Januz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit to a secular Jewish family in Warsaw, in 1878 or 1879 (his father failed to register his birth, hence the uncertainty). A physician, educator, and author, he is remembered for his unique attitude toward children, and for his utter dedication to the young Jewish orphans in his care in the Warsaw ghetto.
Doctor & Educator
Korczak received his medical training in Poland, then continued his studies in Germany, France, and England before beginning his work as a physician at the Berson-Bauman Jewish children’s hospital in Warsaw. In 1912 he became the director of the Jewish Orphans’ Home, a position he held until the home’s liquidation by the Nazis in 1942. In addition, Korczak founded the Child Rearing Institute, a home for Catholic children.
These institutions put into practice Korczak’s unique approach to education, which emphasized respect and compassion for children. Both homes featured a self-governing society that included a parliament, court, newspaper, and a system of duties designed to promote law and order, active involvement, and mutual caretaking among the children. Encouraging independence in children was a primary goal for Korczak, who believed that “children shall not be, but rather already are, people.” In both homes, Korczak doted on the children, who, in turn, grew attached to him.
In addition to the two orphanages, Korczak founded a children’s newspaper called Maly Przeglad (The Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the General Zionist daily Nasz Przeglad (Our Review). In accordance with Korczak’s principles, the newspaper was written by and for children, without adult interference.
As a writer, Korczak produced 24 books, as well as hundreds of additional texts that included works for children, autobiographical writings, essays exploring social and pedagogical issues, and medical articles.
Korczak was respected throughout Poland as an expert on children’s issues, and he fought passionately for children’s rights. Among his most important contributions to the cause are the books The Child’s Right to Respect and How to Love a Child.
In The Child’s Right to Respect, Korczak writes: “Years of work have confirmed for me more and more clearly that children deserve respect, trust, and kindness.” The book highlights the challenges faced by the child as a physically small person. Children, wrote Korczak, are too often viewed as nothing more than an interference, and their feelings, opinions, and concerns are easily dismissed by adults, the wielders of power. In addition to the right to respect, the book insists on the child’s right “to be oneself,” and that no child should be burdened with the task of fulfilling a parent or educator’s dream of “a perfect person.”
A beloved children’s author, Korczak wrote stories inspired by his vision for children and for the world. His most popular children’s books included King Matt the First, a fable about a young boy-king who sets out to reform his kingdom and, he hopes, the rest of the world. The story ends tragically when the king is betrayed by the world of adults.
But for all his ideals, Korczak was not naïve. He hoped only that he would be able to help children help themselves. To that end, when taking in street children who had “dark memories” and pent up rage to deal with, he sought to give them the tools for healing. So, for example, fights were allowed in the orphanage. But children had to sign up in advance, and be evenly matched.
Polish & Jewish
Korczak identified as a Pole and as a Jew, and was active in both communities. In his work, he sought to bring the two groups closer to one another, but he was often the target of attacks by extremists, specifically Polish nationalists and anti-Semites. Indeed, his radio talk show (his talks were broadcast under the name “Old Doctor”) was suspended because of anti-Semitic pressures.
Korczak was also targeted by another element entirely–this one coming from within the Warsaw Jewish community. Among the ultra-Orthodox, there were some who claimed that the progressive orphanage–though it observed the basic rules of traditional Judaism, by keeping kosher and celebrating the Sabbath and Jewish holidays–was too Polish.
Europe’s economic and political turmoil drove Korczak to affiliate more closely with Zionist circles. He visited Palestine twice in the 1930s.
With the outbreak of war, Korczak volunteered for duty, having served as a medical officer during the Polish Soviet War in 1920. Disqualified because of his age, he moved into the Jewish Orphans’ Home, where he struggled to provide the children with clothes and food against tremendous odds, especially as the number of children doubled to nearly 200. In addition, Korczak took on another orphanage–with 500 children–and began preparations for a hospice that would cater to street children.
Korczak Memorial, Yad Vashem
Following the German invasion of Poland, the Warsaw ghetto was established in October 1940, and the Jewish Orphans’ Home was compelled to relocate within the confines of the ghetto. At various points, the well-connected Korczak received offers for escape and rescue. Each time he refused, insisting that he could not abandon his charges.
When the Nazi liquidation of the ghetto began in late 1942, Korczak joined the orphans on their final march to the train that would transport them to the Treblinka death camp. The entire group–192 orphans and ten staff members, including Korczak–was killed on arrival.
In conversation with Betty Jean Lifton, the author of a biography of Korczak, Michal (Misha) Wroblewski, a teacher whom Korczak had helped to find work during the war, and one of the last survivors to have seen Korczak alive, said: “Everyone makes so much of Korczak´s last decision to go with the children to the train. But his whole life was made up of moral decisions. The decision to become a children´s doctor. The decision to give up medicine and his writing career to take care of poor orphans. The decision to go with the Jewish orphans into the ghetto. As for that last decision to go with the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature. It was who he was. He wouldn´t understand why we are making so much of it today.”
Pronounced: YAHD, Origin: Hebrew, literally “hand,” this is also the pointer used in synagogue to indicate the section of the Torah or biblical text that is being read or chanted.