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Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

Dr. Janusz Korczak, Loving Every Child

Dr Janusz Korczak and his Children.  Photo (c) Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, 2024
Dr Janusz Korczak and his Children. Photo (c) Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, 2024

This Yom Hashoah U’Gevurah (the full name of this day is, “Holocaust and Heroes Memorial Day”) we mark 81 years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  The theme of resistance does not just refer to armed resistance, but also to spiritual resistance.

Eighty-two years ago this summer one of the Warsaw Ghetto’s most celebrated residents, Dr. Janusz Korczak, entered eternity.  He died as he had lived, loving every child.  Korczak (the pen-name of Henryk Goldzmit) was a Jewish-Polish internationally acclaimed champion of children’s rights.  He was a  physician, author, and pedagogue famous throughout Europe.  Korczak developed an unorthodox, innovative yet highly effective philosophy of the child and child-rearing which were ahead of his time.

Korczak Memorial in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. Photo (c) T. Book, 2024

He lived and died for his children. As the director of an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, he refused repeated offers of sanctuary and he, and his devoted staff, including his devoted assistant, Stefa Wilczyńska (1886-1942),  steadfastly refused to leave his orphans, and marched with them to their certain death through the streets of the Ghetto when the inevitable deportation order arrived at the orphanage.  He perished with his charges at the Treblinka death camp in August 1942, just after his 64th birthday.  An eyewitness, Nahum Remba, recalled that terrible moment:

On the Umschlagplatz [the embarkation point], I suggested to Korczak that he come with me to the Judenrat and have them intercede with the Germans. He refused; he did not want to leave the children alone even for one minute. The loading of the boxcars to Treblinka began. Korczak led the procession. This was not an ordinary boarding of a train for a journey; it was a march of mute protest against barbarism. … The children marched in groups, with Korczak in the lead holding two little ones by their hands … Even the ghetto police stood at attention and saluted as they passed. Germans who witnessed the scene asked, ‘Wer ist dieser Mann?’ (Who is that man?). My vision became blurred as I cried and cried at our helplessness in the face of such evil.

In the Shiva house we do not talk about the death of the individual, but rather of the life.  Korczak’s selflessness in death was a reflection of a life well lived for others. His life, deeds, and writings echo in eternity.  Indeed his timeless philosophy on how to love and raise children is just as relevant today as it was then.  Korczak recommended in his writings, which are still widely available today,  an unprejudiced approach to children and highlighted the importance of care and attention, together with loving openness and attentiveness.  He strongly believed that each child has a pre-existing personality, and he was convinced that one cannot “shape” ones child according to one’s own dreams and expectations.  The fundamental foundation of Korczak’s approach is a child’s right to respect.

Korczak was a Zionist. He visited the Land of Israel twice, once in 1934 where he stayed in Kibbutz Ein Harod for six weeks and visited his former students, and once in 1936 where he travelled throughout the land.  He was moved to both deep emotion and admiration for the Zionist enterprise by his visits and would have probably settled in the land, had it not meant abandoning his charges as the clouds of war were gathering across Europe.

When I guide groups at the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, I point out the quote on the entrance from the Book of Proverbs, “The candle of God is the soul of man.” Korczak was a bright beacon in a sea of darkness, and it is only fitting that it is his statue hugging his children that greets the visitor at the exit of the Children’s Memorial amid the silent hills and grassy quietude of Jerusalem.

In Judaism we are taught that it does not matter how long one lives, but rather what one does with one’s life.  Korczak’s whole life led up to his “moment of truth” that summer day in 1942, and he had the calm spirit to step forward himself and do what he felt and knew was right.  He died as he lived, leading from the front, and selflessly sanctifying God’s name among the masses.  He lived his life devoted to others in endless self-sacrifice.  May we all continue to be inspired by this Jewish hero, and may “his” children, writings and good deeds be his eternity.  Korczak wrote:

 When I approach a child, I have two feelings. Affection for what he is today and respect for what he can become…Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people today.

Detail of the Korczak memorial statue at the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Photo (c) T. Book, 2024
About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He was a Senior Editor and Teaching Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. He is a research associate at the Hudson Institute. Tuvia is the author and illustrator the internationally acclaimed Israel education curriculum; "For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies" (Fifth edition, Koren 2017), and "Moral Dilemmas of the Modern Israeli Soldier" (Rama, 2011) and has a doctorate in Israel Education. His latest book, "Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt – 536 BCE-136 CE," was published by Koren this year. To order: https://korenpub.com/products/jewish-journeys
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