August 2022 marks the eightieth anniversary of the death of Dr. Janusz Korczak (1878/9-1942). In 1942, Korczak, a Polish pediatrician, educator, writer, and humanitarian, voluntarily accompanied nearly 200 orphans in his charge to their deaths in the gas chamber at Treblinka. (Korczak was a pen name; his birth name was Henryk Goldszmit.)
Korczak, who had an international reputation, received multiple offers to help him escape deportation to the German death camp. He refused them, insisting: “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” The physician had been involved with young people and orphans for more than thirty years. In addition to his pediatric practice, Korczak established an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw and organized summer camps for them as well.
Korczak’s prodigious writing career, focused mainly on children, began before World War I. His corpus—the “Complete Works” runs to 16 volumes—included not just practical counsel and medical advice but also several works of fiction. Books like King Matt the First and Kaytek the Wizard (both translated into English), while fantastic and even utopian, were intended to help his young charges appreciate self-mastery and responsibility. The “Old Doctor” (as he was called) also practiced what he preached: His orphanage was structured to put communal decision-making and discipline in the hands of the children. They had their own parliament and court, and even published a newspaper.
During the 1930s, Korczak also hosted a popular radio program about children. The growth of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the Polish political scene impeded his work, but Korczak was always dedicated to his country. One example: In 1939, at age 60, he donned his military uniform and stood before German soldiers arriving in Warsaw to occupy the Polish capital. (Poland was home to the largest Jewish population in the world of his day: According to the country’s 1931 census, 10 percent of its 31 million inhabitants were Jewish.)
A year after the Germans seized Poland, Jews, including Korczak and his orphans, were ordered by the Nazis into the Warsaw Ghetto, a living death camp where almost half a million people were crammed into a 1.3 square-mile area, deprived of basic food and proper sanitation. Arbitrary executions increased the death toll. For two years, Korczak begged, borrowed, cajoled, and wheedled whatever he could for his orphans, trying to maintain as normal a life for them as possible.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis implemented the Grossaktion Warschau (“Great Action”), what they euphemistically referred to as the “resettlement to the East.” Tens of thousands of Ghetto residents, including Korczak and the nearly 200 orphans in his care, were systematically transported by railcar to the German death camp in Treblinka, where they were gassed. Eyewitness records describe how, in early August 1942, Korczak, holding hands with the children, led his orphans—each neatly dressed with his or her own backpack and favorite toy—to the train that took them to Treblinka. While perhaps some of the oldest, at age thirteen, might have intuited what awaited them, the children were accompanied to the end not by German soldiers and their dogs but by a man who loved them and gave them a dignified life in those most undignified days.
During his lifetime, Korczak was an indefatigable champion of the young, advocating for children’s rights years, even decades, before others would do so. His self-sacrifice proved that his views were not just pretty theories. Korczak always insisted a child be treated as an end—a person with rights. While lip service is paid to that principle today, history shows that the lives of children were often held cheap. They still are. Today, they are legally disposable. They are often treated as a means to satisfy adult desires—as in “the right to a child.” Their genuine well-being is routinely ignored, as the numbers of children raised today in broken families attests. We even rationalize such treatment as being in “the child’s best interest,” while assuaging our guilt about their vulnerability with talk about their “resilience.”
There is a touching scene about ten minutes into Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 film “Korczak” . The doctor enters his lecture hall, escorting a frail little girl by the hand. Seeing that she is frightened by the hall’s size and the stairs leading down to the podium, he carries her, telling his students that the day’s class would instead take place in the X-ray lab. Once they are all seated in the lab, the little girl stands behind the X-ray screen, her little heart visibly beating on it. Korczak’s remarks to his students, as related in the film, are as relevant today as they were then:
“When you are … tired, when children are unbearable and throw you off balance; when you yell at or are cross with them; when you hit them out of anger or just for no reason at all, take a look and remember: This is just how a child’s heart looks and reacts.”