Janusz Korczak and his Army of Children.
According to the Talmud, the hidden saints are responsible for the welfare of the universe. The righteous are just 36 in number and are amongst us in every generation. At times of danger, they use their hidden powers to defeat enemies, and as mysteriously as they appear, they fade into obscurity.
One of the righteous is Janusz Korczak (1876-1942), a doctor and child psychologist from Warsaw, Poland, whose story I would like to share.
I first read about Dr. Korczak 20 years ago from an article in the New York Times. The accompanying picture was of a young, round-faced girl with a captivating expression. The article described the orphanage where she lived in Warsaw, named for Dr. Korczak, and described the theories of education Dr. Korczak had used with Jewish and Catholic orphans in the 1930s:
He envisioned a world in which children structured their own world and became experts in their own matters.
Peer and staff review maintained order, not harsh discipline or adult supremacy. Every week, a children’s court was scheduled to voice grievances and allow the accused to present evidence and mete out punishment, if necessary.
This reminded me of how Father Edward Flanagan disciplined his beloved urchins at Boys Town USA.
I was intrigued by the piece and wanted to learn more about Dr. Korczak.
Those bygone days were before the Internet and immediate responses to questions. My search entailed calling the Midtown Manhattan Library, which undertook a search of the literature available on this man. The materials that turned up were written primarily in Hebrew and Polish, neither of which was known to me.
Finally, two small booklets, printed in Israel and written in English, came into my hands. Dr. Korczak’s remarkable contributions to child welfare and sacrifice of this unique man rendered the search more than worthwhile.
Dr. Korczak was an exceptional human being and advocate for all children. He was an assimilated Polish Jew who had served in the Russian Army.
Born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw, Poland, in 1876, he coined the pen name of Janusz Korczak when, as a young man, he began publishing children’s stories. He went on to become a medical doctor and educator and had a popular radio program in which he offered advice to parents on child rearing.
Eventually, he gave up his medical practice and served as director of the Polish and Jewish orphanages in Warsaw. Never materialistic and disdaining pomp and artifice, he chose to live in a small room at the Jewish orphanage.
Dr. Korczak was known throughout Europe for training teachers in moral education and humanizing orphanages. His theories of education were child-centered and stressed tolerance and patience.
Many visitors came to the orphanage where he resided to observe the famous Dr. Korczak and found it difficult to distinguish him from the domestic staff.
Children sensed Dr. Korczak loved them and wanted to please him.
A shy and socially awkward man, he was most comfortable in their presence. The orphanage was a secure, safe and orderly place—the only home many of the children ever knew, and many remembered their time there as the happiest they ever knew. Eventually, most of the staff was comprised of people who grew up at the orphanages.
When Poland was invaded in 1939, he had many opportunities to emigrate to freedom on a kibbutz in Israel, but it was not in his character to seek personal safety when others had no recourse. Dr. Korczak and devoted members of his staff stayed in Poland, knowing full well those who remained put their own lives in jeopardy.
Soon, thereafter, the orphanage was moved behind the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Dr. Korczak became a master of the black market, securing foodstuffs and medications that were necessary to keep the children as healthy as possible. The staff tried to keep the ghetto orphanage organized and adhered to the same routine that existed on the outside with few exceptions.
The children began to perform in plays that were opened to the public. The material chosen often had an underlying message of courage and fortitude.
August 1942, after two years of near starvation, declining health standards and privation in the ghetto orphanage, the end came. The children were ordered to report to the train station at Umschlagplatz for relocation to the East.
The night before the children were to be led away, they put on a performance of a one-act play by Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore entitled, “The Post Office.”
When Mahatma Gandhi saw this play in Calcutta in 1917, he wrote:
“I did not have enough of it, but what I did have had a most soothing effect upon my nerves which are otherwise always on trial.”
Irish poet W.B. Yates echoed these sentiments, noting:
“On the stage, the little play shows it is very perfectly constructed and conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace.”
When Dr. Korczak was asked why he chose the “The Post Office,” he answered, “Eventually one had to learn serenely the angel of death.”
The audience was riveted by the play. Amal, a gentle, imaginative boy who has been adopted by a poor couple, is confined to his room with a serious illness. Forbidden by the village doctor to go outside, he is shut in from the world of nature, like the orphans awaiting an uncertain future.
The children at the orphanage were aware of their real destination; news of the extermination of the Jews had flooded Warsaw. Dr. Korczak and his staff were prepared.
Boldly and courageously, they led the “Army of Children” to overcrowded trains and certain death at Treblinka.
Jehoshua Perle later wrote an eyewitness account in his book, The Destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto:
“A miracle occurred, two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows, they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak.”
The children walked quietly to the station in clean and meticulously cared for clothes. German, Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish policeman fired upon their procession as they walked by them. Perle describes the last march of the orphans foreshadowed the destruction of the ghetto itself.
The memory of that sad day lives on memorialized. The Poles regard Dr. Korczak as a martyr, who, had he been born Catholic, would have been canonized a saint.
The Israelis revere Dr. Korczak as one of the “Thirty-Six Just Men” whose souls make possible the world’s salvation.
And when the notorious Treblinka was transformed from a vast crematorium into a memorial rock garden with 17.000 thousand stones representing the millions of men, women and children that died there, there was only one that was given a personal inscription
Janusz Korczak and the Children.
Prepared by Lorin Arnold / Brianna Bemel