University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


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  • Janusz Korczak's Biography

    Janusz Korczak's Biography

    Janusz Korczak, 1878 - 1942

    A Summary of his life adapted by Jane Pejsa from the Monika Pelz biography, "Nicht mich will ich retten," die Lebensgeschichte des Janusz Korczak, published 1985, 1997, Beltz Verlag, 699494 Hemsbach Germany

    Janusz Korczak was born in Warsaw. His birthname was Hersz Goldszmit, but they all called him Henryk. The family was Jewish. His parents did not practice their religion; they considered themselves liberated Jews as well as Polish patriots. The father was a lawyer and the family prospered. Henryk was an only child, a sensitive child, unusually aware of the least fortunate in his neighborhood, be they humans or animals.

    This was the time of the Russian occupation. Since 1815 "royal Poland," of which Warsaw was the capital, had been under the heel of Czarist Russia. The situation generated an increasingly militant Polish nationalism, that was subscribed to by all classes of society, including families such as the Goldszmits.

    Henryk was given the best education available. Very early he chose to be a physician, his specialty pediatrics. Early on he vowed never to marry, never to have a family, rather to devote his life to children, especially to those among the underprivileged.

    Even as a practicing physician Henryk began writing dramas and essays, all under the pseudo name of Janusz Korczak. These essays appeared regularly in major Polish periodicals. Korczak even wrote for the left Socialist periodical Glos, [Voice].

    Before long the young physician author, now a professor also, became known in larger circles. Once at an elegant dinner party one of the guests declared, "Children are the future of the nation." To which the professor added a sharp retort: "You are right, but you must understand what you are saying. If you really understood, then you would be unable to eat with such self-satisfied equanimity the fruit compote, the chicken and the carrots served here this night."

    With such statements, uttered more often than not in sophisticated genteel surroundings. Janusz Korszak earned the reputation of an over-sensitive, boring and morose professor.

    In 1906 Korszak used his vacation time to organize a summer camp for children from the Warsaw slums. This "Summer Colony Michalowka" lasted an entire month. The experience of shepherding street-hardened children through a summer holiday became the turning point in Korczak's life. He determined to found a children's home for orphaned and neglected children, a home where justice, compromise, and respect would reign. The opportunity came in 1911 when Korszak discovered in Warsaw a Jewish orphanage that was the shame of the city. He persuaded a Jewish organization called "Help for the Orphans" to fund a new home for these waifs and he named the home "Dom Sierot" [House of the Orphans].

    And so the orphanage took shape with loo abandoned and neglected children. Korszak applied the child rearing methods developed by the Swiss reformer Johann Pestolazzi and Friedrich Fröbel of Germany, adding his own unique interpretations. As recorded later by his assistant Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa, "In the large family of the orphanage the Herr Doktor represented the creative, the imaginative, and the dominant element. Like a father, he would appear at the moment of crisis and find an immediate solution, always with a benevolent countenance and a lighthearted manner. He came and went like flow and ebb."

    Yes Janusz Korszak "came and went," for much of his time was spent begging for money from the more prosperous families in the city--Jewish and non-Jewish alike. He became master of the art.

    In 1914, war broke out in Europe--the First World War. Janusz Korszak was 36 years old. He was called into the Russian Army and assigned as chief physician in a division hospital. As his division moved through the Urkraine, he sat up nights in his tent and wrote his first professional book--the German title, Wie man ein Kind lieben soll [How to love a child]. He wrote about nourishment and sleep for infants, about the duty of parents, how to recognize and respect the individuality and the needs of each child. He wrote about the difficulties of growing up for children. He wrote with humor and with wit, but always with the same plea to the Reader--take note, pay attention! During those years in the field he also wrote a group of essays entitled Der Frühling and das Kind [Spring and the child], based on his experiences watching parents and children in the war torn countryside.

    Korszak's reputation both as writer and physician had by now reached the ears of higher authorities. He was detached from his division and sent to Kiev as a pediatric physician. It was here that he met the Polish nurse Maryna Rogowska-Falska, with her own troubled past. She had at one time been been active in the Polish Socialist Party, hence banished to Siberia. Later freed, she married and had one child, a daughter. Both husband and daughter soon died of typhus.

    After the war, in 1919, Korszak returned to Dom Sierot in Warsaw, having invited RogowskaFalska to come back to Warsaw and establish an orphanage for Polish Christian children, an orphanage based on his philosophy. This she did and named it Nasz Dom [Our house]. It was a terrible time in Poland with starvation and disease rampant. During the war, by a miracle and careful care, the Dom Sierot children escaped the typhus epidemic. But the years following the war were indeed a struggle. Korszak and Falska worked closely together. Summer holidavs were alwavs a ioint adventure. with the children of Dom Sierot and Nasz Dom playing together in the countryside.

    In 1923 Janusz Korczak wrote his most famous children's book, the fairy tale of König Hänschen. It began as other fairy tales have begun, "Once upon a time there was an old good king who died and his little son inherited the throne. Since the boy's mother was also dead, little Hänschen had no one who loved him . ..." Not only is this the tale of an orphan boy and loss of innocence, but also a tale of the terrible trials that accompany war and the aftermath of war--corruption, greed, and cynicism. The good King Hänschen left his throne to wander about the countryside, trusting only in the children and thus experiencing marvelous adventures. When he returned to his kingdom and took up adult responsibilities, he was finally bested by the evil forces of modern industrialization, a hint of things to come, namely: the German Nazis and their political cousins, the Polish National Democrats.

    In the 1920's the phenomenal growth of the Polish National Democrats with its harsh antisemitism caused great uneasiness in the Jewish community. Janusz Korczak, ever the protective father to his many children, was not blind to these developments. Still he persevered to assure support not only for Dom Sierot but also for Maryna Faska's Nasz Dom. He even published a collection of conversations, Kinderberichte [Children Speaking], between himself and one or another of the many children.

    Then in 1935, in the wake of the world wide Great Depression, Korczak's perennial optimism was shaken. Poland's democracy was crumbling under a rising Polish fascism even as Nazi Germany increasingly threatened Polish independence, always accompanied by waves anti Jewish rhetoric. Among Jewish youth there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for a modern Zion in Palestine. In 1934 Korczak had spent six weeks at a Kibbutz in Palestine. The idealism and hope that sprang from that environment so tantalized him that in July of 1935 he made a second visit, perhaps believing he might find a home there. But it was not to be. Janusz Korczak believed too strongly in a community where there were neither races nor classes. He rejected thoughts of a "Jewish Paradise" just as he had rejected thoughts of a "Workers' Paradise" and above all of an "Aryan Paradise." His ideal was a universal brotherhood within a democratic system. Well aware that the path of Poland and Europe was ever further from his ideal, Korczak nevertheless returned home to Warsaw and to the children.

    September 1, 1939: Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west with a massive air and ground offensive. England and France declared war on September 3, but it was too late for Poland. Then on the 17th of the month. Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. The government issued a call to arms to the citizens of Warsaw, then fled to Romania. Warsaw fell to the Germans in three days. Even as the city was in chaos, Dom Sierot maintained its quiet solitude. Korczak for himself a Polish military uniform, then took to the streets to beg food and monev for his charges. He refused to wear the "Jewish Star" on his clothing and rather ordered a large blue flag to be fabricated at the orphanage--on one side King Hänschen and the flowers of his kingdom, on the other side the great Star of David.

    By now the infamous Nazi proscriptions were increasingly laid upon the Jews--only to buy in Jewish stores, only to walk on certain streets, never to take a street car, reduced rations--half of what other Poles received even as the Poles were given far less than a body required. On the few occasions when the children were allowed to leave Dom Sierot as a group, Korczak always walked at the front of the line, while the lead child behind him carried the Dom Sierot flag. So curious was the spectacle that the German authorities often stood aside even though no child wore the required "Jewish star." The non-Jewish Poles as well took note of the steadfastness of the eccentric Doctor who lived only for his children. Secret offers were forthcoming--help from the underground to aid the old man in an escape from the city, perhaps even escape from the country. All such offers were ignored.

    Late in 1940 the Germans commissioned a wall to be built across an entire piece of northern Warsaw, an area that included the Dom Sierot. This wall would define the Warsaw Ghetto, to which not only Warsaw Jews, but Jews from all over Poland, Germany and elsewhere would eventually be driven. In mid October the command was issued over great loud speakers--all Jews to the Ghetto. Within a few days the population of Dom Sierot doubled--200 children to be fed and cared for under increasingly desperate circumstances.

    The story of the terrible conditions and the abject cruelty of the conquerors as manifested in the Warsaw Ghetto has been told elsewhere. The ghetto population soon numbered some 400,000 wretched victims, virtually all suffering from starvation, cold, and disease.

    The good Doctor monitored his young charges and protected them by whatever paltry means he had. Still the offers came to help him escape, a forged passport fabricated by the Jewish Underground within the ghetto, money delivered from the Polish Underground through the hidden tunnels and sewers that still connected to the outside world. All were rejected. Janusz Korczak would not leave his children, for he alone was their protector.

    In July of 1942 the order was given that all inhabitants of the ghetto were to be resettled in the east. On August 4, Janusz Korczak wrote the last entry in his journal: "Today I watered the flowers, the poor plants of the orphanage, a Jewish orphanage. The parched earth breathed in the water. A sentry looked at me as I worked. Did he envy me in my peaceful task at this early morning hour, or was he moved by it perhaps? With his legs apart he stands there and watches. I water the flowers. My reflection on the window pane, a good sign. He has a rifle. Why does he stand there and watch me so peacefully? He gives no command. Perhaps he once led a normal life as a village school teacher, perhaps a lawyer, or a street sweeper in Leipzig or a waiter in Cologne. What will he do if I nod to him? Wave in a friendly fashion? Perhaps he has no idea that things are as they are. Perhaps he just arrived yesterday from somewhere else ..."

    On August 5, the entire orphanage with a thousand others from the ghetto was marched to the railroad marshaling yard, to be transported east in windowless sealed cattle cars. One in the crowd from the ghetto witnessed the extraordinary drama and lived to describe it:

    "Forced into tight formation, body against body, driven by guards wielding whips on all sides, the solid mass of humanity was forced to run toward the train platform. Suddenly the Commandant ordered the Secret Police to pull back . ...

    "At the head of a thin line was Korczak! No, how could it be? The scene I shall never forget. In contrast to the mass of humanity being driven like animals to slaughter, there appeared a group of children marching together in formation. They were the orphanage children walking four abreast in a line behind Korczak. His eyes were lifted to heaven. Even the military personnel stood still and saluted. When the Germans saw Korczak, they asked, `Who is that man?' ... "

    Another survivor, who succeeded in fleeing from the railroad platform, remembered the scene as Korczak and the children were put into the cattle cars.

    "These children did not cry, these innocent little beings did not even weep. Like sick sparrows they snuggled up to their teacher, their caregiver, their father and their brother Janusz Korczak, that he might protect them with his weak, emaciated body . ..."

    The train took them all to the death camp at Treblinka and none was ever heard of again. In the decades that followed, legends grew up around the extraordinary little band on its last march. It was said that the children lifted high their Dom Sierot flag and that a boy among them played his violin as they walked to the cattle car. It was even suggested that Janusz Korczak himself was reciting aloud from the fairy tale he had written years earlier for children from the slums of Warsaw:

    "Let us not go back to Warsaw, rather take our flags with us, sing a song and make ourselves on the way . ... Once we reach a village, Geszel will play his violin and they will give us milk ..."

    Readings available in the English language:
    Berhaim, Father of Orphans
    Korczak, Janusz, Ghetto Diary
    Lifton, Betty Jean, The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, St. Martin's Griffin, New York 0-3112-15560-3

    Dramatic film:
    Andrzej Wajda, Korczak (1990) 1HR 50.