By Jakob Cansler
This article was first published in DC Theater Arts here.
On Saturday evening, January 21, nearly nine years after beginning work on its first iteration, Georgetown professor Derek Goldman introduced a preview screening of Remember This, a new film based on the play of the same name that began right here in Washington, DC.
Remember This tells the true story of Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish government-in-exile during World War II who survived the Blitzkrieg and witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust. He took his eyewitness reports to the British Foreign Secretary and President Roosevelt when there was still time to intervene. Needless to say, they did not.
As in the stage production, the film version of Remember This raises questions of personal responsibility and moral courage through a solo performance by Academy Award nominee David Stratharin, who portrays Karski.
“All of us have been fueled at each turn by our sense that Karski’s story is urgently relevant for our current moment, that this is as much a current events project as a historical one,” Goldman said at Shakespeare Theatre, in front of a sold-out crowd that included the Polish Ambassador to the U.S., members of the creative team who had worked on both the stage production and the film, and former students of Jan Karski.
Now, Karski’s story exists permanently in the film Remember This, which has so far been selected for and won awards at numerous film festivals, will play in theaters nationwide, and will be featured as part of PBS’ “Great Performances” series later this year.
But while Remember This now has a global reach that includes a stage production, a film, a course curriculum, and a book, it began locally, with a one-off show at Georgetown University.
The year was 2014. Goldman had been asked to create a theater project about Jan Karski. He reached out to Clark Young, a former student, to collaborate on the project.
“He [Goldman] asked me to join partially because I was living in his basement at the time, and partially because he thought I had something to offer,” Young joked during the screening’s post-show discussion. “My first question was: ‘Who was Jan Karski?’ And I learned that I’ve been walking by his statue for four years and never bothered to even stop and look.”
That statue sits on Georgetown’s campus — similar statues are also in New York City, Warsaw, Krakow, and Tel Aviv — where Karski was a professor in the School of Foreign Service from 1952 to 1992.
During that time, his story wasn’t well-known. In fact, Karksi didn’t tell his story publicly until 1981, when he served as the keynote speaker at the International Liberators Conference, a gathering in Washington, DC, for concentration camp liberators to record their testimonies.
After his death in 2000, though, the movement to make his story known to the world picked up steam, culminating in the Karski Centennial Celebration in 2014. The original version of Remember This, originally titled My Report to the World, was created for that centennial through Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, a program, co-founded by Goldman in 2012, that encourages Georgetown theater students to engage in international politics.
“We created a piece with [Strathairn] and an ensemble of Georgetown students that then took on a bit of a life of its own,” said Young in an interview. “We were invited to Warsaw. We worked there. We had a residency with the Museum of Jewish Heritage.”
It wasn’t until 2019 that My Report to the World became Remember This — now a one-person show — which performed at Georgetown for the centennial of the School of Foreign Service.
From there, the show performed, in collaboration with Human Rights Watch, for one night only in January 2020 in London. That’s where Eva Anisko, a film producer, saw it.
“I was deeply affected by the performance,” Anisko said after the recent screening. “It was so in my core that I just felt everyone has to experience this.” Immediately after seeing it, she reached out to Goldman about a potential film.
Meanwhile, Remember This was set for a series of international performances in 2020. Those performances were not to be — the pandemic put the play on the shelf but cleared the way to film that summer.
Since then, the reach of Remember This has only grown. Strathairn has performed the play in DC, Chicago, and New York City over the past two years. In 2021, Georgetown University Press published a copy of the script alongside essays by leading thinkers including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, among others.
Now, after a run at festivals, the film is set for its premiere on January 27, to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day, in theaters across the U.S. — in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and more — and on PBS’ Great Performances on March 13.
Meanwhile, the team is still committed to continuing with the stage production. Over the next two weeks, it will be performed in four different cities in Poland.
“I think that ultimately the goal is for this thing to be seen by as many people as possible, as we feel that the story is so urgently important,” said Young.
Indeed, every member of the team has echoed a similar sentiment — that Jan Karski’s story is so remarkable and so resonant that they feel compelled to continue telling it. As a result, what started as a one-off performance at Georgetown seen by a small number of people has grown into something much bigger, experienced by tens of thousands of people all around the world.
“Every once in a while, David, Derek, and myself … we kind of look at each other and say, ‘can you believe it?’” Young said. “I think if you told us [in 2014], there would be few things more rewarding than to hear that this story will be seen and experienced by many, many people.”