Janusz Korczak is a hero of mine. Although I knew something of his Holocaust story from the Imperial War Museum’s Reflections teaching pack, it wasn’t until a visit to Warsaw in 2007 that I came to understand the breadth and depth of Korczak’s character. He is a truly inspirational individual and the more I found out about him, the more I grew to love this amazing man. I have used him in my teaching of the Holocaust as his story is incredibly touching and generates some intense and thoughtful discussion among students.
“You will never understand children if you ignore their qualities” (1)
Henryk Goldsmidt was born in Warsaw in 1878. He took the pen name Janusz Korczak after a famous hero of Polish literature. A man of many talents, Korczak was a paediatrician, successful author and radio personality. In addition to this, he ran two orphanages in Warsaw; one for Polish children and one for Jewish children. It was in the Jewish Orphanage, Dom Sierot, established in 1912 on Krochmalna Street, that he put into practice his progressive ideas about how children should be cared for and educated.
“Korczak’s basic philosophy was his belief in the innate goodness of children and their natural tendency to improve, given the opportunity and guidance to do so.” (2)
If you were to picture a ‘perfect school’ – what would it look like?
An educational pioneer, Korczak was the first to reach the conclusion that a child had the same rights as an adult – as a person in his own right. In the Korczak orphanages and experimental school, the children had almost complete autonomy, able to choose what lessons to attend and for how long. In addition, all activities had equal value placed upon them so that all children felt (and indeed were) equally valued for any contribution they made to the life of their community, or to their own education.
The children had the same rights as the teachers, including real opportunities for them to take part in decision making. For example the Children’s Courts in the orphanages were presided over by child judges. Every child with a grievance had the right to summon the offender to face the Court of his peers. Teachers and children were equal before the Court and even Korczak himself had to submit to its judgement.
Janusz Korczak is, however, best known for his courageous and noble actions during the war when he spurned offers to escape Nazi-occupied Poland for the sake of the orphans he refused to abandon.
As a Jew, he was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 where he re-established the Jewish Orphanage (the site of the original orphanage on Krochmalna Street was outside the ghetto perimeter). Somehow, most likely through sheer force of personality and will, Korczak and his small staff managed to keep the orphanage running in the dire conditions that existed in the ghetto, even accepting and helping the countless new orphans that the ghetto conditions produced.
Korczak also kept a diary while he was in the ghetto, recording his thoughts and observations. He was deeply saddened by the dehumanising process that he saw all around him and he strived to maintain the humanity and dignity of the children in his care. To this end, the children put on entertainment shows in the ghetto. This also helped raise support and, importantly, money for the continued running of the orphanage.
In August 1942, Korczak received news that he was to report to the Umschlagplatz with the children and staff of the orphanage. It was from here that deportations were taking place, sending thousands of Jews from the ghetto to what many thought and hoped was ‘resettlement’ and labour camps further east. Unbeknown to most of these people, their destination was to be Treblinka extermination camp.
There are a number of stories that tell us about ways in which Korczak refused offers of help and escape from this deadly fate. The Polish resistance was said to have offered him false papers, a route out of the ghetto and a safe haven on the ‘Aryan side’ of Warsaw. There is even a legend that reports an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite children’s books and offered to help him escape. By another version, the officer was acting officially, as the Nazi authorities had in mind some kind of “special treatment” for Korczak.(3)
Nonetheless, Korczak refused. He refused to leave his children to be abandoned again and he refused to allow them to face their fate fearful and alone. He boarded the trains with almost 200 children.
Treblinka today is a barren spot in the middle of the green and wooded Polish countryside. Little remains of the extermination camp that was destroyed in 1943 by the Nazis.
At the site there is a large stone monument of remembrance, surrounded by smaller stones. These vary in size and number around 17,000, representing the communities destroyed in the gas chambers and crematoria of Treblinka. Some of the larger stones bear the names of these communities such as Lodz but most of them remain bare.
Stones are significant as they symbolise remembrance in the Jewish tradition. Jews leave stones rather than flowers at gravesides, as they are a more permanent sign that someone has been to pay their respects to the deceased.
There are however no names of individuals on these stones. This echoes the manner in which around 900,000 individuals were murdered: with their humanity and individuality stripped from them.
One stone does, however, bear the name of an individual. That of Henryk Goldsmidt – Janusz Korczak.
Why, of all the victims of Treblinka is he the only one personally remembered? There is no sure answer to this. Perhaps it is because of the sacrifice he made to be with his children despite the opportunity to escape. Perhaps he symbolises a greater humanity that endured despite inhuman circumstances. Whatever the answer, it gives us all an opportunity reflect on the actions taken by men and women during the Holocaust .
(1) Korczak, How to Love a Child