Janusz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw Poland in 1878 or 1879).His father suffered from mental illness and in order to support his family, Henryk was forced to tutor the children of family friends. When only 18, he published the first of a number of pedagogical works.
As his first novel, Child of the Drawing Room, was being serialized in Voice magazine under
the byline of Janusz Korczak, Goldszmit began a residency at the Jewish Children´s Hospital. But no sooner had he received his medical diploma in March 1905, than he was conscripted as a doctor into the Imperial Army to serve in the Russo-Japanese War. His experiences in war helped crystallize his primary philosophy for life: no cause, no war, was worth depriving children of their natural right to happiness. Children should come before politics of any kind.
For the next six years, he did not sign Janusz Korczak to the hundreds of articles and feuilletons that flowed from his pen-some of them humorous observations on human behavior, others earnest essays on land reform, health insurance, pedagogy, women´s rights, the plight of poor children, and travel articles from Switzerland and France. Instead, he used fragments ofhis two selves: Hen, Ryk, Henryk, G., Janusz, or K.-as if he needed time to fully integrate his new identity. Only his medical articles in professional journals were consistently signed Henryk Goldszmit, as they would be for the rest of his life.
When he returned to Warsaw in early 2006, he discovered that Janusz Korczak was famous as the new voice in Polish literature that had found “the color of poverty, its stench, its cry, and its hunger.” In 1908, he met Stefania (Stefa) Wilczynska and 2 tyears later, with her help, he became the director of an orphanage for Jewish children. in 1914, he was called back to the war again, but finished his service at a paediatric hospital in Kiev.
In 1919, together with Maria Falska he operated the “Our Home” institution for Polish
children, first in the Warsaw suburb of Pruszków, and then – from 1928 onwards – in the capital’s Bielany district. Both communities, open to children aged 7-14, operated on the same principles of children’s self-governance, which gave rise to its own institutions: a parliament, notary’s office, cash loan office, and the so-called children’s tribunal of arbitration, in which the children themselves dealt with issues they raised; they were also allowed to bring cases against their teachers. The children also published their own newspaper and organized an efficient shift system.
In 1922, he published the children’s novel King Matt the First, a novel as popular i n Poland as Peter Pan was in the English speaking world. It was followed by a sequel, King Matt on a Desert Island. During the 1930s, he was known as the voice “The Old Doctor” on a radio show on which he championed children’s rights.
In 1939, his orphanage was within the walls of the Warsaw ghetto, but he refused to be cowed. He refused to wear the “Jewish Star” on his clothing and rather ordered a large blue flag to be fabricated at the orphanage–on one side King Hänschen and the flowers of his kingdom, on the other side the great Star of David.
The end came in 1942, when the children of the orphanage were taken, along with many others to the death camp at Treblinka. Even at the end, he stood up as a remarkable human being.
On August 5, the entire orphanage with a thousand others from the ghetto was marched to the railroad marshaling yard, to be transported east in windowless sealed cattle cars. One in the crowd from the ghetto witnessed the extraordinary drama and lived to describe it:
“Forced into tight formation, body against body, driven by guards wielding whips on all sides, the solid mass of humanity was forced to run toward the train platform. Suddenly the Commandant ordered the Secret Police to pull back . …
“At the head of a thin line was Korczak! No, how could it be? The scene I shall never forget. In contrast to the mass of humanity being driven like animals to slaughter, there appeared a group of children marching together in formation. They were the orphanage children walking four abreast in a line behind Korczak. His eyes were lifted to heaven. Even the military personnel stood still and saluted. When the Germans saw Korczak, they asked, `Who is that man?’ ... ”
Another survivor, who succeeded in fleeing from the railroad platform, remembered the scene as Korczak and the children were put into the cattle cars.
“These children did not cry, these innocent little beings did not even weep. Like sick sparrows they snuggled up to their teacher, their caregiver, their father and their brother Janusz Korczak, that he might protect them with his weak, emaciated body . …”
The train took them all to the death camp at Treblinka and none was ever heard of again.
Since then, although practically unknown in the West, he is recognized as a great man in his native Poland.
There is a cenotaph for him at the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, with monumental sculpture of Korczak leading his children to the trains. Created originally by Mieczysław Smorczewski in 1982, the monument was recast in bronze in 2002. The original was re-erected at boarding school for children with special needs in Borzęciczki, which bears his name.
Sources and further reading.
- Wikipedia (includes bibliography)
- Janusz Korczak Association of Canada
- Jewish Virtual Library
- University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
- Janusz Korczak’s Declaration of Children’s Rights