Who was Janusz Korczak?
"The lives of great men are like legends—difficult but beautiful," Janusz Korczak once
wrote, and it was true of his. Yet most Americans have never heard of Korczak,
a Polish-Jewish children's writer and educator who is as well known in Europe
as Anne Frank. Like her, he died in the Holocaust and left behind a diary;
unlike her, he had a chance to escape that fate—a chance he chose not to
Betty Jean Lifton
His legend began on August 6, 1942, during the early stages of the Nazi
liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto-though his dedication to destitute children
was legendary long before the war. When the Germans ordered his famous
orphanage evacuated, Korczak was forced to gather together the two hundred
children in his care. He led them with quiet dignity on that final march
through the ghetto streets to the train that would take them to "resettlement
in the East"—the Nazi euphemism for the death camp Treblinka. He was
to die as Henryk Goldszmit, the name he was born with, but it was by his
pseudonym that he would be remembered.
It was Janusz Korczak who introduced progressive orphanages designed as
just communities into Poland, founded the first national children's newspaper,
trained teachers in what we now call moral education, and worked in juvenile
courts defending children's rights. His 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 Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland
were in the English-speaking world. During the mid-1930s, he had his own radio
program, in which, as the "Old Doctor," he dispensed homey
wisdom and wry humor. Somehow, listening to his deceptively simple words made
his listeners feel like better people.
At the end, Korczak, who had directed a Catholic as well as a Jewish
orphanage before the war, had refused all offers of help for his own safety
from his Gentile colleagues and friends. "You do not leave a sick child
in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this," he
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 on Cape Cod, Korczak emerged as a
utopian and yet pragmatic figure preoccupied with creating a better world
through the education of children. I could also see him belonging to that
unique group of writers, along with Lewis Carroll and James Barrie, 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 them as the salvation of the world.
It wasn't that Korczak glorified children, as did Rousseau, whom he
considered naive. Korczak felt that within each child there burned a moral
spark that could vanquish the darkness at the core of human nature. To prevent
that spark from being extinguished, one had to love and nurture the young,
make it possible for them to believe in truth and justice. When the Nazis
materialized out of that darkness with their swastikas, polished boots, and
leather whips, Korczak was prepared to shield his Jewish children, as he
always had, from the injustices of the adult world. He went with them into the
ghetto, although he had been offered refuge on the Aryan side of occupied
Warsaw, and spent the last two-odd years of his life protecting them and other
orphans from starvation and disease.
The theater director described how she had watched with others from behind
shuttered windows in the Warsaw Ghetto as Korczak, head held high, marched by
with his little band on that last day. It seemed to her then that this man,
who behaved as if he had a divine calling to save children, had failed, much
as his fictional King Matt had failed in his attempt to make the world a
better place. And yet, by remaining true to his principles and not abandoning
the children when they needed him most, he had achieved his own kind of
Korczak wrote of life as a strange dream, and sometimes my own life seemed
just that as I began learning about his. 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.
Plunging into Holocaust literature, especially in Germany, was like
plunging into an abyss. I seemed to be living in two time frames at once, with
the past often taking on more reality than the present. Waking up in the
middle of the night, I would transform the smoke stacks of the neighboring
brewery into crematoria; the local train would become a cattle car; and
Bavarian men parading in colorful costumes would metamorphose into the SS
goose-stepping through the streets in full regalia. As an assimilated American
Jew who had never dwelt on my Jewish identity, I was now confronted with what
it meant to be a Jew during the Third Reich in Europe —and, for that matter,
through all of history.
Often, in the volumes describing the murderous behavior of Nazi doctors, I
would find references to Janusz Korczak's last march with the children. 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?
But something else drew me to Janusz Korczak. I identified with him as a
writer—as one who has written fantasies for children, and working as a
journalist in the Far East, reported on war-wounded, orphaned, and displaced
children in Hiroshima, Korea, and Vietnam. Many of my books are concerned with
the right of all children to know their heritage and to grow up in a world
unthreatened by war.
Yet I might not have pursued my interest in Janusz Korczak any further had
my husband and I not been injured in a car crash in Paris and gone to the
Sinai to recuperate. On our return trip by way of Jerusalem, I heard that some
of the orphans Korczak had raised and the teachers he had trained were living
in Israel. And in that city of strange dreams I made a sudden decision to
remain for a few months with my daughter in order to interview them.
I rented a small stone house overlooking the walls of the Old City and went
about with an interpreter to interview Korczakians, as they call themselves.
They ranged in age from the fifties to the eighties, all having lived or
taught in his Jewish orphanage during different periods after its founding in
1912. Many were alive because as Zionists they had emigrated to Palestine in
the nineteen-thirties; a few had survived ghettos and concentration camps or
had spent the war years in remote towns in Siberia. Others had come to Israel
following the 1967 Six-Day War in the wake of the "anti-Zionist purge"
that essentially swept Poland of its remaining Jews.
"I don't want to talk about the dead Korczak, but the living one,"
they would begin, disturbed at his being remembered for the way he died rather
than for the way he had lived. It was not the martyr whom they had known and
revered, but the vital, fallible father and teacher. Listening to them, I
could envision Korczak as a modest, disciplined man who dismissed with an
ironic quip problems that would have over whelmed others. Traveling to the
kibbutzim and the cities he had visited during the two brief trips he made to
Palestine in the mid-thirties, I tried to understand his state of mind then.
Although not a Zionist, Korczak had been forced, like so many acculturated
Jewish writers in prewar Europe, to keep one step ahead of the malevolent
thrusts of history. When the rise of extreme nationalism in Poland caused him
to despair about the future of his work, he turned to Palestine but was deeply
ambivalent about whether or not to settle there. Believing that, to avoid
being a deserter, "one has to remain at one's post till the very last
moment," he was still in Warsaw on September 1, 1939, when the Nazi
invasion of Poland settled the issue for him.
Who was Janusz Korczak? I have on my desk his two best-known photographs:
one of himself as a young boy that he used as the frontispiece of his book King
Matt the First so that his readers could see him as he was when he was
small and vulnerable like them; the other of a man whose eyes are intense and
sad and whose bald head disappears into white space because an impulsive
orphan ripped the photograph out of the developer before it was ready.
These are the two Janusz Korczaks—the young utopian King Matt who dreamed
of making a better world for children, and the skeptical Old Doctor who knew
that one always falls short of attaining the dream.
"It will be hard to describe Korczak to Americans," the
Korczakians had told me in Israel. I was to hear the same sentiments from
Korczakians in Poland—but for different reasons. "He was very Polish,"
Igor Newerly, Korczak's former secretary and now a prominent writer, told me.
"But at the same time that he was part of the Polish intelligentsia of
his period, he was alone. A man with his own individualistic style and
beliefs. He was warm and witty, but he was also lonely and sad. He was
everything, and you have to capture that. "
To capture everything, I soon realized, meant to see Korczak as both a Pole
and a Jew. to be both—in the words of the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki—is more
difficult than to be just a Pole or just a Jew. The problem is revealed in the
semantics of the issue: a Polish Catholic is called a
Pole, but a Polish Jew is called a Jew, not a Pole.
Perhaps because Korczak was determined to live as both a Pole and a Jew in
prewar Poland, he was not above criticism in his lifetime: many Jews saw him
as a renegade who wrote in Polish rather than Yiddish or Hebrew, while no
amount of acculturation could make the right-wing Poles forget that he was a
Jew. The radical socialists and the communists of the interwar period saw him
as a conservative because he was not politically active, and the conservatives
saw him as a radical because of his socialist sympathies. There were those who
considered him an eccentric, even as they sang his praises and supported his
causes: unmarried, asocial, he was as intolerant of pompous and
self-aggrandizing adults as he was tolerant and forgiving of mischievous
As I talked with people in Warsaw i pondered how to write this book about
Janusz Korczak. Those who do not want their biographies written burn their
papers; history had done that for Korczak. The Warsaw Ghetto, where he was
confined from late 1940 until mid-1942, was destroyed by the Germans during
the uprising there a year after his death. Consumed in the flames were the
notebooks in which Korczak had jotted down his thoughts in his microscopic
handwriting; his letters and memorabilia; his observations on children's sleep
patterns, and the weight and height charts collected over thirty years that
were to comprise a book on child development; his library of both literary and
scientific books in French, German, and Russian, as well as Polish; and his
drafts of books he planned to write. The relatives and childhood friends who
would have been able to fill in the details of Korczak's early life and
provide some portrait of his parents and sister died in the camps.
To go in search of Janusz Korczak, as i did, was to seek a man who was no
longer there in a place that was no longer there. His multi-ethnic world no
longer exists. Warsaw, once called the Paris of the East, vibrant with cafes,
fine restaurants, and cabarets, was leveled by the Germans during the uprising
of the Poles in 1944. Rebuilt after the war (with the baroque Palace of
Culture, an unwelcome gift from the Russians, dominating the skyline), the
city resonates with economic and political discontent.
During my four trips to Poland and my two trips to Israel between 1979 and
1986, the Korczakians were always generous enough to delve into their memories
for one more detail about their experiences with Korczak. in the sparse
archives in Warsaw and Israel, I was able to find a few books of reminiscences
by people who had known Korczak in one capacity or another. There were also
copies of his twenty-four published fiction and nonfiction books—many of them
autobiographical—as well as the newspaper and magazine articles, numbering
over one thousand, that he wrote throughout his life. Other than the six dozen
letters written in the late twenties and thirties that were saved by their
recipients in Palestine, all that remains of Korczak's private papers is the
diary that he wrote in the last desperate months of his life. Smuggled out of
the ghetto after his death, it was sealed up in the walls of his Catholic
orphanage in the Warsaw suburb of Bielany and retrieved after the war ended.
Although Korczak died a year before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, many of his
surviving Jewish orphans and teachers returned to Poland from all over the
world to honor him during the commemoration of the Uprising's fortieth
anniversary in April of 1983. They came reluctantly, some because of the
imposition of martial law in 1981 and the disbanding of Solidarity, but most
because of the pain of reliving the past and of seeing how little remained of
the world they had known.
It is this lost world of Janusz Korczak, and of Warsaw's 350,000 Jews, that
one encounters when one visits the former site of the Jewish quarter. It had
been walled in by the Nazis to make the ghetto, and then burned by them to
make the barren stretch of rubble that for many years after the war the Poles
referred to as the "Wild West." New buildings have gradually risen
over the ashes and rubble. The Ghetto Fighters Monument sits in the center of
this unnatural landscape, reminding one of the unnatural cruelties which were
The International Janusz Korczak Association, based in Warsaw, invited its
members to an unveiling of his bust that now commands the front courtyard of
the former Jewish orphanage. The irony would not be lost on the Old Doctor
that the four-storied white building, gutted during the war, was restored in
the mid-fifties without the garret room that had served as his study. The
stretch of roof is no longer broken by the graceful arc of the three-paned
window through which he had peered at the children playing below and fed the
wild sparrows who kept him company. When the unveiling ceremony was over, the
Korczakians wandered through the orphanage, looking—for what? Themselves as
children or apprentice teachers? For the Old Doctor? For Stefa Wilczynska, who
had been his co-director for thirty years?
The Polish orphans who live there now moved like phantoms through the
halls, making room for the old phantoms who had come back. They invited us to
sit in the large recreation room, which had also served for dining and
studying in Korczak's day, to watch them perform two short plays: one a
humorous skit based on a scene from King Matt; the other a reenactment
of the march by Korczak and the Jewish orphans to the train that transported
them to Treblinka. The Polish children became the ill-fated Jewish ones they
had heard so much about, walking slowly with Korczak to their unknown
destination, even climbing up into an imaginary cattle car and gathering in a
circle around him, swaying with the movement of the train, as he told them one
last story in which good prevails over evil.
On the chartered bus that was taking us back to our lodgings, I sat next to
Michal (Misha) Wroblewski, a teacher who was the last among the survivors to
have seen Korczak alive. He had been working on the other side of the wall—at
a job Korczak had managed to find for him— and returned to the ghetto
orphanage late that afternoon to find everyone gone.
Misha was silent for some time, and then he leaned over to 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 medicine and
his writing career to take care of poor orphans. The decision to go with the
Jewish orphans into 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. "
As I worked on this book back in New York City and Cape Cod, I came to see
Korczak as a man who walked without fear over what the Hasidim call the narrow
bridge of life, making at each stage the moral decisions that would inform his
Betty Jean Lifton is the author of The King of Children:
The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak
Synopsis: "As stirring as Schindler's List, this classic biography focuses on the first advocate of children's rights—the
man known as the savior of hundreds of orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. A New York Times Notable Book." The King of Children can be
purchased online at amazon.com.