The 'ultra-Orthodox Janusz Korczak’ Who Saved Hundreds in the Holocaust

Like the secular educator from Warsaw, Rabbi Dawid Kurzmann accompanied his 300 young orphans to their deaths and his own. His grandson, living in Israel, is still fighting for commemoration

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Rabbi Dawid Kurzmann in the center with children from the orphanage, summer 1939.
Rabbi Dawid Kurzmann in the center with children from the orphanage, summer 1939. Credit: Kurzmann family collection
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Everyone who has heard the tragic, heroic story of Rabbi Dawid Kurzmann is reminded of the famous story of Janusz Korczak of Warsaw. Both men, the ultra-Orthodox Kurzmann and the secular Korczak, were educators. Both of them ran orphanages that housed hundreds of Jewish children during the period of the Holocaust. Both refused to part from the children and marched together with them to their deaths.

Rabbi Dawid KurzmannCredit: Kurzmann family collection

However, while Korczak, whose story has become a symbol and who has gained legendary stature, has been commemorated in films, books, statuary and the names of streets and squares, few people have heard of Kurzmann.

At the orphanage he directed, at 64 Dietla Street in Krakow, there is not even a sign that mentions his name. The original inscription, Jewish Orphans Institute, that was on the facade of the building, has faded and crumbled over the years and to this day no budget has been found to preserve it. Nowadays the neglected building serves as a youth hostel.

Anna Feuerstein.Credit: Kurzmann family collection

“Korczak had more publicity than my grandfather did, in part because he was famous as an author and commentator even before he was murdered. I hardly know anything about him,” says Kurzmann’s grandson Marcel, 82, at his home this week in Rishon Lezion, rifling through the cardboard boxes where his family’s history is kept. Among the documents, certificates, yellowing newspaper clippings and photos there are also a few letters of recognition of his grandfather’s activity.

One of them, written by the Krakow Jewish community immediately after the end of World War II, describes in old-fashioned Hebrew the moment when he went to his death together with the orphans he raised.

It happened on October 28, 1942, when the rabbi was 77. “When the barbarian Nazis came to destroy us, he did not part from his sainted flock but rather arm in arm with his pupils he marched proudly towards death, sanctifying the Holy Name aloud and giving up his soul in all purity as a righteous man,” states this document. Another document from the same period declares: “Kurzmann, also known as the Krakowian Korczak, died a hero’s death.”

Thus, at the head of a group of about 300 orphans he walked to the Belzec extermination camp gas chambers. Alongside him walked his colleague, educator Anna Feuerstein and her husband. Unlike Kurzmann, who left survivors who are fighting for his commemoration, Feuerstein left no one to keep her memory alive.

A street in Rishon Lezion

Marcel Kortzman heard about his grandfather’s deeds only years later. When the war broke out Marcel was four years old. While his grandfather stayed to direct the orphanage in Krakow, his younger son Yisrael, Marcel’s father, put his family in a cart hitched to a horse and fled eastwards. Subsequently they were expelled by the Russians to a forced labor camp in the Urals and later they found refuge in Uzbekistan, where they survived the Holocaust. In 1946, when they returned to Poland, they found out that the grandfather had been murdered together with the orphans he raised.

In 1950 Kurzmann immigrated to Israel with his family and set about making efforts to commemorate his father. “When they expelled the orphans to the gate of death at Belzec, father, of blessed memory, as chairman of the Jewish Orphans Institute, did not want to part from them and accompanied them. Today he has been granted only silence on the part of the general public and its writers. And this pains me very much,” wrote Yisrael in 1959 in missives to various authorities with the request that they commemorate Kurzmann’s heroism.

Twenty years later, a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, Meir Bossak, wrote about Kurzmann’s deeds. “The figure of Janusz Korczak glows from the depths of the darkness of the Holocaust, but he was not alone is his great deeds,” he wrote in an article in the now defunct nationalist and religious Hebrew daily Hatzofeh in 1979. “Kurzmann devoted his entire life to the orphanage. He saw to the funds for the needs of the orphanage and the traditional Jewish education of the children.”

In the article, Bossak described how he saw the Germans, who ordered the orphans to go from the orphanage to the railroad station, and how they offered Kurzmann the possibility of remaining in the ghetto and saving his life, but he refused and went to his death “at the head of the company of orphans.”

However, the figure of Kurzmann never entered the public’s awareness and like many other heroes from the Holocaust period, he has been forgotten. In recent years the younger generation of his descendants have renewed the efforts to commemorate him. A first local success was made in 2014 when the Rishon Lezion municipality named a small street after him. That same year the first book about Kurzmann was published in Poland, “Enoszijut” (“Humaneness”), written by a history teacher from Krakow, Grzegorz Siwor, who searched through archives for the story of his life.

Siwor warns against making the parallel between Korczak and Kurzmann. “His sacrifice and his walking at the head of his orphans to the gas chambers is undoubtedly a clear analogue to the story of the Warsovian Korczak. However,” he writes in the book, “drawing a comparison between them, despite the great similarity, would be an error.” In his opinion, the small amount of information there is about Kurzmann does not make it possible to draw a serious comparison between the two.

In 2016, Marcel Kortzman published a book of his own, “They Were All His Sons,” in which he gathered, in Hebrew, all the extant information about his grandfather. Kurzmann was born in 1865 in the city of Rzeszow in southeastern Poland. He later moved to Krakow, where he built up a flourishing business in iron, steel and metal products. At the same time, he also engaged in public activity, headed Agudas Israel in Krakow and was a member of the board of the Jewish community in the city. Along with that, he directed the large orphanage that was established in the city in the 19th century.

The orphanage today Credit: Ofer Aderet

A partial list

In a comprehensive sturdy of the institution, Nurit Ashkenazi interviewed some of the orphanage’s charges, who had studied there before the Holocaust. She published her findings in a book, “Father of the Orphans.” “The orphanage was a very splendid institution,” one of the interviewees told her. “I took my entire cultural, intellectual and human foundation from it.” The pupils told Ashkenazi that there were various enrichment classes there, such as music and Bible, and there was also an active choir. In the summers the orphans would go on expeditions in nature.

They saw Kurzmann as “the father of the orphans,” because his attitude towards them was “fatherly and full of tenderness, love and kindness,” as eventually noted in the book “Eleh Veazkara” by Yitzhak Levin. “Every orphan was given his warm caress and felt like his only, personal child.”

However, upon the outbreak of World War II, the situation at the orphanage deteriorated. In 1941 its pupils were forced to move into a miserable building in the ghetto and were joined by many abandoned children who had managed to escape the Nazi predations. Kurzmann moved with the children of the institution from building to building under the Nazis’ orders, until he set out together with them in 1942 on their final path.

Kurzmann was not the only educator who accompanied his pupils to their deaths and remained unknown. Siwor’s book mentions other forgotten figures like the educator Rosa Eichner and the physician Dr. Tuli MIntz from the sanatorium near Warsaw, who accompanied the children on transports to Treblinka.

There were also the caregivers from a shelter in Lublin, Anna Taubenfeld, Hannah Kuperberg and a Mrs. Bachman, who were shot with the young in their care. In the city of Wodawa, Rabbi Mendele Morgenstern accompanied the children and died at Sobibor. “There is no doubt,” notes Siwor, “that this is not a complete list.”

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