Festival d'Avignon - report

The man who tried to stop the Holocaust

Frédéric Nauczyciel/Centre Dramatique National Orléans Loiret

Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat, risked his life to tell the free world about the Holocaust in 1942 - but no one listened. Arthur Nauzyciel has turned a novel about Karski’s life into a play for this year’s festival.


Karski's paternal and maternal grandfathers, both from Poland, were deported to Auschwitz as well as an uncle and cousins. Miraculously, they survived.

“In French, they don’t say survivors. For some reason they’re called revenants, which means ‘they came back’ but it’s exactly the same word you use for ghosts,” said Nauzyciel


The novel, by Yannick Haenel, elaborates on the true story of Karski’s visit to London and Washington with fictional inner monologues. Working for the Polish underground during World War II, Jan Karski visited the Warsaw Ghetto and had himself smuggled into a concentration camp.

The experience would haunt him for the rest of his life. If you google Karski on YouTube you can watch his moving testimony in the documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzman.

Arthur Nauzyciel begins his play with that same testimony, reading the words of Jan Karski himself.

As well as diplomatic skills, Karski had a hero’s credentials for the all-important trip to the West to save Poland. He had demonstrated his intelligence and fortitude after being captured by the Russians and the Germans.

By hiding his identity he had avoided execution by the Russians in the Katyn massacre but was severely tortured by the Gestapo. To avoid talking, he had tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. A resistance group rescued him from the hospital.

Members of the Polish underground asked Karski to visit the Jews in Warsaw so that his report would be accompanied by eyewitness testimony.

Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka has made a film for the second part of the play, which follows Karski’s journey into the Ghetto on a map while an off-stage voice recounts the horrors he witnessed.

Dossier: Festival d'Avignon 2011

Nauzyciel and his company visited the Ghetto and Auschwitz before rehearsing the play. “It’s one thing to say there’s nothing left of the Ghetto in Warsaw. It’s another to go there and see that there is actually nothing left. It takes seven hours to work around the perimeter of what used to be the wall surrounding it, said Nauzyciel.”

The formidable Laurent Poitrenaux plays Jan Karski in the third part of the play. In a series of tortured monologues he describes his marathon of meetings in London and Washington, culminating in his visit in July of 1943 to President Roosevelt.

After the war, Karski tries to rebuild his life. He becomes a teacher and marries Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew whose family died in the Holocaust. But Karski remains obsessed with that moment he met Roosevelt.

An insomniac always waking at 3am, he fears he might forget the report committed to memory so many years ago. European Jews were not yet doomed, he insists, over and over again. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions could have been saved.

Most historians say that the only way to stop Hitler’s war against the Jews was to defeat Nazi Germany. But why was there never a strategy to stop the Holocaust?

It’s a terrible moral question, still unanswered.

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