Yanus Korzak - יאנוש קורצ'אק

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Janusz Korczak: Champion of the Children - by Bruno Bettelheim, Reform Judaism, Spring 1986.


An ancient Jewish myth tells that there must live on earth at any one time at least thirty - or according to another version, thirty-six - righteous people. Only the existence of these righteous ones justifies our continued survival in the eyes of the Lord: otherwise, God would turn his face from the earth and we all would perish.

One of these righteous men, Dr. Janusz Korczak, steadfastly rejected numerous offers to be saved from extermination in the Nazi death camps. He refused to desert the children to whose well-being he had devoted his life, so that even as they approached death they would be able to maintain their faith in human goodness. Korczak could easily have saved himself. He was repeatedly urged to do so by his many Polish admirers and friends, for he was a prominent figure in Polish cultural life by the time he died. Well-wishers offered to provide him with false identity papers; they arranged for his escape from the Warsaw Ghetto. Even the children whom he had rescued from neglect in the past implored him to save himself. But as the head and leading light for thirty years of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, Korczak was determined not to abandon the children who had put their trust in him. As he said to those who beseeched him to save himself: "One does not leave a sick child in the night."

On August 6, 1942, the Nazis ordered the 200 children who remained in the Jewish orphanage of the Warsaw Ghetto to a train station, there to be packed into railroad carriages. Korczak, like most other adults in the Ghetto, knew by then that the carriages were to take the children to their death in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

In a successful effort at assuaging the children's anxiety, Korczak told them that they were all going on an outing to the country. On the appointed day he had the oldest child lead them, carrying high the flag of hope, a gold four-leaf clover on a field of green - the emblem of the orphanage. As always, even in this terrible situation, Korczak had arranged things so that a child rather than an adult would be the leader of other children. He walked immediately behind this leader, holding the hands of the two smallest children. Behind them marched all the other children, four-by-four, in excellent order.

For many years preceding this, Dr. Janusz Korczak had been known all over Poland as "The Old Doctor," the name he used when delivering his state radio talks on children and their education. Through these he became a familiar name even to those who had not read his many novels - for one of which he had received Poland's highest literary prize -- nor seen his plays, nor read any of his numerous articles on children, nor learned about his work for orphans. Korczak not only fully understood the child's view, but deeply respected and appreciated it. What Korczak taught best was to quote the title of one of his most significant books, "How One Ought to Love a Child."

Janusz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit, the scion of two generations of educated Jews who had broken away from the Jewish tradition to assimilate into the Polish culture. Korczak's grandfather was a successful physician, his father was an equally successful lawyer. In all external respects, little Henryk's early life was spent in very comfortable circumstances, in the well-to-do upper middle class home of his parents. Yet he was familiar with emotional difficulties from an early age --his father held often grandiose and unrealistic notions of the world, and had a poorly developed ability to relate to reality.

Even when Henryk was an infant, his family lived in an atmosphere of psychological, cultural and social alienation which must have contributed to the father's basic mental instability. Nearly all Polish Jews of this period spoke and read Yiddish, their lives dominated by Jewish religious traditions and observances. By contrast, Henryk's parents were non-practicing Jews who spoke only Polish. So although he was well cared for as a child, Henryk knew practically from birth what it meant to be an outsider. He remained an outsider all his life.

When Henryk was eleven his father began to suffer from serious mental disturbances and eventually required hospitalization in a mental institution. He died there when Henryk was eighteen years old. With the decline of Henryk's father, the family encountered economic hardships. As a university student, Henryk began to support himself, his mother and his sister by writing. It was at this time he adopted the pseudonym Janusz Korczak. Fearing that his Jewish name would disqualify him from entry into a literary competition, he submitted his contribution under the Polish-sounding pseudonym taken from a Polish novel. Although he did not win the competition, he was henceforth known by his pen-name.

Although choosing to be a medical student, Korczak was by that time set to devote his life to the betterment of the lot of children. Typically, he once introduced himself to a fellow university student by saying that he was "the son of a madman and determined to become the Karl Marx of children." As Marx's life had been devoted to the revolution which would liberate the proletariat, so Korczak's would be consecrated to the liberation of children. When asked what such a liberation of children would imply, he answered that one of its most important features would be their right to govern themselves. Even at this early period he was convinced that children are able to do at least as well as their elders, if not better, in governing themselves.

Already as a university student, Korczak knew he would not marry; he did not wish to have children. When the student to whom he had revealed his life plans asked him why, if he was determined to devote his life to children, did he not want to have any of his own, Korczak answered that he would have not just a few, but hundreds of children for whom he would care. It seems probable that he was afraid he might have inherited his father's tendency to insanity and feared passing it on.

As a medical student specializing in pediatrics, Korczak worked in the slums of Warsaw, hoping that by combining medical treatment for children's physical ills with spiritual assistance, he would be able to effect fundamental changes in their living conditions. His first novel, Children of the Street, 1901, was written in anger at the degradation in which such children were forced to spend their lives. After receiving his medical degree in 1904, he began working and living in a children's hospital, while continuing to write on various subjects, some of them literary, others educational, medical, and socio-political.

In 1912 he decided to give up the practice of medicine and devote his life entirely to helping suffering children. He once explained the shift in his life's work thus; "A spoon of castor oil is no cure for poverty and parentlessness". He meant by this that not even the best medical treatment can undo the damage which utter deprivation causes in children. So in his early thirties, Korczak became director of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. From then until his death, he lived and worked at the orphanage, the only interruption being his service as a physician in the Russian army during World War I. But even while serving in the battle zone, Korczak's main concern was with the children. Instead of resting from his arduous labors as a front-line physician when he had a chance, he wrote what became probably his most important and influential book, How One Ought to Love a Child. After the end of World War I he became a co-director of a Catholic orphan's home, which he named "Our Home," thus serving simultaneously Jewish and Catholic children.

Many of Dr. Korczak's ideas are now commonplace, but they were radically new at the beginning of this century. Repeatedly, he stressed the importance of respecting children and their ideas, even when we cannot agree with them. He insisted that it is wrong to base educational measures on our notions about what the child will need to know in the future, because real education ought to be concerned with what the child is now - not what we wish him to be in the future.

What we do not realize today is the degree to which we owe many of our "modern" ideas about children to Dr. Korczak. Some of these ideas where shared by other contemporary educators including the American philosopher and educator John Dewey. But while educators like Dewey only conceptualized, Korczak set his ideas into daily practice, living with the children on their terms. Others like A.S. Neill of Summerhill fame, set into practice more than a decade later what Dr. Korczak pioneered. But even Neill who was probably the most radical reformer of children's lives after Korczak did not go as far as Korczak in insisting that children govern themselves. Korczak not only helped his children create a children's court, he submitted himself to its judgments.

Since Korczak truly knew children, he did not idealize them. As there are good and bad adults, so too Korczak knew there are all kinds of children. Working for them and living with them, he saw them for what they were, at all times deeply convinced of what they could become, given half a chance. His deepest belief was that the child, out of a natural tendency to establish an inner balance, tends toward self improvement when given the chance, freedom, and opportunity to do so. To give these chances to children was the center of all his efforts.

Maybe his philosophy is best expressed in the words with which he said goodbye to a group of orphans as they prepared to leave the orphanage and begin life as young adults:

"We say goodbye to you and wish you well on your long travel into a far-away country. Thus your trip has but one name and one destination: your life. We have thought long and hard how we should say goodbye to you, what advice to give you on your way. Unfortunately words are poor and weak vehicles to express ourselves. So we can give you nothing on your way."We give you no God, because Him you have to seek in your soul, in a solitary struggle. We give you no fatherland because that you have to find through the efforts of your own heart, through your own thoughts. We don't give you love for your fellow men, because there is no love without forgiveness, and to forgive is a laborious task, a hardship which only the person himself can decide to take upon himself.

"We give you only one thing; the desire for a better life which does not yet exist, but which will someday come into being - a life of truth and justice. Maybe the desire for it will guide you to God, to a real fatherland and to love. Farewell, don't forget it."

Korczak's most widely read book, King Matt the First, 1928, is the story of a boy who on the death of his father becomes king and immediately sets out to reform his kingdom for the benefit of children and adults alike. King Matt is none other than Korczak himself, recreated as a child, courageously doing battle against all the injustices of the world, most of all against those inflicted on children. Korczak appears in this story also in his adult form, as the old doctor who foresees the troubles into which King Matt will run. Most of all, this story renders a true picture of how, in the child, deep seriousness and native wisdom are at all times inextricably interwoven with the need for childish play, for deep friendship with adults and peers, for a life of the imagination, and for a life of freedom, dignity and responsibility.

His fervor for the freedom of children alienated Korczak from the Polish right, which viewed him as a radical reformer, and from the Polish left, which believed that freedom for children would come automatically as part of a socialist revolution. Educators feared and rejected him because he severely criticized their methods. Alienated from all these adult circles, he drew closer to the world of children who, like him, were alienated from the world of adults. Yet to undo that alienation was the goal for which he lived and worked.

From the time of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Korczak knew the end was coming. His growing sense of desolation made him anxious to leave a final testament. The diary he wrote during the last months of his life in the ghetto, mainly during the months of May and August, 1942 represents, to quote his words, "not so much an attempt at a synthesis as a grave of attempts, experiments, errors. Perhaps it may prove of use to somebody, someone, in fifty years." These were truly prophetic words for soon it will be fifty years since The Old Doc wrote this, and now his works and deeds are becoming more widely known, understood and appreciated.

In July, 1942, less than a month before Korczak's end, his devoted followers and friends made another attempt to save him. His Aryan collaborator and friend, Igor Newerly, brought him false papers which would have permitted Korczak to leave the ghetto. While all Newerly's entreaties failed to shake Korczak's determination to remain with his children, to show his appreciation for Newerly's efforts, Korczak promised that he would send him the ghetto diary. As always, Korczak kept his word, and a few days after he and the children were taken to Treblinka, Newerly received the diary. He bricked it up in a safe house until after the war. Published as the Ghetto Diary, it was the only one of Korczak's many books available in English.

On the last pages of his diary, Korczak wrote: "I am angry with nobody, I don't wish anyone evil." Up to the last, he lived according to what the rabbinical fathers once wrote. When asked, "When everyone acts inhuman, what should a man do?" their answer was "He should act more human." This is what Korczak did to the very end.

The memorial at Treblinka to the 840,000 Jews who were murdered there consists of large rocks, marking the area in which they died. The rocks bear no inscriptions other than the name of the city or the country from which the victims came. One rock alone is inscribed with a man's name; it reads; "Janusz Korczak (Henry Goldszmit) and the Children." This, I feel is the way he would have wished to be remembered - as the most devoted friend of children.


1. Was Janusz Korczak a "famous" man, or was he famous only because we don't know many other Holocaust victims by name? Explain.

2. What innovations did Korczak bring to the field of education?

3. Read Korczak's remarks to departing young adult orphans carefully. Had he survived the Holocaust, how might he have talked to his children?

4. Why do you think Korczak decided to go with his children to their ultimate death?


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