Yad Vashem marks 75 years since murders of Polish Jewish educators

Educators Janusz Korczak and Stefania Wilczyńska sacrificed their lives to care for the Warsaw ghetto orphans.

August 8, 2017 19:35
3 minute read.
Nadel family members lay a wreath at Yad Vashem

Members of the Nadel family lay a wreath next to the monument commemorating Janusz Korczak. (photo credit: AYALA TENENHOUSE/ YAD VASHEM)


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Yad Vashem on Tuesday hosted a day of events to remember Polish Jewish educators Janusz Korczak and Stefania Wilczynska, who sacrificed their lives to care for orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Both refused to abandon the children for safer hideouts. On August 5, 1942, the Nazis rounded up Korczak, Wilczynska and the 200 children of the orphanage. They marched in rows to the Umschlagplatz gathering point, with Korczak in the lead. Together they were sent to Treblinka, where they were all murdered.

On Tuesday, members of the Hamachanot Haolim youth movement participated in an educational seminar, conducted by Yad Vashem in conjunction with Yossi and Reuven Nadel of the Israeli Educational Institute in Memory of Janusz Korczak, and Liron Avnat, representing Hamachanot Haolim.

Yossi and Reuven are the sons of Shlomo Nadel, who is one of two remaining Holocaust survivors who lived in Korczak’s orphanage in Warsaw; the other is Yitzhak Belfer, 88. Neither men was able to attend the event due to their health, but Belfer, who had been scheduled to lay a wreath beside the monument commemorating Korczak and the children sent to their deaths, released a statement in his honor.

Yitzhak Belfer recalled the “great love” he had for Korczak. “I was seven years old when I arrived at the orphanage, and was granted the opportunity to be educated under him for eight of the most important years of my life,” he said. “The doctor walked among us like any other person, never patronizing – spreading love and concern for the children’s needs. In the orphanage we learned to believe in people, in the inclination for good that exists within each and every one of us.”

“When we talk about the Holocaust, we are not used to talking or even thinking about love,” said Dr. Naama Shik, director of the e-Learning Department at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, who moderated the seminar. “We almost always think of the Shoah from the end – the shooting pits, the gas chambers, the terrible journeys toward them. We think about the hunger, the cold, the horrors, the threats and the loss. We think about the breakdown of solidarity and the uncompromising battle for survival, the desperation, and often the extreme loneliness. But not about love.

“Janusz Korczak was the quintessential father figure, educator and democrat in a world of no tomorrow,” Shik continued. “He was a man of boundless love and dedication toward the children under his protection and care in the orphanage.”

At the conclusion of the seminar, a memorial ceremony took place at Yad Vashem’s Janusz Korczak Square, with a representative of the Polish Embassy among those in attendance. After that, Hamachanot Haolim members flew dozens of kites, to represent Korczak’s educational worldview, and to honor his legacy of respect, love and equality of rights.

Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a doctor, author and educator. He dedicated his life to caring for children, and believed they should always be listened to and respected. In 1912, Korczak became the director of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw.

Wilczynska and Korczak met in 1909, and began working together. When World War I broke out, Korczak became a military doctor with the rank of lieutenant, leaving Wilczynska in charge of the orphanage. (He served again as a doctor in the Polish Army with the rank of major during the Polish-Soviet War.) In 1935, Wilczynska visited Mandatory Palestine and lived at Kibbutz Ein Harod before returning to Warsaw in 1939. After the Nazi occupation of Poland, the members of Ein Harod arranged for her to leave Poland, but she turned the offer down and moved to the ghetto along with Korczak and the children.

“The legacy of Janusz Korczak and Stefania ‘Stefa’ Wilczynska is an essential part of the educational mission of Hamachanot Haolim youth movement,” Avnat said. “Throughout the year we discuss and utilize many of their teachings and use many of the tools they left for us for our activities and all of groups... The principles and beliefs that Korczak developed nearly 100 years later are still relevant and useful in educating our youth and future generations.”

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