Jan Karski

For LP

Lili Pohlmann and David Strathairn after his incredible performance

Over a week has passed since Holocaust Day. 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz there is a great danger that people are forgetting – indeed some of us cannot remember, because we did not live through those times then – but that is splitting hairs. You do not have to witness everything personally to know and to suffer, together with your forebears and ancestors, “man’s inhumanity to man”.

I’m not going to dwell here on all the awfulness of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, looking around at the world today, we know that not enough has been dwelt on the suffering of the past. Not enough has been taught, not enough empathy has been developed, not enough education, sensitivity, care or recognition have been encouraged. People are still fomenting hate, anger and violence towards anyone who looks or thinks or behaves differently. No lessons have been learnt.

So when the week before last I was very kindly invited by Mrs Lili Pohlmann, an authentic survivor of those excruciating times, to attend a play about one of Poland’s greatest heroes, I jseized the chance.

It was on Monday evening in the Grand Theatre Hall of the People’s Palace at Queen Mary’s University in Mile End. The end of the earth as far as I was concerned because I had never been there before. It was cold and wet and windy – quite apposite, I suppose, but I am soft. Luckily I met some friends who drove me from the station, and in we went. I was not expecting the place to be so imposing or so full. Almost 800 people to see one man perform the life and extraordinary works of another man.

And what a performance. David Strathairn was the very embodiment of Jan Karski. 90 minutes on stage. Always mobile, he grew from a very little boy to a diplomat to an adventurer to a courier to a broken (not quite) man to a university lecturer. Karski was a man who had a story to tell. A true story. A horror story. The most awful story. And he told it to many important and influential people. Yet, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, his story fell on deaf”-ish” ears. If they believed his account of the ghettos and the concentration camp they did nothing. Roosevelt didn’t even want to listen.

His bravery was, even under physical torture, immense. His photographic memory tortured him to the end of his life. From childhood he had been trained to be kind, to observe, to do the right thing. This attitude never left him – for forty years after the war he taught at Georgetown University, and always spoke of his experiences:

David Strathairn’s performance encapsulated the man in his entirety. You couldn’t hear a pin drop throughout the show – all eyes were riveted to the stage. People who were at this performance who had actually known Jan Karski were astounded by how “like” he was.

After the play there was a fascinating panel discussion including David Strathairn, Derek Goldman, the co-writer and director, and Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch, Professor Penny Green, and Baroness Arminka Helic, moderated by Razia Iqbal. There were many questions and comments from the floor – it could have gone on for hours. But we were yet to be treated to canapes and drinks and another performance. This time to a piece of equally moving music performed by Victoria Gill:

The evening was a very important one for everyone who was there, both of Jewish and non – Jewish ancestry. Possibly more important for the latter many of whom still cannot quite believe the horrors that people went through. This evening we were starkly reminded of the fact that equal horrors are being suffered by the Rohingya people in Myanmar, of previous genocides in other parts of the world, and that we still flutter our hands helplessly. It is very shaming, and humbling, and my admiration goes out to the Laboratory of Global Performance and Politics who have made it their mission “to harness the power of performance to humanise global politics.”

Thank you, dear Lili, for inviting me and opening my eyes a little bit more.

Note, Please read the photos with writing in them. They are taken from the programme of the play.

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