Janusz Korczak and the Last Journey
Janusz Korczak was born in Warsaw, Poland on July 22, 1878 into an educated and assimilated Jewish family. His given name was Henryk Goldszmit. The son of a successful lawyer and the grandson of a highly regarded physician, Janusz Korczak was an eminent doctor, writer, educator, philosopher, radio host, and children’s rights advocate.
Janusz Korczak dedicated his life to caring for orphans and teaching adults how to treat children with compassion, decency, and respect.
Under the pen name of Janusz Korczak, he wrote several books, including How to Love a Child. In his children’s books, King Matt the First was the central character – a heroic boy-king who sought to bring reform and playgrounds to his people. His books, which have been translated into 20 languages, give tremendous insight into how a child views the world of adults. Dr. Korczak founded a weekly newspaper written by children, Little Review.
In 1934, Janusz Korczak had a weekly radio program which talked about how to raise children. Most of Poland listened to “The Old Doctor.” When Janusz Korczak’s Jewish identity was discovered, he was accused of trying to ruin Polish children and his radio show was canceled.
Despite the ongoing persecution of Jews, in 1937, the Polish Academy of Literature awarded Dr. Janusz Korczak the Golden Laurel for outstanding literary achievement.
With a deep passion for children’s care and education, Janusz Korczak gave up his successful medical practice to become the director of an orphanage for Jewish children, along with Stefania Wilczynska. The orphanage was radically progressive at a time when children were beaten and starved in many institutions. Dr. Korczak taught the children to trust and rely on adults. He instituted self-government and a court of peers. He taught the children how to work together, accept responsibility, and respect themselves and others.
“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.”
~ Janusz Korczak
One of Dr. Korczak's orphans said, "If not for the home, I would not know that there are honest people in the world who never steal. I would not know that one could speak the truth. I would not know that there are just laws."
Prior to 1935, Jews were thriving citizens of Poland and contributed to every aspect of society. When the persecution of the Jews began and anti-Jewish laws were enacted, Jewish businesses were boycotted. Jews could not attend universities and were forced to resign from their jobs. In 1939, Germany occupied Poland and all Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David on their arm, which Korczak refused to wear.
On Yom Kippur of 1940, it was announced that the Jews would be forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto. On November 29, 1940, the children of the orphanage were ordered to report to the ghetto. Dr. Korczak and the children moved to the crowded quarters at 33 Chlodna Street. Korczak's many Christian friends pleaded with him to go into hiding and find safety with them. He refused and said, “Who will take care of my children?”
Upon entering the gate of the ghetto, a German soldier confiscated their wagon of potatoes. Korczak protested and was arrested, beaten, and thrown into jail for a month. Upon release from prison, Korczak was a very sick man. In spite of his failing health, for the next two years, Janusz Korczak used all of his resources, connections, and energy to help his orphans survive in the ghetto with food, clothing, education, and dignity. The orphanage was an oasis in the middle of hell.
In 1942, rumors spread that the Germans were going to liquidate the ghetto. A plea to exempt the children was denied. Friends offered Korczak a way out. His Christian friend, Igor, obtained false papers for him. Disguised as a water and sewer inspector, Igor went into the ghetto to smuggle Korczak out and told him that this was his last chance to escape. Korczak berated him and said, “How can you possibly ask me to do that? I should abandon my children? They are going to be scared
Who is going to comfort them? I must go with them.”
During the summer of 1942, 265,000 Jews were rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and marched to Umschlagplatz, the place of assembly for deportation, where they were transported in cattle cars to Treblinka.
Block by block, the German police laid siege to the ghetto. On August 5, 1942, the Germans came to liquidate the orphanage. Janusz Korczak lined up his children in rows of four holding their favorite toys and books - 196 children holding hands. Korczak was at the head, holding one child in his arms and another by the hand. One child carried the flag of King Matt with a Star of David as they marched through the ghetto. There were no cries or screams in the hot August sun.
One eyewitness recalls, “This was no march to the train cars, but rather a mute protest against the murderous regime…a process the likes of which no human eye had ever witnessed.”
Another eyewitness, Joshua Perle, wrote, "A miracle occurred. 200 children did not cry out. 200 pure souls condemned to death did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows, they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother Janusz Korczak that he might protect and preserve them. Several nurses followed by 200 children dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes were being carried to the alter. The very stones wept at the sight of the procession."
Janusz Korczak and all of his children were murdered at Treblinka.
At Treblinka today, there is nothing there except 17,000 stones. Each stone is inscribed with a city, a town, a village, a country of the 870,000 Jews who were murdered there. There is not a single name on the stones except that of Janusz Korczak - teacher, doctor, author – who gave his life for his children.
As Sandra Joseph said in her book, A Voice For the Child, “Janusz Korczak is recognized and honored today, not only because he was a martyr, not only because he was a great writer and doctor, not only because he cared for the most neglected and poorest of children, not only because he made a unique contribution to the world of education, but because he was a man of great humility - who lived and died solely because of his deep belief in and love for children. Janusz Korczak truly was the champion of the child.”
The Janusz Korczak menorah is a scale model of the sculpture on display at the Holocaust Resource Center of Temple Judea in Manhasset, New York. It is called, “The Last Journey.” The mission of the Holocaust Resource Center is to educate young and old on the evils of prejudice, to teach the lessons of the Holocaust, and to combat ignorance, hatred, and violence. Learn more about the Center at www.temple-judea.com/holocaust-center.
Irving Roth, Director of the Holocaust Resource Center, was born in 1929 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia. Mr. Roth and his brother Bondi were hiding in Hungary when they were captured in the waning months of World War II and shipped first to Auschwitz. With the Russians closing in, the Nazis shut down that death camp and marched the prisoners into Germany to Buchenwald. “My brother and I were separated there,” said Mr. Roth. “I never saw him again.” Mr. Roth has written his story, Bondi’s Brother, and speaks about the Holocaust and antisemitism throughout the country.
The Janusz Korczak sculpture came about through Mr. Roth’s desire to honor the man he admires greatly, yet is mostly unknown in the United States. “The idea of a march from an orphanage in the ghetto to the train was a very emotional thing for me.” said Mr. Roth. “I tried to imagine in some way how one would show that Janusz Korczak was the ultimate defender of the child.” Mr. Roth, with Steve Pagiavles, designed the 7’ x 20’ sculpture.
The Janusz Korczak menorah is a collaboration between the Temple Judea
Holocaust Resource Center and Jewish Gift Place. Purchases can be made at JewishGiftPlace.com/collections/janusz-korczak.
100% of the proceeds are donated to the Holocaust Resource Center. The menorah is made by renowned Judaic artist, Gary Rosenthal, who finds it a mitzvah to make beautiful, functional art.