How I Met Janusz Korczak: My Trip to Yad Vashem
“Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have the right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ‘The unknown person’ inside of them is our hope for the future.” ― Janusz Korczak
During my graduate work in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, I was introduced to Janusz Korczak. I had never heard of him before that. Instantly, I wanted to know everything about his life and his teachings. He became my own personal hero of the Holocaust, the example of the best kind of teacher and human being. In 2016, I was fortunate to travel with the HAJRTP (Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher Program) to Poland and see the Korczak Memorial in Warsaw. This memorial features Korczak holding a small child in his arms while several children follow behind him. The faces of the children are sad and Korczak has a serious, yet strong expression. The memorial shows Korczak as the leader of the children. My next stop was Treblinka. The site of jagged rocks jutting out of the ground with a huge tombstone in the middle seemed fitting. I was standing in a cemetery, a place that murdered 800,000 Jews during the Holocaust. The stones contain the names of a villages effected by the Holocaust. One stone stands out because it has a name on it: Janusz Korczak. Korczak is the only name that appears at the Treblinka Memorial.
Recently, I attended the 10th Annual International Holocaust Conference at Yad Vashem. The first thing I needed to see was the Korczak memorial. As I stood and looked at it, tears immediately came to my eyes. The children looked sad, as if they knew the fate that awaited them. Korczak had the look of strength, but there was sadness in his face. His hand was around the children, trying to protect them, but he couldn’t. They were all murdered. An entire generation gone… forever.
Deb Smith teaches in public schools in Hanover, NJ, both middle and high school students. Her middle school students performed two plays: Korczak by Kentof and Korczak’s Children by Hatcher. Her high school students study Korczak’s biography and his philosophy on children.