The Janusz Korczak Chanukia (Korczak and I)
My acquaintance with Janusz Korczak started more than five decades ago. It was not his role during the Shoah, but as an educational innovator that I was exposed to. While education was neither my carrier nor background, it was my good fortune to be married to an expert and practitioner of Early Childhood Education, and so I absorbed ideas and philosophies on how to deal and speak with children and their parents. My wife Addie spent her whole life in dealing with issues relating to young children; first as a teacher, and then as the director of the nursery school at Temple Beth Sholom for over 30 years. As her husband, I was involved in many aspects of her carrier: from buying and installing nursery school equipment to attending lectures by Addie and other experts in the field. Educators like John Dewey, Chaim Ganat, John Kilpatrick, Piaget, Janusz Korczak, Montessori, and others became part of my vocabulary.
I always found Korczak’s ideas on children most interesting and warm. But I did not know about his greatness and heroism until I attended a lecture by Betty Jean Lifton, the author of King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak. Through that lecture I acquired a new appreciation for who he was and his humanity. He was not just an extraordinary educational philosopher and innovator, but a hands-on practitioner, writer, pediatrician, and speaker on the life of a child. Korczak devoted his whole life to caring for orphans, and neglected and abused children. He established two Children’s Homes in Warsaw where the children had an opportunity to determine the ethical and moral standards of behavior. He literally sacrificed his life so that 193 children in his care would not be frightened while in a cattle car on the way to the Treblinka death camp. He was gassed with them.
My most visceral feeling for Korczak came twice: once during a visit to “Yad Layeled”, the children’s museum at the Ghetto Fighters Museum in Naharia, Israel, where half of the exhibits are devoted to Korczak, and subsequently, when I was standing in the Korczak orphanage in Warsaw. It was at these two moments that I promised myself that his life must become part of every Holocaust education, which was lacking on the North American continent. The opportunity came in the fall of 1998.
I had the good fortune to be offered the directorship of the Holocaust Resource Center of Temple Judea of Manhasset. Along came two issues that I needed to address: what educational exhibits should occupy the Holocaust Exhibit Space; and what should be done with the reflecting pool, which was invaded by hundreds, if not thousands, of geese from all over Long Island.
The answer to the first issue was easy. We will have a section on Korczak with posters, paintings, and a slide presentation on the life and death of Korczak and his children.
The solution to the second issue became clear soon: The reflecting pool should be converted to a sculpture garden. The idea came to me that the most appropriate and fitting way to honor the man, I so admired, and the last time he and his children marched from their home in the Warsaw Ghetto to the cattle car, would be the sculpture. The “Last March of Janusz Korczak and His Children” was born. The concept was enthusiastically accepted and fully supported by the clergy and all members of the Holocaust Committee. Then I had to get the finances and the design. I presented the idea to Mr. Fred Gould who was so taken by the story of Korczak that the finances became a non-issue.
The transformation of the sculpture garden’s concept to the design was a collaboration between me and Steve Pagiavles, my friend and art teacher. The twenty feet by seven feet sculpture was fabricated by a steel cutting facility and painted by a new process, called “Powder Coating”. The Sculpture Garden with the Janusz Korczak sculpture has graced the front of the Holocaust Resource Center for almost two decades. It has been seen and talked about by tens of thousands of people.
About one year ago, Risa Borsykowsky joined as a volunteer at the Holocaust Resource Center. Risa’s husband, Michael, admired the Korczak sculpture and suggested that a scaled-down version of the sculpture could form the basis for an unusual Chanukia. I thought this would be an excellent way to propagate the Janusz Korczak legacy to the Jewish public. Risa created over 15 designs. We chose two, which were then made by the Gary Rosenthal’s company. The response has been very positive. From September to the end of December 2017, 115 Korczak Chanukias were bought by people from all over the world.
Irving Roth is a Holocaust survivor, the director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea in Manhasset, Long Island, NY, and the member of the Advisory Board of the Janusz Korczak Association of the USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.