The Life and Death of Henryk Goldszmit

Few Jews will know the name. Many Poles do. I write this article in gratitude to one of our readers, a Polish woman named Ewa Wlosinska, who had the courage to e-mail me a protest letter for what she called my “hate-mongering”, referring to my most recent article, “Poland-Again!!!”

Her letter was polite and clear in her explanation of my anti-Polish comments. She informed me that she had been born and raised in Poland and was an avid reader of poems and novels written by Polish Jewish authors. She wrote of her great respect for the culture which Jews had shared with non-Jewish Poles.

Her message really touched my heart and I responded to her accordingly. She mentioned the name of one of my childhood Polish Jewish heroes, the subject of this article written in gratitude to Ewa Wlosinska.

Henryk Goldszmit was a world-famous Polish-Jewish author of more than 20 children’s books, a renowned teacher and educator whose reputation was known throughout Europe and beyond. He was often called Pan Doktor (Mr. Doctor) or Stary Doktor (Old Doctor).

His life began at his birth in Warsaw in 1878, son of Jozef Goldszmit, a lawyer from an enlightened Jewish family of the haskalah period, and his mother Cecylia, daughter of an important Polish Jewish religious family. In his later years, Henryk became an agnostic who believed that religion should not be forced on young children.

From 1898-1909 he was a student in the medical school of the University of Warsaw, specializing in pediatric medicine. During those years he published several articles in leading Polish newspapers dealing with his favorite subject, the rights of children.

He practiced medicine in Warsaw, still writing children’s books and texts on the rights which children should have. In 1898 he won first prize in a Polish literary contest using his new pen-name, Janusz Korczak. It is by that name that his international reputation and fame became known.

From 1905-1906 he served as a medical doctor in the Polish army during the Russo-Japanese war and in 1911 he became the director of Warsaw’s Jewish orphanage, Dom Sierot, the most famous orphanage in Poland, a position he held until his untimely death.

In this orphanage which he designed, he created for the children a parliament, court, and newspaper of their own. They alone could write, publish, make laws and defend them in their courts where they, young children less than thirteen years of age, served as lawyers, defendants, prosecutors and judges.

The orphanage under Korczak’s guidance became an independent small country all for the children.

In 1926 the children began writing and publishing their very own newspaper, “Maly Przeglad” (Small Review) and it was attached to the week-end edition of Poland’s largest Jewish daily newspaper, printed in Polish, “Nasz Przeglad” (Our Review) read by thousands of Polish Jews every day.

Dr. Korczak established an independent radio station which emphasized his position on the rights of children. His book was the first ever published on the subject of children’ rights. It was the first in the world pertaining to the rights of every individual child.

At a time when corporal punishment was acceptable for parents to inflict upon disobedient children, Korczak’s 1925 masterpiece, “The Child’s Right to Respect”, was published, read in many countries in translation from the original Polish, and for this unique book Janusz Korczak was awarded a literary prize.

(I regret that my parents had never read it ! It could have saved me from many painful spankings !!!).

In 1933 the Polish government bestowed upon him the Silver Cross of Polonia Restituta, (Reborn Poland).

Each year from 1934-1936 he traveled to Palestine and was immensely impressed with the kibbutzim and, in particular, with the special care given to young children following the ideas of which he had written.

Some anti-Semitic comments were written in Polish newspapers criticizing Korczak for his praise of Palestinian child care above other nations.

In 1936 he was invited to move to Palestine either to practice pediatric medicine or to be a professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But Dr. Korczak refused the offer because he would not abandon the children in his orphanage.

After Nazi Germany occupied Poland in 1939, his orphanage, Dom Sierot, became an area within the ghetto of Warsaw. He moved with his almost 200 children into a new spacious building.

In August 1942, the Nazis came and forcibly took 196 young children from ages 3 – 13, together with 12 staff members, preparing to ship them to the death camp in Treblinka.

The Polish underground Zegota, offered Janusz Korczak safety on the Aryan side of Warsaw and appealed to him to accept their offer. His reputation was known world-wide and Poland took great pride in him and in his special work.

But Korczak refused the offer declaring that he could not nor would not abandon his children in the orphanage. He chose to go to his death together with the children.

He had told the children that they were going on a train to a lovely pastoral place with plenty of fresh air. The children were dressed in their finest clothes and shoes, each one holding a small book or a favorite toy.

As 196 children and 12 staff members, together with Dr. Janusz Korczak were about to board the train to Treblinka, a Nazi guard recognized Korczak from his picture in a children’s book which the Nazi’s child had read .

He approached Dr. Korczak and told him he could save him from Treblinka by sending him instead to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, a non-death camp reserved for internationally prominent people . There, he was told, he could live out the war and survive.

Dr. Janusz Korczak, the Jew born as Henryk Goldszmit, refused the offer and arrived at Teblinka with his 196 orphans, books and toys in hand.

Holding the hands of the youngest children, Stary Doktor Korczak marched with them into the gas chambers of Treblinka where they were murdered in August 1942.

His works of a lifetime consisted of 20 children’s books, more than 1400 texts and articles in 100 publications and 300 texts still unpublished.

After the war, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of Children based upon the written work and life long efforts of Henryk Goldszmit, the Polish Jew known to the world as Janusz Korczak.

I was about 10 years old when I first learned about Janusz Korczak. I remember how I cried bitterly when I knew that he and his children were murdered.

I cry even now as I write this article. Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) was my childhood hero. He remains a hero to this day.

My gratitude to Ewa Wlosinska, the kind Polish woman who read my article and who chastised me.

I am grateful for the lesson she taught me.

Dziekuje bardzo !

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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