To Love Somebody: Remembering Janusz Korczak

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.” -Janusz Korczak

Polish Jewish doctor, writer and educator Janusz Korczak, in the last years of his life cared for two hundred orphans children. When the orphanage he ran was listed for evacuation from the Warsaw ghetto in 5th August 1942, he had the chance to save himself but he decided to refuse the offers of rescue he received from his Polish friends; he kept refusing to be separated from his children and persuaded the Nazis to take him too. Destination: Treblinka extermination camp.

He had a difficult and traumatic childhood experiences which contributed to the development of his ideas, thus leading him to become a doctor, a writer and eventually a leading children’s educator. He used his methodology to educate the orphans to lead responsible lives and to be responsible for each other. He often employed the form of the fairy tale in order to actually prepare his young readers for the dilemmas and difficulties of real adult life, and the need to make responsible decisions. He believed that children should be understood; that one should enter into the spirit of their world and psychology. He believed in the full dignity of children (“the oldest proletariat in the world“) but that, first and foremost: Children must be respected and loved.

Korczak’s example should be known around the world in my view. Educators should use his legacy in the classroom. Two of his novels have been just recently translated into English: King Matt the First and Kaytek the Wizard. The last one has been often compared to Harry Potter (even a film adaptation is planned for a 2014 release) and was highly popular during the 1930s. Both of them contains his pedagogical message: The theme of growing up, and how the children must make adult decisions about good and evil.

At that time, in a move that was witnessed by many in the ghetto, Korczak refused to be separated from his children and did his best to ensure their last journey was as trouble free as possible. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. He knew they were going to a certain death. Therefore, he wanted to ease things for them. How on earth a father figure and pedagogue can be mentally prepared and do that to his loved ones with cold blooded? So, he decided that the children should put on Rabindranath Tagore’s play, The Post Office. The play written by the Indian author is very perfectly constructed, and conveys an emotion of gentleness and peace. There are two acts, and the story is that of a frail little Indian boy condemned to seclusion and inaction by ill health. Then, he makes a new world for himself by his imagination and insatiable curiosity. He converses with random people who happen to pass by his window. The child has a natural state of being happy even in extreme conditions and those around him also experience the same happiness and energy. A short poetic little drama with simplicity in style.

Korczak’s evacuation from the Ghetto is also mentioned in Władysław Szpilman‘s book The Pianist:

He told the orphans they were going out in to the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…

Though Korczak never married and had no children of his own, he was a father to 200 orphans. He and his beloved children took their dignified last march to the cattle cars standing at the Umslagplatz (the place in the Warsaw ghetto where the Jews were assembled for deportation) which took them to their final destination. During that fateful walk, Korczak was again given the opportunity to escape once again; an SS officer recognized him as the author of one of his favorite children’s books, and offered to help him to get away, but as an eye-witnesses described that moment, Korczak replied that his only concern was to comfort, reassure and support his children. They all perished in a gas chamber upon their arrival at Treblinka.

Andrzej Wajda directed the film”Korczak” (1990), using black and white to disclose this dark moment of mankind history and his style seems to have inspired Steven Spielberg in his “Schindler’s List” (perhaps visually more flashy…) three years later. At the end of the movie It’s the controversial scene which arose at the time of it’s release. Wajda himself, saw the idea of showing the children being led into the Treblinka gas chambers as repulsing, and however, the poetic ending which he chose was the focal point of a bitter assault on the movie by French critics, some of whom viewed it as an attempt by Poles to throw a rosy wash over their own complicity, or indifference to the genocide of Jews. When the train carries them all to the death camp, suddenly the action shifts to slow motion, the slide-doors open, the children pour happiness, and laughing they go into a verdant field… That 30 seconds of fantasy with the children and Korczak running into the foggy morning, happy and kidding…, is an unforgettable symbol of hope.

Janusz Korczak monument Warsaw

We all have a child within us, if only, we keep that child alive, we and the world would be much happier and homely. That’s why we should keep Janusz Korczak’s remembrance alive. To love somebody, even to the little ones, you ain’t got to be so blind…

About the Author
Alfredo de Braganza is an award-winning independent filmmaker & chocolate-coated sufganiyah lover from Spain currently living in India. His documentary "Smoking Babas" was selected for the Madrid International Film Festival and his film "Maayan The Fisherman" for Best Narrative Film at the Florida International Film Festival. He is the first Spanish person to make a feature film in India, on celluloid and native language. His documentary "Boxing Babylon" won Best Documentary Awards at the 2013-Norway Film Festival and New Delhi International Sports Film Festival. He can be contacted at:
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