News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

April 26, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Telling a difficult story

Terre Haute playwright captures the tragic, heroic saga of ‘the man who tried to stop the Holocaust’

TERRE HAUTE — Arthur Feinsod struggled to vocalize lines from his own play, “Coming to See Aunt Sophie.”

He wrote it in the 31 days of December. His voice broke as he recites the dialogue. Its tragedy overwhelms him. It hits close to home, spiritually.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Feinsod said, shaking his head in a busy downtown Terre Haute diner.

Yet, he knew the importance of theatrically telling the story of Jan Karski. “It’s a story of courage,” Feinsod said, “or maybe what true courage is.”

A World War II courier for the Polish resistance, Karski risked death to deliver his own eye-witness reports of Nazi atrocities in the Holocaust to the Western Allies. He’d been a rising officer in Poland’s military until war devastated his country in 1939. As the underground resistance to the German Nazi occupation of Poland solidified, Karski accepted covert missions to see the horrific situations and relay his findings to the world. He snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto, where Nazis imposed a mass starvation of Jewish people. He disguised himself as a guard at the Izbica transit camp and saw the Nazis cram Jews into railcars, bound for their deaths. Captured by the Gestapo, he lived through a suicide attempt, escaped, and continued on.

Karski survived his assignments, left Poland and took his findings to Western leaders in 1942. He told British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. “Sadly, his message fell on deaf ears,” as a biography by the Karski Educational Foundation puts it. His inability to convince those powerful men to intervene directly to stop the Holocaust tormented Karski until his death in 2000, Feinsod said.

Karski remains a hero in Poland. In his own heart, though, the humble Karski remained troubled. His heroic, dangerous mission did not accomplish its goal of getting FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to intervene and bomb train tracks leading to the Auschwitz death camp. “He considered himself a failure,” Feinsod said of Karski, “and was haunted by what he saw in the Warsaw Ghetto.”

A 1994 book was titled, “Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust.”

The play, “Coming to See Aunt Sophie,” deals with Karski’s painful memories. It will be performed next month in Germany and Poland by the Crossroads Repertory Theatre, a professional theater company based at Indiana State University, where Feinsod serves as a professor of theater. The Museum of Polish History and the Karski Foundation are co-sponsoring the performances at historic sites in the country. The production will tour the Wabash Valley in July.

The play’s title is drawn from the secret code phrase Karski used to safely encounter fellow members of the Polish underground through Nazi-occupied Europe. Its plot takes the audience back to a 1978 interview with French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, when Karski hesitantly broke decades of silence about his experiences. Karski was then a professor at Georgetown University. Lanzmann persuaded Karski to tell his story in a documentary “for the historical record,” Feinsod said.

Feinsod’s play opens with that interview. A small cast of actors re-creates Karski’s discussion with the filmmaker and the haunting images of his past life.

In the sunny, middle hours of a morning last week, Feinsod illustrated the dark scenes Karski faced. It was Thursday, when Feinsod told me the story — the 100th anniversary of Karski’s birth on April 24, 1914, in Lodz, Poland. Our conversation took place four days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins tonight and concludes Monday night.

Karski was in his late 20s when he infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto. He entered through a tunnel, led by a Jewish man who didn’t survive the systematic starvation. He saw starving children in the street, begging, running from armed Hitler Youth.

Those teenage Nazis would stick their guns into windows, shoot indiscriminately, “and then laugh whenever they hit someone,” Feinsod explained, pausing to gather his own emotions. “They would give the equivalent of a high-five whenever they heard a scream.”

The face of one of those starving children, a 4-year-old boy, permanently seared Karski’s memory. The youngster walked up and touched Karski’s hand.

In writing his play, Feinsod interviewed a 90-year-old woman who was once Karski’s next-door neighbor and who became an acclaimed Polish writer, herself. She recalled Karski telling her, “I see that little boy’s face every night before I go to bed.”

That haunting guilt, and Karski’s incredible effort, strike a nerve in Feinsod. His Jewish roots extend to Poland. His father’s family lived in Bialystok. Feinsod’s great-grandfather came to the United States as a stowaway on a ship, jumped overboard in the New York harbor, swam to shore and began a life as a tailor. His illiterate great-grandmother entered through Ellis Island, unable to spell her Polish name and, thus, the officials stamped her maiden name, Feinsod. That was in the early 1900s. If they had stayed in Poland, they likely wouldn’t have survived the Holocaust. The Bialystok population in 1940 stood at 60,000 — the same size as Terre Haute. By 1945, it was 6,000.

Feinsod’s father fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. The elder Feinsod came upon a cold, wounded fellow soldier, who begged him for help. To survive, the injured man needed a skilled medic, which Feinsod’s dad was not. “The face of that one man haunts him all the time now,” Feinsod said.

Karski lived with regret, too, Feinsod said.

To survive as a courier, Karski was trained by the Polish resistance to be genteel. An edgy, disagreeable demeanor could get a messenger killed.

Thus, in trying to convince Roosevelt, and others in the United States and Britain, of the Nazi atrocities, Karski never lost his composure, even when they failed to grasp or believe his accounts. Nearly a half-century later, in that interview with Lanzmann, the French documentary maker, Karski questioned his younger self about his nearly two-hour session with the American president. The play captures the older Karski interrogating younger Karski. “He’s saying, ‘Why was I so polite to FDR? Why didn’t I hit FDR on the shoulders? Why didn’t I vividly describe what I saw in those railcars?’” Feinsod said.

YouTube.com video clips of Karski’s breakthrough 1978 interview with Lanzmann reveal his internal struggle. Karski and his wife, a Polish Jew, had long avoided speaking about the war years in their home, Feinsod said.

“He was a true tragic hero,” Feinsod said. “Jan Karski was a man who was walking a very lonely road,” he added.

Statues commemorate Karski in Poland and America. Preserving his story theatrically is important, Feinsod said, to show the capacity of the human spirit. “To me, it is a great model to the world,” Feinsod said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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