JCC Blog & News

My Hero – Janusz Korczak

access_time July 15, 2020 - By Erin Levine-Krynock

EAS Blog Post by Deb Smith

Children are not future people, because they are people already…Children are people. -Janusz Korczak

Do you have someone you look up to? A hero?

My hero is Janusz Korczak, and I would like to tell you a little bit about him.

First, look at the two Korczak Memorial pictures below:

Korczak Memorial in Warsaw, Poland

Korczak Memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel

What do you notice in both memorials? Korczak is with children. How is Korczak posed with the children? He is protecting them. In the memorial from Yad Vashem, what is the expression of the children?

Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit on July 22, 1878 in Warsaw, Poland. He was born into an assimilated Jewish family. His father was a lawyer and the only source of income for the family. His father died in 1896 and the family was left without an income. Korczak became the breadwinner for his mother, sister, and grandmother.

He first used the name Janusz Korczak when he entered a literary contest in 1898. The name came from the book, Janusz Korczak and the Pretty Sword Sweeper Lady by Joef Ignacy Kraxzewski.

Korczak studied medicine from 1898-1904 at the University of Warsaw and also wrote for several Polish newspapers. During the Russo-Japanese War (1905-1906), he was a military doctor. During the war, he decided that he would rather be a teacher than a doctor. Following the war, He worked in a Jewish children’s hospital and took groups of children to summer camps, and in 1908 he began to work with orphans.

Children’s hospital

He met his closest associate, Stefania Wilczynska (Stefa), in 1910. She would be his partner in his work with the care and education of orphans. Korczak was made the director of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw on Krochjmalna Street (1912).

Krochmalna Street orphanage

Korzcak was able to implement his educational ideas, using his methodology to educate the orphans to lead responsible lives and to be responsible for each other. He believed that children should be understood, that one should enter into the spirit of their world and psychology, but that, first and foremost, children must be respected and loved, treated as partners and friends.

-From the book, The King of Children-A Biography of Janusz Korczak by Lifton

Korczak’s medical services were needed during WWI, and the Polish-Soviet War from 1919-1920.

Following his medical military service, Korczak devoted his time to children. He started a newspaper for Jewish children in 1926 and had his children’s book, “King Matt the First”, was published (1923). This time in his life was quite productive. In addition to everything else he was doing, Korczak was in charge of two orphanages, served as a teacher at boarding schools and summer camps, and as a lecturer at universities.

This is the story of a young king’s adventures. It also describes many social reforms for children.

In the mid 1930’s, the death of the Polish dictator, Jozef Pilsudski, brought openly antisemitic powers into leadership. Because of this antisemitism, Korczak was removed from a number of his positions. His children’s radio show was also cancelled due to antisemitism.

At the start of WWII (1939), Korczak decided to join the Polish army, but due to his age he stayed with the children in the orphanage. In November 1939, German authorities forced every Jew to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. Korczak refused to acknowledge the German occupation and refused to wear the armband. For this, he spent some time in jail.

The only thing that gave him (Korczak) the strength to carry on was the duty he felt to preserve and protect his orphanage, where old rules continued to apply, it was kept clean, the duty roster was observed, there were close relations between the staff and the children, an internal court of honour had jurisdiction over both children and teachers, every Sunday a general assembly was held, there were literary evenings and the children gave performances. http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/korczak.html

The Germans created the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and Korczak was forced to move his orphanage to the ghetto. Korczak had friends on the ‘Aryan side’ of the ghetto that offered him shelter. He continually refused these offers saying that he could not leave his children. Food was the biggest concern that Korczak and Stefa had for the children. Korczak went door to door begging for food, clothes and medicines for the children.

During the time in the ghetto, Korczak was fighting old age and frail health, but he did all he could to make a better life for the children in the orphanage. His notes and observations were written down in his diary, which was published in 1958.

Orphans tend a local garden.

Koczak with one of his teachers and some of his children.

On August 5, 1942, the Germans deported Korczak, Stefa, 12 other staff members, and his children (200) from the orphanage at 16 Sienna Street (relocated from Krochmalna). This three-mile march was witnessed by Emanuel Ringelblum:

This was not a march to the railway cars-this was an organized, wordless protest against the murder.

The children marched in rows of four, Korczak was at the lead, looking straight ahead and holding a child’s hand on each side. There was a second column led by Stefa, the third column led by Broniatowska with her children carrying blue knapsacks on their backs, and the fourth column led by Sternfeld from the boarding school on Twarda Street. No one knows what happened on that railway journey, but once they arrived at Treblinka, they were all murdered.

The memorial at Treblinka has 17,000 jagged stones. Each stone has the name of a town that Jews were deported from.

One stone bears the name of Janusz Korczsak. He is the only person named on the memorial.

Read the following poem written in memory of Janusz Korczak.

5.8.1942 (The day Korczak died. In Europe, the day goes first: 5 August 1942.) In Memory of Janusz Korczak Jerzy Ficowski (1924-2006) (Translated by Keith Bosley)

What did the Old Doctor do in the cattle wagon bound for Treblinka on the fifth of August over the few hours of the bloodstream over the dirty river of time

I do not know

what did Charon* of his own free will the ferryman without an oar do did he give out to the children what remained of gasping breath and leave for himself only frost down the spine

I do not know

did he lie to them for instance in small numbing doses groom the sweaty little heads for the scurrying lice of fear

I do not know

yet for all that yet later yet there in Treblinka all their terror all the tears were against him oh it was only now just so many minutes say a lifetime whether a little or a lot I was not there I do not know

suddenly the Old Doctor saw the children had grown as old as he was older and older that was how fast they had to go grey as ash

*Charon is a figure from Greek mythology responsible for ferrying the dead souls across the river Styx in the netherworld.

Why does the author repeat the phrase ‘I don’t know’?

What did Korczak do for the children in verse three?

What is the message the poet is trying to send in this poem?