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Janusz Korczak

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His life, his achievements

by Kathrin Diehl

In the year 1878 – it might have been a year later as the father was not known for looking after his paperwork in time – Janusz Korczak, whose name was actually Henryk Goldszmit, was born in Warsaw. And everything was in order. His family was Jewish but highly assimilated, of excellent repute in the city, and living a comfortable life.

When Henryk was 17, his father died. Henryk is heartstricken. He takes day jobs to keep himself, his mother and his sister Anna afloat. Already as a child, he had had a very keen sense for the suffering of others, particularly children the same age as him; now, as a young man, he experienced poverty first-hand.

After finishing school – something he did quite gladly as he never felt comfortable with the teaching methods – he starts studying medicine in Warsaw in 1898. He starts producing literary works, each of which clearly speaks to the author’s ambition to do right by children and stand by their side. He writes about children, for children, in newspapers and journals. Later, he runs his own radio broadcast on educational advice (“Happy Pedagogy”) that is enormously popular with the listeners. As a writer, Henryk Goldszmit takes up a new name: He starts calling himself Janusz Korczak, and soon gains some fame as “Doktor Janusz Korczak”. He works at various hospitals and children’s summer camps, travels to the big cities of Europe to learn from the work of his colleagues.

In 1911, he is made head of the newly-established “Dom Sierot” orphanage in Warsaw’s 92 Krochmalna Street; Korczak remains in this position until the orphanage is closed in 1942. The orphanage is his realm, his opportunity to implement all his ideas and thoughts, papers and theories. This is where he creates the “Children’s Republic” that lets children participate and into which he puts a vast amount of highly detailed thought (“Put up a chair under every window, make sure even the little ones can see outside!”). He is full of original ideas that seek to accommodate a child’s mind (“There, on my shelf, you find the bottle I keep filling with the children’s tears…”). Everyday life for children needs some sort of structuring, of regularity, according to Korczak. In order to achieve that, he employs Jewish holidays, above all the weekly Shabbat, to which he opened the door in his orphanage – if the children hadn’t already done so.

Korczak did this as a Jew, though one, who, as he moved away from religion, became increasingly Jewish. So, holidays were an inherent part of life in the orphanage, including a few made-up ones – first snow holiday, stay-in-bed-all-day holiday etc. Janusz Korczak observes his children closely, he faces adversity and has to re-examine his own idealistic approach. Sometimes he asks too much of his children, sometimes they do the same with him, sometimes he runs his helpers ragged. He was not an easy man to work with. But the work at the “Dom” is very fulfilling for him. Korczak spends World War I as chief physician of an entire division’s military hospital. After the war, in 1918, he publishes his book How To Love A Child that makes relatable his view at and understanding of children as well as his demand that adults reconsider their approach to children. In 1926, he establishes the world’s first newspaper made entirely by children and for children – the Kleine Rundschau (“Little Review”).

In 1933, the National Socialists come to power in Germany. Korczak journeys twice to Palestine, looks at life in the Kibbutz and is very impressed with it. You could build something there for sure – if only there weren’t this longing for his native Poland, Warsaw, his children. He returns home.

In 1939, German troops invade Poland. 1940 sees the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto to which all Jews of the city must now move, including Korczak’s entire orphanage. “The doctor” is ailing and weak. Every morning, he goes out, a sack on his shoulder, to ask the inhabitants of the ghetto to spare some of their food for the children. Food is the most important thing at this point. Almost equally important is maintaining some sort of everyday life at the orphanage, with theater, the children’s court of law, handicraft hours at the workshop, the doors that remain open… But the strength of both children and adults at the orphanage grows more and more depleted. On August 2, 1942, Janusz Korczak, teacher Stefania Wilczyńska (his right-hand-woman) and approximately 200 children are forced to the ghetto’s transfer point by SS members and eventually deported to the Treblinka extermination camp. That is where their tracks disappear forever.

Or do they?

The “Three Basic Rights of the Child”, put forth by Korczak in the mid-20s and later picked up by the United Nations for their own Declaration of Children’s Rights, continue to spark lively debate to this day, with sentence such as the beginning: “I, Janusz Korczak, demand the Magna Charta Libertatis as a Basic Law for the child.”