Januz Korczak

A hero of the Warsaw ghetto.

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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.
januz korczak
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.

Korczak’s Writings

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.

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Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.