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Janusz Korczak

(1878-1942) Pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit. Pedagogue, physician, writer, publicist. He grew up in an assimilated, wealthy Jewish family from Warsaw. His father's mental illness and early death meant that Korczak was forced at an early age to support his mother and sisters, and also himself, so he could continue his studies, first in high school and then medical school at the University of Warsaw.

A few months after graduating from medical school in 1905, he was called up for the Russian army and was sent to the front in the Russian-Japanese War. He served over half a year as a senior medical officer in the hospital trains; he was demobilized in early 1905. He was a physician in Berlin in 1907-1908, in Paris (1909), and in London (1911). After returning to Poland, he worked in the Bersohn and Bauman Children's Hospital in Warsaw. He was active in the community, such as in the movement to establish free reading rooms, in the Charity Society, the "Orphans' Aid" Society (beginning in 1907), and the Society for Summer Camps for children, irrespective of religion, which were financed in part by H. Wawelberg.

In 1912, he became director of the orphanage for Jewish children on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw (currently the Korczak Orphanage No. 1). During the First World War, he was called up into the Russian army as a physician. After begin demobilized in 1917, he organized shelters for war orphans near Kiev, where he met Maryna Falska, with whom he founded an orphanage called Nasz Dom ("Our House") for Polish children in 1919. As a Polish patriot, he volunteered in 1920 for the army and served as a physician in the Polish-Soviet war. As an officer of the Polish army with the rank of major, he worked in epidemiological hospitals, during which time he fell very ill with typhus. His mother, who was taking care of him, also was infected and died shortly thereafter; this led to Korczak having a nervous breakdown.

In 1934 and 1936, Korczak traveled to Palestine twice. During those trips, he sought to discover what opportunities Palestine provided for solving the Jewish question. He was in the Ein Harod kibbutz, and also met with Christian monks. He intended to spend the last years of his life in Jerusalem, but the Second World War interfered with those plans. In September 1939, though he was too old to be drafted, he nevertheless donned a Polish officer's uniform, which he wore until the last moments of his life.

Janusz Korczak developed a pedagogical theory that was a precursor to current educational ideas. He was an advocate of public health education and conscious parenthood. Recognizing the autonomy and dignity of the child was of utmost importance to him. He opposed the pedagogical practice of "instilling discipline" that was becoming popular at that time, eschewed carnal punishment, and condemned the practice of shaming children. He proposed a system that featured encouragement and three child-rearing principles: sharing in economic decision-making, and in "management" issues, and the influence of social opinion. He implemented these through the organization of school shops, newspapers, clubs, children's self-government and peer courts that settled conflicts and misunderstandings, as well as taught responsibility and empathy. He supported the children's efforts to improve themselves by encouraging them in various ways, such as the ceremony of getting up in the morning, the ceremony of going to school, "kindness competitions", and plays.

He left behind a great deal of literary and theoretical works, including works of children's literature such as Krol Macius Pierwszy (King Matt the First, 1922); Bankructwo Malego Dzeka (The Bankruptcy of Little Jack, 1924; Kiedy znow bede maly (One Day I Will Be Small Again, 1925; Kajtus czarodziej (Kajtus the Sorcerer, 1934), as well as for adults (including Dzieci ulicy [Children of the Street, 1901]; Dziecko salonu [Child of the Salon, 1906]; Moski, Joski i Srule, [Moski, Joski and Srule, 1909]; Jozki, Jaski i Franki, [Jozki, Jaski and Franki, 1910]; Jak kochac dziecko [How to Love a Child, 1920]; Prawo dziecka do szacunku [The Child's Right to Respect, 1929]; Prawidla zycia [Rules of Life, 1930]) and poetic prose, (Sam na sam z Bogiem: Modlitwy tych, którzy sie nie modla [One On One With God: The Prayers of Those Who Do Not Pray, 1922]; Bezwstydnie krotkie [Shamelessly Brief, 1926]), as well as dramatic works, of which only one has survived: Senat szalencow (Senate of the Madmen), staged at the Ateneum Theater by S. Jaracz in 1931.

During the years 1926-1930, he edited Maly Przeglad (The Small Review), a publication he had founded himself. He also lectured at the State Institute of Special Pedagogy and at the Wolna Wszechnica Polska ("Free Polish University", a private university founded in 1918-1919). In 1935-1936, Polish Radio broadcast his programs, titled "Light-hearted Pedagogy", from which he was removed after attacks by nationalists, who accused him of "Jewing up the radio" and "demoralization" (the pretext was a discussion of bed-wetting).
During the Second World War, he organized care for children in the Warsaw ghetto and ran an orphanage. He died in the gas chamber after being transported along with his wards to Treblinka.

The following text is from an account by Nachum Remba, a member of the underground self-defense organization in the ghetto, who had been delegated to Umschlagplatz. In his account, he was the last to speak with Korczak, proposing that they go to the Community to seek intervention. Dr. Korczak refused, however, because he did not want to leave the children alone even for a moment. "No! I will never forget that image. That was not a march to the wagons, but an organized, mute protest against banditism! Unlike the crushed mass of people who went to slaughter like cattle, a march began the likes of which had never been seen before. (...) Those were the first ranks who went to their death with dignity, looking at the barbarians with contempt. (...) Even the Order Service stood at attention and saluted. When the Germans saw Korczak, they asked: "Who is that man?"
From E. Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1983), pp. 606-607.

Marek Rudnicki's account gives a different perspective on the last journey of Korczak and the orphans. Rudnicki followed Korczak and the children from the Orphans' Home on Sienna Street all the way to the "gate" on Umschlagplatz.

"I don't want to be an iconoclast or a debunker of myths, but I must relate what I saw then. The atmosphere was dominated by an enormous sense of passivity, automatism and apathy. No one was visibly moved that it was Korczak who was going, there was no saluting (as some people describe), there certainly was no intervention on the part of Judenrat members, and no one approached Korczak. There were no gestures, no singing, no proudly lifted heads, and I don't remember whether anyone was carrying the banner of the Orphans' Home, though some people say this was the case. There was a terrible, exhausted silence. Korczak dragged his feet, hunched over, mumbling something to himself from time to time (...).

A couple of adults from the Orphans' Home, including Stefa (Wilczynska), walking alongside, like I did, or behind him, the children at first going in groups of four, but then any way at all, in mixed ranks, in single file. Some of the children held Korczak by his clothing, maybe by his hand, they walked along as if in a trance."
M. Rudnicki, "Ostatnia droga Janusza Korczaka" ("Janusz Korczak's Final Journey"), Tygodnik Powszechny (45/1988).

One other legend still exists for which no one has ever found solid evidence-that the Germans actually suggested to Korczak that he leave the Umschlagplatz. H. Grynberg has provided a very incisive interpretation of Korczak's final journey:
"That amazement that a sick, old person, exhausted, abandoned, betrayed by the world in which he believed, a professional altruist, monk and the realest of saints (despite the anger, which he did not conceal) did not betray himself and did not hide in a hole to save his own pathetic biological being-that amazement-this was almost an abrogation of his entire life's work. Those speeches and tales of his heroic death because he did not want to leave the children on the way to the gas chambers and live as if nothing had ever happened-constitute the greatest disrespect for his noble soul."
H. Grynberg, Prawda nieartystyczna (Unartistic Truth), (Berlin, Archipelag, 1984), p. 122.

UNESCO declared the year 1978, the one hundredth anniversary of Korczak's birth as well as the Year of the Child, to be the Year of Korczak. A year later, in 1979, the International Korczak Federation was established, comprised of over twenty committees and Korczak Societies in Europe and worldwide.


Janusz Korczak, "Farewell"

We bid farewell to all who have departed
Or who will leave soon, never to return.
We bid farewell before their long and distant journey.
And the name of that Journey is Life.
Often we wondered how to say goodbye,
What advice to give.
Alas, words are lacking and weak.
We won't give you anything.
We won't give you God,
For you must find Him yourselves
In your own soul, in your solitary efforts.
We won't give you the Fatherland,
Because you must find it yourselves
By the labor of your heart and mind.
We won't give you human love, for there is no love without forgiveness, and to forgive-is toil, a labor which everyone must do for himself.
I will give you one thing: The yearning for a better life, which doesn't exist, but which will one day,
When Truth and Justice are alive.
Perhaps this yearning will lead you to God, Fatherland and Love.
Farewell, do not forget.
(With these words, Janusz Korczak bid farewell to the wards of the Orphanage Home as the left it in 1919.)
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