Remembering Janusz Korzcak and the victims of the Treblinka Extermination Camp

At this time of the year – August – I try to remember Janusz Korczak, who perished in the Treblinka death camp in the same month of 1942, along with the children of his orphanage and his staff. This is for them.

Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, physician, writer and educator, born into an assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw in 1878 or 1879. Korczak’s father was a successful attorney who was struck with mental illness when Korczak was eleven. This was a heavy blow to the family’s financial situation and a trauma that cast its shadow over Korczak throughout his life. Even while still a student of medicine at Warsaw University, Korczak was drawn to circles of liberal educators and writers in Poland. When he entered medical practice, he did his best to help the poor and those who suffered the most.

At the same time he began to write.  His first books, Children of the Streets (1901) and A Child of the Salon (1906), aroused great interest. In 1904 he was drafted into the Russian army as a doctor, and was posted to East Asia. Both as a doctor and a writer, Korczak was drawn to the world of the child. He worked in a Jewish children’s hospital and took groups of children to summer camps, and in 1908 he began to work with orphans.

In 1912 he was appointed director of a new and spacious Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, on Krochmalna Street. Throughout his life, his partner in this work was Stefania Wilczynska, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family and a superb educator who dedicated her life to the care of orphans and greatly influenced Korczak and his career as an educator. In the orphanage, Korczak studied the secret depths of the child’s soul, and it was in the orphanage that he made practical application of his educational ideas.

Korczak called for an understanding of the emotional life of children and urged that children be respected. A child was not be regarded as something to be shaped and trained to suit adults, but rather as someone whose soul was rich in perception and ideas, and who should be observed and listened to within his or her own autonomous sphere. Every child he maintained had to be treated as an individual whose inclinations, ambitions, and life circumstances — the conditions under which he or she was growing up — require understanding. In several of his books – such as King Matthew the First (1923), When I am Small Again (1925), and the short theoretical work The Child’s Right to Respect (1929) – Korczak stressed the social conflict between child and adult in a situation where power and control are in the hands of the adult, even when the adult does not understand or refuses to understand the child’s world, and deliberately deprives the child of his or her due. In Korczak’s view the solution was “to reform the educational system.”

In the mid-1930’s, Korczak’s public career underwent a change. Following the death of the Polish dictator, Jozef Pilsudski, political power in the country came into the hands of radical right-wing and openly anti-Semitic elements. Korczak was removed from many of the positions in which he had been active, and he suffered great disappointment. As a result, he took a growing interest in the Zionist effort and in the Jewish community in Palestine. He visited Palestine twice. In 1934 and 1936, Korczak showed particular interest in the state of education in Palestine, especially the educational achievements of the kibbutz movement, but he was also deeply impressed by the changes he found in the Jews living there. On the eve of World War Two Korczak was considering moving to Palestine, but his idea failed to reach fruition.

From the very beginning of the war, Korczak took up activities among the Jews and Jewish children. At first he refused to acknowledge the German occupation and heed its rules.  For failing to wear the Jewish yellow badge, he spent some time in prison. When, however, the economic situation took a sharp turn for the worse and the Jews of Warsaw were imprisoned in the ghetto, Korczak concentrated his efforts on the orphanage, seeking to provide the children there with food and the basics of existence. He was now an elderly and tired man and could no longer keep track of the changes that were taking place in the world and in his immediate vicinity, and he shut himself in. The only thing that gave him the strength to carry on was the duty he felt to preserve and protect his orphanage, where old rules continued to apply.  It was kept clean, the duty roster was observed, there were close relations between the staff and the children, an internal court of honour had jurisdiction over both children and teachers, every Sunday a general assembly was held, there were literary evenings, and the children gave performances.

On Thursday, 6 August 1942, the Germans deported Korczak, his assistants, and the two hundred children from the orphanage at 16 Sienna Street, the orphanage having been relocated from Krochmalna Street. A witness to the orphans’s three-mile march to the deportation train described the scene to the Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum as follows: “This was not a march to the railway cars – this was an organised, wordless protest against the murder.  The children marched in rows of four, with Korczak leading them, looking straight ahead, and holding a child’s hand on each side. A second column was led by Stefania Wilczynska, the third by Broniatowska, her children carrying blue knapsacks on their backs, and the fourth by Sternfeld, from the boarding school on Twarda Street.”

Nothing is known of their last journey to Treblinka, where they were all murdered by the Nazis. After the war, associations bearing Korczak’s name were formed in Poland, Israel, Germany and other countries, to keep his memory alive and to promote his message and his work. He became a legendary figure and UNESCO named him “Man of the Year.” Books, plays and films have all been produced about Korczak, and his own writings have been translated into many languages.

Mr Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Founder of the Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.

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