Who Was Janusz Korczak
By Betty Jean Lifton, PhD (1926-2011) – Author, Adoption Councelor, Lecturer
I first heard of Janusz Korczak in the summer of 1978 when friends who had left Poland during the war stopped by my home on Cape Cod with a theater director who had just arrived from Warsaw. As she was describing what it had been like for her troupe to perform in Janusz Korczak’s ghetto orphanage, I interrupted to ask who Korczak was. I couldn’t tell if she was more shocked at my ignorance or at my mispronunciation of his name, but she spent a few moments teaching me to say Kor–chock before answering my question.
As we spoke about him that afternoon, Korczak emerged as a utopian and yet pragmatic figure preoccupied with creating a better world through the education of children. He set up Poland’s first progressive orphanages designed as just communities for Jewish and Catholic children. He trained teachers in what we now call moral education, worked in juvenile courts defending children’s rights, and founded the first national children’s newspaper. Korczak’s adult books How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect gave parents and teachers new insights into child psychology. Generations of young people had grown up on his books, especially the classic King Matt the First, which tells of the adventures and tribulations of a boy king who aspires to bring reforms to his subjects. It was as beloved in Poland as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan were in the English–speaking world.
I could see Korczak belonging to that unique group of writers who were most at home in the company of the children for whom they created their stories. With a difference. Korczak’s children did not romp with their nannies on the manicured lawns of Kensington Gardens but languished in the dark slums of Warsaw. He set up orphanages and lived among children in real life, not just in the imagination, for he saw children as the salvation of the world.
Until 1978, I had been neither personally nor professionally involved with the Holocaust, but in the fall of that year my thirteen–year–old daughter and I went to live in Munich with my husband, who was beginning his study of the psychology of Nazi doctors. It wasn’t long before our small apartment was filled with books on the Third Reich and I was foraging through this grim library.
In most Holocaust volumes describing the murderous behavior of Nazi doctors, I would find references to Janusz Korczak’s last march with the children through the Warsaw Ghetto to the train that would take them to the death camp Treblinka. I wanted to know more about this man―a good doctor―who had chosen to die rather than compromise the principles by which he lived. What had given him the strength to uphold those principles in a world gone mad?
For the next five years I traveled back and forth between Warsaw, where his Jewish and Catholic orphanages had been, and Israel, where his few surviving Jewish disciples and former orphans now lived. From my interviews with the survivors of both orphanages I was able to tell the story of Korczak’s life, his work, and his death in my biography of him, The King of Children.
Misha, one of the Jewish teachers who trained with Korczak told me: “You know, everyone makes so much of Korczak’s last decision to go with the children to the train. But his whole life was made up of moral decisions. The decision to become a children’s doctor. The decision to give up a full–time medical practice and writing career to take care of poor orphans. The decision to go with the Jewish orphans to the ghetto. As for that last decision to go with the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature. It was who he was. He wouldn’t understand why we are making so much of it today.”
There are now Korczak societies all over the world. Both Israel and Poland claim Korczak as their own. The Poles consider Korczak a martyr who, had he been born a Catholic, would have been canonized by now. The Israelis revere Korczak as one of the Thirty–six Just Men, whose pure souls, according to ancient Jewish tradition, make possible the world’s salvation. An Israeli delegate to an international Korczak conference, and a former Warsaw Ghetto fighter, suggested that in Poland Korczak should be called a Jew and in Israel a Pole.
Korczak has recently been discovered by American pediatricians who see him as an inspiring model for all in their profession. The Academy of Pediatrics has made him an honorary member and is re–issuing my biography The King of Children.
For more information, visit: www.bjlifton.com/korczak.htm