This Day in Jewish History / The Polish Pediatrician Who Went to the End With His Children Was Born

David Green
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David Green

July 22 1878 (or 1879) is the birthdate of Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish pediatrician, educator and writer, who was deported to Treblinka together with the residents and staff of the Warsaw orphanage he directed in August 1942. Korczak is largely remembered today for having turned down several opportunities to be spared deportation and insisting on accompanying his children to the end, but his lasting contribution was as a theorist and innovator in child development. His work remains relevant and studied to this day.

Henryk Goldszmit, his given name, was born in Warsaw to Jozef Goldszmit and Cecylia Gebicka Goldszmit. (There is some disagreement about his year of birth.) Joszef was a successful lawyer who was hospitalized with mental illness in 1890 and died there six years later.

In the 1890s, the son studied in the “Flying University,” an underground school that resisted the government control that dominated conventional institutions of learning. Later he studied medicine at the University of Warsaw, before deciding on pediatrics as his speciality. At the same time, he began writing fiction, and, when submitting a story to a literary competition in 1898, he adopted the pseudonym of “Janusz Korczak,” which he took from a book by writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski – “Janasz Korczak and the Pretty Swordsweeperlady.”

After studying briefly in Berlin, Korczak, who had already worked in a children’s school and at summer camps, was appointed director of a new orphanage, Dom Sierot (literally, “house of orphans”), for Jewish children in Warsaw. That was in 1912. As managing director, he hired Stefania Wilczynska, also an educator and a Jew, who remained his professional partner to the end of both their lives.

Korczak served as a military doctor both in World War I and during the Polish-Soviet War that followed, in 1919.

Dom Sierot, on Krochmalna Street, offered Korczak the opportunity to put into action some of his evolving philosophy about a child's need for autonomy. Working with children first hand, he became convinced that they were individuals deserving of respect, and didn’t just exist at the sufferance of adults. In this vein, Korczak was an early advocate of an international declaration of children’s rights.

Korczak established something of a children’s republic at Dom Sierot, suggestive of the democratic schools that are popular today. The children had their own legislature and court (to whose rulings both children and adults were subject), and they published a newspaper. By 1926, the children’s newspaper was being distributed on a weekly basis together with the Polish-Jewish daily "Nasz Przeglad" (Our Review).

As a writer, he produced both popular children’s novels, such as “King Matt the First” (still a classic in Korczak’s native Poland) and “Kajtus the Wizard,” and professional works like “The Child’s Right to Respect” and “How to Love a Child.” He left behind a large body of writing, most of which has yet to be translated into other languages from Polish.

Korczak spent one day a week defending children who were in trouble with the law, and who stood to receive prison sentences. About the delinquent child he wrote: “'He is a child who has not given up yet, but does not know who he is. A punitive sentence could adversely influence his future sense of himself and his behavior.” He appeared frequently on Polish radio, and was known affectionately by the public as the “Old Doctor.”

In 1940, when the Jews of Warsaw were forced to move into a ghetto, the Dom Sierot, too, had to relocate from Krochmalna Street, to successive new venues within the ghetto. On August 5 or 6, 1942, the Germans came for the children of the home, in order to deport them to Treblinka. Korczak, as a respected public figure, had been offered refuge on the Aryan side of Warsaw, including from Zegota, the Polish Resistance’s Council to Aid Jews. He turned down all the offers, as he felt a responsibility for remaining with the home’s nearly 200 children.

Stefania Wilczynska, too, had been given a rare opportunity after the German invasion to leave Poland for Palestine, where she had lived for several years in the 1930s, at Kibbutz Ein Harod. At the last minute, she turned the offer down. (Korczak had visited Palestine several times in the 1930s, and had considered moving there.) When the Germans showed up in early August of 1942, she and Korczak, together with a third staffer Salomea Broniatowska, each led a line of children out of the home on Sienna Street on the more than four-kilometer walk to the Umschlagplatz, the railway platform from which trains departed the ghetto for Treblinka.

Ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum quoted a witness to the procession that day as observing that “This was not a march to the railway cars -- this was an organized, wordless protest against the murder.”

The precise fate of Korczak, his colleagues and the children is not known, but it is assumed that they were sent to their deaths in the gas chamber upon their arrival at the death camp.

Janusz Korczak with a group of children.Credit: Yad Vashem Archive

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