As August 5th approaches, my thoughts drift to Janusz Korczak, a Jewish and Polish hero who lived and died a principled man of ethics, commitment and dedication. His is a lifetime of accomplishments that deserve to be remembered in their own right. Revered before World War II for his work in child psychology, his life is a blessed memory and has earned a special place in modern Jewish history. Many know of his dying, but few know of his rich life and its influence on the lives of children, even today.
On August 5, 1942, Janusz Korczak accompanied the children from his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, where they were murdered by the Nazis. Because he refused to abandon those children, he is now a legend.
Born Henryk Goldszmit to a middle class assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw, Korczak’s father was a successful lawyer. His grandfather was a doctor and his great-grandfather had been a glazier. (Korczak, like his great-grandfather, would open windows to the world and give light to others). He also had a very attentive loving grandmother early in life. His “Granny” would feed him extra snacks of raisins and tell him he was a “little philosopher.” She always gave him assurance of his worth. Much of the day, young Henryk spent his time alone daydreaming and playing with building blocks…even after other children had outgrown them. He and his father would stroll along the Vistula River in Warsaw, where he developed a strong love for his city and its river.
This happy childhood, however, abruptly changed when he was 11. His father, who had suffered from mental illness, passed away, and it was his son’s first encounter with poverty and the next years were difficult. Korczak tutored children in order to help with the family’s finances, and as bad as his situation was, he saw many other children who were suffering and growing up without education or proper attention. It was then that he decided to dedicate his life to children. (Being a doctor, Korczak knew that his father’s mental condition might be hereditary, so he chose not to have children of his own, though he would ultimately be a “father” to hundreds).
He became Janusz Korczak, when he had to choose a pseudonymin order to participate in a writing competition, and it soon became his standard nom-de-plume, one he would use for the rest of his life.
In 1901, he wrote Street Children and a book describing poverty-stricken children in Warsaw’s poorest districts. He felt that in order to change their lot and reform the world, one needs to reform education. In 1906 he wrote Children of Salon, a tale about wealthy children. In 1923, he wrote his most famous book, King Matt I, about a child king. It would be the seminal work of his career. He described himself as “a doctor by education, a pedagogue by choice, a writer by passion, and a psychologist by necessity.” He managed to fulfill all of these roles.
After studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, Korczak served as medical doctor in the Russo- Japanese War. There he saw the severe effects of war on adults, but more notably on children. During this time, he wrote his most remarkable work, How to Love a Child. Within its covers he proclaimed that, “A child is a whole person, though smaller in size than an adult. A child is not grown, but without experience or knowledge. We ought to stoop and come down to their level.”
After the war, he worked in a children’s hospital in Warsaw where he met Stefania Wilcznska, later to become his gifted assistant at his Jewish orphanage Dom Sierot (Our Home). There they introduced his innovative educational methods. At a time when orphanages were often physically punitive, the Korczak orphanage was one of love and respect.
He was a visionary way ahead of his time. Decades before the term moral education, behavior modification, social mores, communal living, self-government and peer counseling were popular, he was using them in his summer camps and orphanages. He became a celebrity in Poland and a “champion” of children and has been recognized on stamps in Poland, Israel and Japan. His “Rights for the Child” were incorporated in the United Nations Rights for the Child. And there are organizations worldwide who give honor to the man who is the symbol of what humans can do for humanity.
But then came World War II and with it the persecution of the Jewish people and Jewish children. People were murdered and people died. More than a million and a half children were going to lose their lives to murder, forced starvation and untreated disease.
Korczak’s orphans would not be spared, and although the Nazis offered him life, he rejected their offer. He said: “One wouldn’t leave a sick child at night, the more so now....”
August 5, 1942 was a hot, humid day in the Warsaw Ghetto. A dignified, non-violent rebellion against the Nazis and their actions against the Jews had been planned for that day. Instead the residents of the orphanage and Janusz Korczak and his staff were taken to the Umshlagplatz. Sick and in weakened physical condition, Janusz Korczak led the procession of 192 children, eight members orphanage staff and his assistant, Stefania Wilczynska to the cattle cars.
He had told the children to take their favorite toys and dress up as they were going on an outing to see trees and greenery, something they had missed in the ghetto. They marched carrying their orphanage’s green flag, a symbol of hope, for two miles through Warsaw’s winding streets. Korczak was in his 60’s. (The date of his actual birth is unknown as his father had neglected to register his birth.) Stefa was 56 years old and was like a mother to the orphans.
Throughout his life Korczak demonstrated a powerful stand for justice; a love for humanity, and a love and advocacy for children. Upon visiting Treblinka today, one can see thousands of oval stones with the names of Polish communities where Jews had lived, yet only one stone has the name of a person: Henryk Goldszmit (1878/79-1942)—Janusz Korczak and His Children.
Marcia Talmage Schneider is writing an illustrated digital book and study guide about Janusz Korczak and is director of The Korczak Project of The International Study of the Organized Persecution of Children, a project of Child Development Research. www.holocaustchildren.org
By Marcia Talmage Schneider