“I am not here to be loved and admired. It is not the duty of people to help me, but it is my duty to look after the world and the people in it.” —Janusz Korczak
The date of birth for the Polish educator is unclear: a result of the fact that his father, a well-to-do Jewish citizen of Warsaw, delayed filling the birth registration paperwork (it was either 1878 or 1879). Also unclear is the date of Korczak’s death, which – like that of millions of others murdered in Nazi extermination camps – went unrecorded. He was last seen on August 6, 1942 in Warsaw, when, having rejected repeated offers to escape, he accompanied a group of around two hundred Jewish orphans to the train that would take them to the Treblinka extermination camp.
As a young man, Korczak, whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit, was known for his sensitivity to the suffering of the marginalized. In particular, he seemed to be a magnet for street children, for whom he became a lifelong advocate as a doctor, author, and educator. Taking the nom de plume Janusz Korczak from a character in a children’s story, he promoted his ideals of progressive education in a series of books that combined new insights from child psychology with straightforward love for children. As he wrote:
Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ... The unknown person inside each of them is the hope for the future.
Korczak was more than a theorist. In 1911, he and his co-worker Stefania Wilczynska established the Dom Sierot orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. As a creative environment where children could flourish, Korczak’s orphanage even included the children’s own parliament, court, and newspaper.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Korczak was determined to protect his orphans and refused to go underground. Even when the children were interned in the Warsaw ghetto, he chose to stay with them: “You wouldn’t abandon your own child in sickness, misfortune, or danger, would you? So how can I leave two hundred children now?” Starving and often ill, he spent the last two years of his life protecting his charges as best he could.
When in August 1942 the order came down for the orphans to be transported to Treblinka, Korczak and Wilczynska knew what it meant. Telling the children they were headed to a new home in the country, he led them in a festive procession to the train station, each child neatly dressed and carrying a favorite toy or book. In the words of one eyewitness: “I will never forget the sight to the end of my life. It was a silent but organized protest against the murders, a march which no human eye had ever seen before.” The two teachers died with the children in the gas chambers shortly after their arrival in Treblinka.
Just days beforehand, Korczak had written in his diary: “I am angry with nobody. I do not wish anyone evil. I am unable to do so.”
Sources: Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary (Yale University Press, 2003), When I Am Little Again, and The Child’s Right to Respect (UPA, 1992); Betty Jean Lifton’s The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak (St. Martin’s Press, 1997).