dirty, brutal Polish peasant. He was a diplomat and a professor at an elite university. And, you may be asking, what does it matter to Americans if a play stereotypes Poles? I hope to answer both questions.
Jan Karski is comparable to Sidney Poitier. Poitier became a superstar when lynchings still occasionally took place. Even some racists liked Sidney Poitier. They used their acceptance of Poitier as a criticism. That Poitier, a black man, could be rich, successful, dignified, law-abiding, articulate and intelligent just proved that other black men were responsible for their own debased status.
At conferences and on discussion boards dedicated to Polish-Jewish relations, Karski is described as the lone, “good Pole” and “The one man who tried to stop the Holocaust.” “That he tried to do something, and no one else did, proves that the Poles could have stopped the Holocaust, and they didn’t!” In other versions of this discourse, Karski is proof that all gentiles are bad. “The world could have done something, like Karski, to help the Jews, but the world stood by and did nothing, because no one cares about Jews!”
Those singling out Karski for praise, while damning the rest of the world as passive anti-Semites, choose Karski exactly because of his social class and his aristocratic bearing. In the same way that Sidney Poitier was not a typical black man in the 1950s, Karski was not a typical Pole in the 1930s. Karski’s father was a businessman. The Karski family had powerful connections, and Karski was able to attend university and complete a master’s degree. He traveled internationally as a youth. He was on track to become a diplomat, but, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September, 1939, he became a military officer, and then an underground operative. His service was unique, heroic, and cinematic. His heroism was utterly unambiguous. He had a personal meeting with Roosevelt. He went on to become a published and bestselling author, and a beloved professor at a prestigious university. He is the star of the most celebrated documentary of all time, Shoah. Karski was tall and slender. He dressed impeccably. He had an aristocratic bearing. In short, Jan Karski is a celebrity that even those who cling to the Brute Polak stereotype can love.
If the well-traveled, highly educated, military officer Jan Karski is not the typical Pole of 1939, who was the typical Pole? Poland regained independence in 1918, after over a hundred years of hostile, exploitative, and near genocidal colonization by Prussia, Austria, and Russia – a highly pertinent historical detail never mentioned in the play. Serfdom had ended in Poland in the 1860s. Literacy rates in eastern and southern Poland were as low as thirty percent. In 1939, at least seventy-five percent of Poles lived on farms. World War I did more damage to Poland than to other European countries. Remember This repeatedly refers to Poland as an “empire.” This is nonsense. The Poles invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939 were largely poor, hungry peasants unused to having any power at all.
In Poland, under Nazi occupation, any help to Jews – including so minor an act as providing Jews with drinking water – was punishable by death, not just for the helper, but for family members and those who knew of the help but did not report it to occupying Nazis. There are documented incidents of hundreds of Poles executed for helping Jews.
The family Bible of Catholic peasants Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma contains lines underlined in red. These lines advised love for one’s neighbor, love for enemies, and the Good Samaritan parable. The Ulmas sheltered eight Jews in their home. In retaliation, Nazis shot the six Ulma children in front of their parents and neighbors, who were forced to watch. Next the Nazis shot Wiktoria, nine months pregnant, and her husband. In spite of this, villagers in Markowa continued to hide Jews until the end of the war.
Soviet Russia invaded Poland from the east on September 17, two weeks after the Nazi invasion. Russian communists also murdered Poles who helped Jews. In 1940, Witold Pilecki volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz in order to gain information and organize resistance. His reports were sent to the Allies. He was part of the anti-Soviet resistance after the war. Communists captured him. Soviet-trained Roman Romkowski supervised Pilecki’s torture. Pilecki told his wife that Auschwitz was nothing compared to what the communists did to him. Communists paraded Pilecki in a show trial, executed him, and buried him in an unknown location.
In the post-war period, communists arrested, tortured, and murdered many Poles who resisted Nazism. Communist Helena Wolinska-Brus was part of a team of communists who persecuted and ultimately murdered August Emil Fieldorf. As a commander of the resistance, Fieldorf had ordered the successful assassination of an SS officer. In the post-war period, Wolinska-Brus accused Fieldorf of being a “fascist-Hitlerite criminal.” Communists disseminated propaganda, in Poland and abroad, denigrating Poles who fought against Nazis. This communist propaganda adhered to, and strengthened, the Brute Polak stereotype.
Wladylslaw Bartoszewski, after he was released from imprisonment in Auschwitz, became active in Zegota. Zegota was the only government-established and supported underground organization in a Nazi-occupied country whose reason for existence was to help Jews. After the war, attempting to continue his work against anti-Semitism, Bartoszewski was imprisoned by communists.
All these accounts inform us that to help Jews in Nazi-occupied and then Soviet-occupied Poland was a risky endeavor. Karski’s meeting with a US president and his career at a prestigious university was not the typical end result of resistance. Further, most helpers were less glamorous, and their heroism involved ethically ambiguous choices.
Franciszka Halamajowa was a 54-year-old plump, gray-haired peasant woman who sheltered sixteen Jews. She never advertised her heroism to the wider world. I know about Halamajowa only because of a little-seen, low-budget documentary, No. 4 Street of Our Lady. Nazis allotted to Poles starvation rations designed to starve millions of Poles to death. Under such conditions, one can only guess how Halamajowa, relegated to starvation by occupying Nazis, managed to feed sixteen Jews. She also had to dispose of sixteen people’s waste everyday. How she did this without discovery is difficult to fathom. Some of her neighbors knew what she was doing; she had to negotiate with them to survive.
Before they went to Halamajowa, a member of the Judenrat discovered the Jews Halamajowa would later shelter. That Jews were forced by Nazis to betray their fellow Jews through the Judenrat is horrible enough. This Judenrat member was able to find numerous hiding Jews because Lifsha Malc, a toddler, was crying. The Judenrat member took the crying toddler to the Nazis, to spare the remaining Jews in the hiding place. This Jewish man, temporarily surviving under Nazi terror, sacrificed a toddler to save the lives of others. Later, in the hiding place Halamajowa prepared, a girl named Chashke made too much noise. Her fellow Jews gave her a cyanide capsule so that her noise would not expose them all. Heroism was not always as pure as it is depicted in Remember This.
Stefania Podgorska, teen rescuer of thirteen Jews, was dismissed as a “goyka” by one of the people she rescued. “I felt so bad, my heart felt like it was being squeezed,” she would later say about the insult. Those rescued were not always unambiguously grateful to their rescuers.
Heroism can be a messy, complicated business. Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz alluded to how complicated heroism really is in his poem “Ocalony” “Saved.”
“Virtue and vice weigh the same
I have seen:
A man who was
vicious and virtuous.”
Yad Vashem, applying stringent criteria, including that helpers not profit from help – many helpers did receive funds from those they helped – currently lists 7,177 “Righteous Gentiles” from Poland. The true number is larger and will never be known. As is often observed, it took only one criminal Pole to hand a Jew over to the Nazis. It took countless Poles to remain quiet or to invent alibis to save the lives of Jews.
My late friend Dr. Roman Solecki survived by passing as a non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland. He was a member of the underground Home Army, and his fellow soldiers knew he was Jewish. They risked their own lives by shielding him. Oswald Rufeisen’s Holocaust memoir recounts incident after incident where Poles recognized him to be Jewish. Often these were nameless strangers he had just met. In a typical incident, a German would approach Rufeisen and accuse him, and a Polish stranger would step forward and say, “No, he’s not Jewish. I’ve known him for years.”
“Well,” you may be thinking. “You are just being churlish. So what if Americans find it easiest to embrace the aristocratic celebrity Karski, and not a drab old peasant in a house dress like Franciszka Halamajowa, or the tortured, doomed fighters buried, by communists, in mass graves, like Pilecki and Fieldorf? What’s the problem?”
This is the problem. Remember This distorts history. Karski was not the first Pole to report the Holocaust to the West. Poles had been trying for years to get Americans and Brits to pay attention to atrocious Nazi crimes. Auschwitz was established in 1940. Its first prisoners were Poles, and it continued to be a camp primarily for Poles for almost the first two years of its existence. Einsatzgruppen murdered 65,000 Polish teachers, priests, members of the nobility and ordinary civilians in the four final months of 1939.
The Polish White Book, which evolved into The Black Book of Poland, debuted in 1940. Eventually, beginning in 1941, these books make clear that they document “organized mass murder practiced by the Germans, a phenomenon to which there is no parallel in the history of mankind.” To the Nazis, “The Jew is not a human being at all … It is not Hitler alone who is responsible for all the many crimes the Germans have committed in the course of the present war against Right, Justice and Humanity, but millions of his followers.”
Before Karski, Home Army soldier Stefan Korbonski reported to the West, including the news of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Polish government-in-exile publication The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland is dated December, 1942.
Karski is depicted as if he were Gary Cooper in High Noon. This “one man against an evil empire and world indifference” image enhances his heroism and sparks audience excitement. It also serves the narrative that no one cared about the Holocaust because no one cared about Jews. Anti-Semitism was a worldwide plague in the 1930s, but it is not true that no one except Karski was risking his life to resist the Holocaust.
In fact Karski was one of tens of thousands of members of the underground in Poland, including men, women, and children, and uncounted numbers of Poles who engaged in whatever “maly sabotaz” – “minor sabotage” they could, including something as simple as drawing a graffiti of an anchor. Karski’s own bestselling book locates him as one of many. His book’s title is Story of a Secret State. The title is not a reference to one, isolated man, but rather to a nation, Poland – the very Poland missing from, and distorted in, Remember This.
There’s a bigger problem with the play’s image of “drunken,” “brutal” Polaks who “did nothing” when confronted with anti-Semitism versus Karski, whom American playwrights who acknowledge that they don’t know much about Poland choose to designate as their hero exactly because he is not the typical Pole. The people who believe in the Brute Polak stereotype completely distort World War Two history. There is an ongoing attempt, documented in my book and on my blog, to lift Holocaust guilt from Nazi Germany and to place it on primitive, rural, Polish, Catholic peasants. By extension, the people who do bad things in the world are not modern, urban sophisticated elites – that is, like those most likely to attend an off-Broadway play. The bad guys are, rather, backward, lacking formal education, rural, and they are religious.
In fact, though, Nazism was very much the product of a modern, secular, scientific democracy. Germany was one of the most advanced countries in the world. People like us, people with formal educations, people who lived in cities and could read and write and who had access to hygiene and modern plumbing, believed the most hideous and destructive lies. Men with clean fingernails, like the dapper Reinhard Heydrich, damned millions of human beings to diabolical torture. The Nuremberg Trials produced a poignant and confounding quote. Judge Michael Angelo Musmanno wrote of the Nazis he condemned,
“The defendants are not untutored aborigines incapable of appreciation of the finer values of life and living. Each man at the bar has had the benefit of considerable schooling. Eight are lawyers, one a university professor, another a dental physician, still another an expert on art. One, as an opera singer, gave concerts throughout Germany before he began his tour of Russia with the Einsatzkommandos. Another of the defendants, bearing a name illustrious in the world of music, testified that a branch of his family reached back to the creator of the Unfinished Symphony. It was indeed one of the many remarkable aspects of this trial that the discussions of enormous atrocities … [were] constantly interspersed with the academic titles of the persons mentioned as perpetrators.”
Note that Musmanno associates wickedness with “untutored aborigines” and expresses shock that educated men could become Einsatzkommandos. That is the logic of the Brute Polak stereotype. In documentaries like Shtetl and Shoah, the villainous Poles are the ones with dirty fingernails, the one slopping hogs, the ones who speak in unsophisticated syllables, the ones with religious statuary in their homes. Sure, there were plenty of bad Poles who shared these qualities with their fellow peasants. But there were plenty of heroic Poles who had dirty fingernails, and who slopped hogs, and who spoke in unsophisticated syllables, and who were deeply Catholic. The insistent push to conflate Nazism with Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and to use the Brute Polak image for this historical revisionism is inaccurate. Nazism was distinctly not just not Christian, but anti-Christian.
There’s another huge distortion in Remember This. Remember This unquestioningly supports Claude Lanzmann’s classification system: German perpetrators, Polish bystanders, Jewish victims. Classifying Poles as “bystanders” and not “victims” is false. For more on Poland during World War Two, see this book or even just this Wikipedia page.
A naïve viewer could walk out of Remember This convinced that Jan Karski was the only person in the world who cared about the Holocaust, and that President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were unmoved by it because the victims were Jews. The play gives the impression that Churchill and Roosevelt manned electric switches than, when flipped, would have stopped the Holocaust in its tracks.
The diabolically quick Operation Reinhard had begun in October 1941 and would end in November, 1943. Between August and October, 1942, 1.32 million Jews had already been murdered. The play does not specify what the Allies could have done in July, 1943 to intervene in the Holocaust. The only potential action the play advances is for Jews in the Allied countries to undertake public hunger strikes. Such hunger strikes would not have stopped the Holocaust.
Further, one must remember that Jews were not the only victims of fascism. As previously mentioned, Poles were targets as well. They were shot by Einsatzgruppen. They were imprisoned in Auschwitz and Dachau. They were tortured and the subject of medical experimentation. They were gassed. Poles were slated for eventual biological extinction.
There is no equivalence here; Nazis murdered approximately sixty percent of Europe’s Jews, and no such percentage of Polish Catholics died. The point is, rather, that if the world showed “indifference” to suffering, it wasn’t just Jewish suffering the world could not solve with a magic switch. The six-week-long period of mass rape, murder, and torture that came to be known as The Rape of Nanking began in 1937. The world did not stop it. The Nazi Aktion T-4, that is the organized mass murder of handicapped Germans and others, preceded the Holocaust. The world did not stop it. Nazis killed, in various ways, including starvation, shooting, exposure, and gassing, over three million Soviet POWs. The world did not save them. Before the Holocaust began, Einsatzgruppen murdered tens of thousands of Polish civilians. The world did not save them.
Yes, anti-Semitism was a rising world force in the 1930s, for complex historical reasons. That is true in the United States and certainly in Roosevelt’s state department. But anti-Semitism alone doesn’t explain why, after Karski’s visit, Roosevelt did not flip a switch and end the Holocaust. The primary reason is that neither Churchill nor Roosevelt had any such switch. Those who doubt this need to acquaint themselves with D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, and also with the conditions under which Red Army soldiers fought. D-Day was a massive and highly risky undertaking. The Battle of the Bulge showed Nazi Germany’s ability to fight even after D-Day. Those unaware of conditions for Red Army soldiers might watch this brief scene from a film about Stalingrad. “The one with the rifle shoots. The one without a rifle follows him. When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one without a rifle picks up the rifle and shoots.” In short, defeating Nazism was immensely difficult. It involved the expenditure of billions of dollars and the sacrifice of millions of soldiers.
My friend Alex Bensky reports that alternative history groups he frequents argue that if the Allies had militarily opposed Nazi Germany when it demanded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, all the future carnage could have been avoided. Alex points out that the Czechoslovak armed forces, with help, had a fighting chance. I wish that that had happened. But we will never know if that is true.
Does any of this matter to American viewers of Remember This?
The Brute Polak stereotype conflates evil with features of rural life. Remember This contrasts “good Poles” like Jan Karski, urbane, educated, well-traveled, with “brutal” “drunken” stupid “bad Poles.” In the Brute Polak stereotype, Bad Poles are rural, they are dirty, they lack formal education, they are religious, they are “primitive.” In America, the best and brightest all too often insist that the bad people are the rural people, the religious people, people lacking formal education. White trash, trailer trash, rednecks, are very like Brute Polaks. They are the dangerous people who cling to guns and religion, as Barack Obama said.
Note the calls to action from the creators of Remember This. Viewers are to use Karski as inspiration to silence any criticism of jihad or gender apartheid; such criticism is “Islamophobia.” Viewers of this play are to regard Trump supporters as a clearly defined “other” we must demonize, marginalize, accuse and fear. We are to deny that the fetus in the womb is human, that her heart beats, that she feels pain. We must cringe when called upon to recite the pledge of allegiance. If we remark that open borders exacerbate rather than solve human misery, we are the enemy. If we do not want our tax dollars to underwrite school problems that encourage white children to regard their skin color as a permanent taint, we are not like heroic Jan Karski. If we do not want our tax dollars underwriting school programs that encourage children to mutilate their bodies, even though other children who have undergone such changes sob in regret for amputated body parts they can never regain, we are analogous to the Nazis resisted by Jan Karski. A Polish journalist, the above-quoted Justine Jablonska, can come to regard rural, Catholic Poles, her own fellow nationals, as the enemy, just like the Nazis, because they disagree with her about abortion.
I have not found materials related to Remember This that recommend that secular pro-choicers sit down with religious pro-lifers and discuss abortion. I have not found materials that recommend that those who abhor Trump sit down with Trump supporters to discover the common humanity that they both plainly share. Rather, I have found the othering quoted above. The message is not just that there are “good Poles” and “bad Poles.” There are good and bad people.
Remember This is a one-man show with almost no set – just a table and chairs. It lifts Karski out of his milieu. Karski is not Polish; he is an abstraction. He is not in wartime Poland; he is on a blank stage. Remember This is a cipher into which any narrative can be poured, and its makers want their vessel to serve a narrative that privileges the left and others the right.
During the post-play talk by Bianca Vivion Brooks and Joshua Harmon, Brooks was wearing faux Roman sandals, the kind with straps that crisscross up the calf. The straps were studded with rhinestones. I’m sure Brooks is a lovely, serious person, but, sitting so close, I became fixated on the frivolousness of her footwear after such a well-meaning but deeply flawed play on so serious a topic.
Brooks and Harmon clearly meant well, but their comments struck me as inane. I asked myself why they were on the stage. Harmon is a Jewish playwright, but Jewish identity alone does not qualify one to comment on so weighty a matter. Brooks is a black woman, and, as the theater’s website states, “Black lives matter.” Awareness of what one is talking about also matters. Brooks’ comment that living through COVID is comparable to living through World War Two in Poland was not enlightening.
Powerful people decided that these two discussants were entirely appropriate for Remember This. Similarly, Aminatta Forna, a woman who identifies with Sierra Leone, and the Iranian Azar Nafisi, as depicted in the production’s online trailer, are entirely appropriate discussants for Remember This.
Audience members repeatedly asked Brooks and Harmon where God was, where hope was, where inspiration could be found. What set of beliefs aided Karski in his heroic deeds? Brooks and Harmon shrugged and said that they did not know, and, indeed, they did not. Brooks said that she thinks it’s the end of the world.
I sat there, holding back my tears for when I got home, and I stared at the rhinestones on Harmons’ sandals.
My father was born of a Polish peasant couple. My mother was Slovak. My parents had little money but sacrificed a great deal to send six children through Catholic school; my parents were laborers but they drilled us, the kids, in “Please, Excuse me, Thank you;” my father and brother served in the military: Bog, Honor, Ojczyzna. God. Honor. Country. In Poland, I witnessed how Catholicism, a sense of honor, and patriotism were like food. These values got people through hardships that many outside of Poland would find unimaginable, and unendurable. Many rescuers cited Polish honor and Catholic faith as their inspiration and their sustenance through the hells they had to endure. My friend Roman Solecki was ethnically Jewish and, I think, an atheist. But he had the same sense of implacable honor, duty, and service that inspired his Catholic fellow soldiers.
Jan Karski was raised as I was, on the values of Bog, honor, ojczyzna. In a film clip shown during Remember This, Karski is interviewed. Behind him is a statuette of what appears to be a white knight on horseback. Polish children are socialized to idealize their ancestral knights who were victorious at Grunwald, the largest battle in Medieval Europe, who defeated the Turks at Vienna on September 11-12, 1683, and who defended the fatherland in 1939 and again under communism. We are taught to be patriotic. We are taught to be proud of ourselves and our heritage. We know that the best men, men like Witold Pilecki, sometimes are consigned to anonymous, mass graves. We worship a God who ended badly as well. We believe in resurrection. Indeed, the values that inspired and nourished Poles through Nazism and communism are the values many leftist champions of Remember This demonize. Patriotism is scary “nationalism.” Religion is scary irrationality. Honor gets in the way of ethical innovations like trans pronouns.
You can read the introduction to Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype here, and you can watch a video presentation of some of the book’s main ideas here. Polish collaborators with the Nazis and Poles who committed atrocities against Jews are addressed here.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.