Tuesday, September 18, 2012

REPOST: Tattered Remnant #007:
Janusz Korczak: Protector of Children

The introduction to this series can be found here.

I first ran this essay three years ago. It remains the most popular on my Tattered Remnants subblog (after the entry for Titanic.) This man is worthy of honor and remembrance.


When I was the little boy you see in the photograph, I wanted to do all the things that are in this book. But I forgot to, and now I'm old. I no longer have the time or the strength to go to war or to travel to the land of the cannibals. I have included this photograph because it's important what I looked like when I truly wanted to be a king, and not when I was writing about King Matt. I think it's better to show pictures of what kings, travelers, and writers looked like before they grew up, or grew old, because otherwise it might sem that they knew everything from the start and were never young themselves. And then children will think they can't be statement, travelers, and writers, which wouldn't be true.

--Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit), King Matt the First, 1923 (Translated by Emse Raji Codell)

I first read about Janusz Korczak in a war novel: Mila 18, by Leon Uris, the famous Jewish American teller of heroic (if occasionally tall) tales from the 1960s and 1970s, now, alas, much out of fashion.

I did not know it was about Janusz Korczak that I was reading, however. Uris, as novelists will, combined together two famous figures from history into one, a character named Alexander Brandel. One of the two sources was Immanuel Ringelbaum, a historian and creator of the "Oyneg Shabbos" archives (whom I shall discuss in a later entry of this collection). The other was Janusz Korczak.

In Uris's book, at one point, the Alexander Brandel character is captured during a Nazi German Aktion, that is, an operation to sweep up Jews for shipment to a concentration camp. He is freed, however, before his arrival at Umschlagplatz (the transfer point to the gas chambers) when his friend Andrei Androfski, a heroic former Polish Army officer, goes berzerk and shoots the guards. When asked later why he attacked the Nazis, the Androfski character responds: "It was Alex... I could not let them take Alexander Brandel to the Umschlagplatz."

I can understand that Uris, a former Marine and a wonderful if brutal celebrant of the noble violence of the soldier, could not bear to let one as Korczak walk passively to his death. It was, alas, a bit of wish fulfillment on his part.

For, in real life, Uris's "Alexander Brandel" – Janusz Korczak – did indeed walk to Umschlagplatz. And his long walk to the train is one of the most heartbreaking, yet in its own way glorious, of scenes from the history of the 20th century, and elevated Dr. Korczak to be among the highest ranking of all of history's Tattered Remnant.

Janusz Korczak's birth name was Henryk Goldszmit. He was born in 1878 or 1879 in Warsaw, then under Imperial Russian rule. Little is known of his youth; even the correct year of his birth is uncertain. When he was around eighteen year old, his father died suddenly, leaving the young Henryk as head of his family and chief breadwinner.

As the invaluable Wikipedia tells us, "[i]n 1898 he used Janusz Korczak as a writing pseudonym in Ignacy Paderewski's literary contest. The name originated from the book Janasz Korczak and the Pretty Swordsweeperlady by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski." It is also said that he misspelled the original 'Janasz' as 'Janusz' but chose to stick with the altered name.

That is very interesting. Kraszewski was the leading children's storyteller of his day: it is as if Henryk named himself Henry Potter, or Bilbo Baggin. His own work and life, however, has given him the well deserved name of children's hero in his own right--even though the story from which he took the name has faded from memory.

He studied medicine, and became a pediatrician. He became noted also as the creator and operator of orphanages, in particular the Dom Sierot, the orphanage of his own design for Jewish children in Warsaw.

Having known early on the loss of a father, Dr. Korczak devoted his life to children, particularly the psychology of children and how best to teach them. He was among the first to turn away from the rigid memorization and harsh punishments of the teachers of children of that day. Again, Wikipedia:

Korczak['s]... general concept was that any child has his own way, his own path, on which he embarks immediately following birth. The role of a parent or a teacher is not to impose other goals on a child, but to help children achieve their own goals. His book How to Love a Child begins with the following:

You are saying: "Children are annoying".

You clarify: "You need to always kneel to their perceptions".

You are wrong.

Because you actually need to tip-toe to their perceptions and ideals
Korczak's various works, novels and stories – Child of the Drawing Room, King Matt the First (Król Macius Pierwszy) and its sequel King Matt on the Desert Island (Król Macius na Wyspie Bezludnej), made him quite famous. Once more, Wikipedia:

The later Kaitus the Wizard (Kajtus czarodziej) (1935) anticipated Harry Potter in depicting a schoolboy who gains magic powers (and its popularity in the 1930s, in both Polish and translation to several other languages, was nearly comparable to the present one of the Potter series). Kaitus has, however, in his journey toward becoming a wizard, a far more difficult path than Harry Potter: he has no Hogwarts-type School of Magic where he could be taught by expert mages, but must learn to use and control his powers all by himself - and most importantly, to learn his limitations.

"He ... must learn to use and control his powers ... by himself - and most importantly, to learn his limitations." In that we see the summation of his pedagogical theory. Within the sum of his powers, those children under his authority were left, as far as possible, to find their own way: not abandoned, but left to draw those swords from stones as were within their powers and talents themselves.

Korzcak's career was shadowed by the dark anti-Semitism that dogged his days. In the early 1930s, now famous, and given the title Pan Doktor ("Mr. Doctor"), he had his own radio show, where he broadcast many of his ideas on child-raising. Anti-Semites drove him off of the air after a few months. He went to Palestine in the mid-1930s; as a result of his writing on his visit, many Polish newspapers dropped his column.

Alas, things were not to improve. In 1939, the German Army crushed the Polish military and took Poland at the opening of WWII. Korczak's orphanage was closed and he was forced to move it inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Korczak moved into the ghetto with the children.

In 1942, the SS, Gestapo and all the instruments of Nazi power gathered together for what was called the Grossaktion: the "Great Operation" or "Big Action" to drive all of Warsaw's captive half-million Jews to their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp. Hundreds of thousands of people were dragged from their homes, put on trains at a train station called the Umschlagplatz ("Assembly Square") and taken to be gassed.

They came for Korczak and his orphanage in the first week of August, 1942. The event was described in Wladyslaw Szpilman's book The Pianist:

One day, around 5th August when I had take a brief rest from work and was walking down Gesia Street, I happened to see Janusz Korczak and his orphans leaving the ghetto. The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning.

The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children and now, on this last journey he could not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out in to the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two nicely dressed and in a happy mood.

The little column was lead by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play – and so they set off. When I met them in Gesia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest infants, who were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story. I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Zyklon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans hearts, the Old Doctor must have whispered with one last effort, ‘it's all right, children, it will be all right’. So that at least he could spare his little charges the fear of passing from life to death."

In the end, Pan Doktor did indeed "go to war, and travel to the land of the cannibals." And while his body did not survive the journey, his spirit shines to this day.


There are many memorials today to Pan Doktor. The Polish People's Republic issued a commemorative coin with his image. An asteroid bears his name: 2163 Korczak. His pedagogical teachings were memorialized by the United Nations in the International Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1970. Perhaps most poignantly, in the now-empty fields of the Treblinka II death-camp are some 17,000 stones: one for each village or town that sent people die in that terrible place. Only one of the stones bears a proper name: it reads: "Janusz Korczak and The Children."

But for all those, perhaps the best memorial of Janusz Korczak lies in the pocket of an old man on an Israeli kibbutz.

In January 23, 2008, the New York Times profiled a number of of Korczak's survivors, now old, living in honor in Israel. One of those profiled Schlomo Nadel, who was in Korczak's orphanage, tells the following story:

Mr. Nadel said one of his favorite memories was from Passover in 1933 or 1934. The festive meal would be held in the dining room. But with more than 100 children, Korczak had to find an innovative way to have them search for the “afikoman,” the hidden piece of matzo redeemed for a prize by the child who finds it.

His creative solution: make it a walnut hidden in one of the matzo balls served in the chicken soup.

“Everyone’s spoons were digging into the matzo balls, and I saw I had something hard inside mine,” Mr. Nadel said. “Everyone rushed to see.”

As he spoke, he reached into his left pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He unfolded it to reveal a dark leather pouch held together with fraying tape. Inside were shards of that walnut.

Let that symbol of the joy of a child be the sign by which he is best remembered.

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