How I Met Janusz Korczak
Stories have been the guiding light in my life: stories about peoples, about creatures, about individuals. In my family, without knowing exactly how or why, storytelling is a great art- perhaps our Celtic heritage, combined with the immigrant experience to New York and Philadelphia from Ireland and Wales, marked this as a way of internal survival. I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of being orphaned in the 1918 influenza epidemic- her mother was twenty years old and left three children in the blink of an eye. In her recounting of life experiences, we questioned and explored motivations for kindness and cruelty, especially to the most vulnerable, and specifically to motherless children.
In early adulthood I found the Camphill movement, intentional communities where families share their lives with children (in the schools) and adults (in the villages) who have “special needs” of all possible stripes. Here, recognition of our common humanity and the struggle to meet individual challenges while living in a world of mutual support is very real! These communities were founded in 1939 by a brave group of souls, together with the pioneering pediatrician Dr. Koenig, who was one of the hand full in the world interested in children with mental and emotional challenges. They were fleeing Hitler’s persecution in Vienna, and share with the Waldorf movement a background in anthroposophy, the name given to the work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher from the late 19th and early 20th century. So they were three times enemies of the Third Reich: Jewish, working with handicapped people, and anthroposophists!
It was in one of these Camphill communities in New York State that I first heard about Korczak. It was August 6th, sometime in the late 1970’s, and I was visiting a family I had close connections to . It was “Hiroshima Day”, and we had gathered to remember the terrible events of that day in 1945, when surprisingly, we heard a story that commemorated another tragedy of that wartime. My dear friend and mentor, Gerda Von Jeetze, herself a refugee at age 18, told the story of Korczak and the orphans, singing, with banners held high, marching with dignity to the cattle cars to Treblinka (we now feel that August 5th is the correct day for this event). Gerda told us of Korczak’s work, how he embraced children of al backgrounds and faiths who were in need of a home, and how he formed the most human of families with these young people, from tiny ones to young adults, in the ace of the non-human policies of the National Socialist Party and the Polish government, and how his death, but more importantly his LIFE, were a statement more eloquent than anything written by mankind before. She went on to say that Korczak’s legacy is to all good work for children, upholding their humanity and strengthening their hearts and minds, and is a fellow movement to Camphill. Indeed, many places throughout the Camphill Movement (and there are about over 200 places on all continents of this world!) are named for him, and for the life he led in service of the highest nature of the human being.
So it is in this story, told on a hot summer night by a soul, brave herself, that I came to know Korczak. Years later, Betty Jean Lifton’s The King of Children became one of my favorite books, and then I was privileged to meet Mariola Strahlberg and the work of Shining Mountain Children’s Center for Peaceful Childhood. I have visited Warsaw and have walked the streets of the ghetto and stood in the orphanage hall. The story of Janusz Korczak and his children live on not only in memory but in the deeds performed for the good of children and for all of humanity.
Joyce Reilly is the current President of the Janusz Korczak Association of the USA and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.