Jewish World: Remembering the ‘spiritual father’ of all children

Murdered in the Holocaust 77 years ago, Janusz Korczak’s legacy, lessons and educational values have continued to inspire generations of teachers and children alike.

August 8, 2019 20:38
ITZHAK BELFER, who attended school at Janusz Korczak’s orphanage in Warsaw in the 1930s, and Dalia T

ITZHAK BELFER, who attended school at Janusz Korczak’s orphanage in Warsaw in the 1930s, and Dalia Tauber, chairwoman of the Korczak Educational Institute of Israel, place a wreath on the Janusz Korczak memorial at Yad Vashem. Inset: Janusz Korczak. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM/JANUS ASSOCIATION OF THE USA)

It was during the height of the Final Solution that on August 5, 1942, Nazi SS soldiers surrounded the well-known orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The soldiers were there to escort Janusz Korczak, his associate Stefania Wilczynska (Stefa) and about 200 children from the orphanage to the Umschlagplatz (deportation platform), where they were to board a train bound for the gas chambers of the Treblinka death camp.

They were never heard from again.

Korczak was a beloved children’s author, pediatrician and teacher whose values and lessons have been carried through the generations.

This week, Yad Vashem marked 77 years since his murder, with a symposium and a commemoration ceremony.

During the ceremony, Dalia Tauber, chairwoman of the Korczak Educational Institute of Israel, recalled how “another year has passed, and again we are here, counting 77 years since that bitter day, from that nightmare era in which the world lost millions of talented, good, passionate human beings.”

“We are gathered here today to mark and remember Korczak, Stefa, the teachers and the children,” she said, adding that “over the years many stories were told, many warm words were spoken,” about Korczak and his legacy.

“For us,” Tauber stressed, “the meaning of memory is the continuation of the way, the action, the spirit, the perception of their world – the promotion and empowerment of human values, democracy, human dignity – the dignity of the child in Israeli society.”

She explained that it was Korczak who taught us and examined the question of how to love a child.

“The question troubled Korczak during the First World War,” she said. “Already then, in the first part of his book How to Love a Child, from the First World War, he writes, ‘I call for Magna Carta Libertatum [the Great Charter of Human Rights], for the rights of the child.’”

Tauber explained that very few know that Korczak “is the spiritual father” of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel signed in 1991, adding that not many people know about this charter either.

She made it clear that today it is our obligation to create awareness about it and make sure it’s implemented.

“Now, 30 years into the signing of the Rights of the Child, after many amendments, we need to reconsider its content and it implementation,” she said. “[This] is a task that lies ahead of us, as adults in society, as educators and mentors, and as the successors of Janusz Korczak and Stefa Wilczynska.”

Tauber concluded that implementing it, examining it and spreading awareness about the charter “is another way for us to continue their journey and to commemorate Korczak, Stefa, the young educators and educators, and the 77-year-old trainees, all who were deprived of their lives in Treblinka, by people who had no respect for human rights, and certainly not for the rights of children.”

As the ceremony came to an end, Israeli youth took part in the traditional release of kites in memory of Korczak at the Monument to the Jewish Soldiers and Partisans.

Wreaths were also placed on his memorial at Yad Vashem by 96-year-old Itzhak Belfer, who attended the school at Korczak’s orphanage between 1930 and 1938, and Piotr Kozlowski, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Poland.

THE FASCINATING life story of Korczak began in Warsaw, where he was born on July 22, 1878, as Henryk Goldszmit.

“When Korczak’s father, a prominent lawyer and the sole source of income for the household, died after an illness in 1896, the family was left without a source of income, and Korczak became the sole breadwinner for his mother, sister and grandmother,” Yad Vashem explained. “The family environment in which he grew up undoubtedly influenced his personal development and his awareness and sensitivity toward social problems.”

He entered a literary competition in 1898, and it was then that he used the pseudonym Janusz Korczak, a name he took from a well-known 19th-century novel Janusz Korczak and the Pretty Sword Sweeper Lady.

“Between 1898 and 1904, Korczak studied medicine at the University of Warsaw and also wrote for several Polish newspapers,” Yad Vashem explained. “He specialized as a pediatrician and worked at the [Bersohn and Bauman] Children’s Hospital.”

He later served as a military doctor in the Russo-Japanese War in 1906, and it was during this time that he decided he could do more as an educator than as a doctor, as well as “make a lasting impression and contribution to the world.”

In the years following the war, Korczak joined a philanthropic organization for orphaned children and also opened a Jewish orphanage.

It was then that he appointed Stefa to work with him as his deputy director and house mother of the orphanage, which he called Dom Sierot.

“About 100 children lived in the orphanage,” Yad Vashem explained. “He established a ‘republic for children’ with its own small parliament, law court and newspaper, later reducing his other duties as a doctor.”

In the late 1920s and 1930s, he wrote several beloved children’s books, books for adults on child-minding, opened a children’s newspaper and had his own radio show – all of which gained him a large following.

His education teachings, which are still used today, stress that “childhood is not only the period of preparation for life, but an essential part of life itself, and every child should be given full rights and dignity.”

He believed strongly in the individuality of children and insisted that each child should be considered according to his or her uniqueness, talents and needs.

At the outbreak of World War II, Korczak volunteered for duty in the Polish army, but due to his age he stayed with the children in his Warsaw orphanage.

“At the end of November 1939, the German authorities forced every Jew to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David, but Korczak refused to do so and would not remove his Polish officer uniform even though he was putting himself in danger by not doing so.”

According to Yad Vashem, “when the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, his orphanage was forced to move to the ghetto. Korczak went with the children, even though he had repeatedly been offered shelter on the ‘Aryan side,’ however he always refused these offers, saying that he could not abandon his children,” the Holocaust remembrance center said.

He and Stefa continued to fight for the well-being of the children while in the ghetto, and would go door-to-door begging for food, warm clothes and medicines for them.

Despite his frail health and personal problems, he worked extremely hard to better the lives of the children in the orphanage and give them the most normal life possible.

After his murder in Treblinka, it was discovered that he had written a diary sharing his thoughts, notes and memories about life in the ghetto. It was published in 1958.

His legacy, lessons and educational values have continued to inspire generations of teachers and children alike.

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