77 Years After He Was Killed by Nazis, 'ultra-Orthodox Janusz Korczak’ Honored in Krakow

Rabbi Dawid Alter Kurzmann now has a plaque to commemorate his accompanying of the orphans under his care to their deaths during the Holocaust

The dedication of the plaque commemorating Kurzmann, Krakow, June 25, 2019.
Ofer Aderet

Seventy-seven years after he was killed by the Nazis, Rabbi Dawid Alter Kurzmann had a plaque dedicated to him Tuesday in Krakow to celebrate the man who died heroically the same way as Janusz Korczak in Warsaw – but rarely got noticed.

Kurzmann has been called “the ultra-Orthodox” Korczak, the orphanage director in the Warsaw Ghetto who went to his death with the children under his care and became a legend.

Kurzmann went little noticed after World War II, but efforts are being made to change that. His grandson, Marcel Kurzmann, an 83-year-old resident of the Tel Aviv suburb Rishon Letzion, has been working in recent years to gain recognition for the grandfather he never met.

>> Read more: Why we must keep looking at politics through the lens of the Holocaust | Opinion

Marcel has had the assistance of his own grandson, Elad Furman, whose efforts helped get a street in Rishon Letzion named after Rabbi Kurzmann. This year a street in Krakow will also bear his name.

Rabbi Dawid Kurzmann (center) with the orphans from the orphanage, summer 1939
Kurzmann family collection

Rabbi Kurzmann’s orphanage was located at 64 Dietla St. in the center of the southern Polish city. The faded remains of a sign show that the building, now a hostel, was once an orphanage, but until Tuesday, there was nothing dedicated to Kurzmann’s memory there.

The rabbi’s descendants don’t know a lot about him. It’s known that he was born in 1865 in the city of Rzeszow to the east and grew up in Krakow. He made a living running a trading house for iron and other metal. He was also a founder of the international ultra-Orthodox movement Agudath Israel, and of Chachmei Lublin, a leading yeshiva in the city of Lublin to the northeast.

As president of the Dietla Street orphanage, he started to help run it on a day-to-day basis in 1918 and in practice served as its director. The orphans there referred to him as their father.

He continued to run the facility after the Germans occupied Poland in September 1939, though the Nazis made the orphanage relocate to more crowded quarters inside the Krakow Ghetto.

On October 28, 1942, at the age of 77, Rabbi Kurzmann was sent to the gas chambers of the Belzec extermination camp, along with 300 children who had been in his charge. Also killed with them was a teacher at the orphanage, Anna Regina Feuerstein, her husband and Kurzmann’s daughter and son-in-law.

Immediately after the war, the Krakow Jewish community used the Hebrew style of the time to describe how Rabbi Kurzmann refused to abandon the orphans.

“When the Nazi barbarians came upon us to annihilate us, he did not part from his holy flock, but instead, arm-in-arm, marched forcefully toward death, publicly sanctified God and died in purity and as a totally righteous man,” the community wrote.

Another document from the period noted how Kurzmann “died a hero’s death.”

Meir Bosak, a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, wrote that “the figure of Janusz Korczak shines out of the darkness of the Holocaust, but he was not alone in his great deeds.” Writing in the Israeli daily Hatzofeh, Bosak noted: “Kurzmann dedicated his entire life to the orphanage. He looked after the funding for the institution’s needs and the traditional Jewish education of the children.”

The dedication of the plaque was arranged with the help of the Krakow Jewish community and the Association of Krakowians in Israel. In 2017, tour guides in the city also ensured that a plaque would be put up at 41 Jozefinska St., the second site of Kurzmann’s orphanage.

The decision to name a street in Krakow’s Debniki neighborhood after Kurzmann was made last month by the Krakow City Council; it’s not yet clear when the new street sign will go up.

A recent issue of Nowiny Krakowskie, the publication of the Association of Krakowians in Israel, noted that the city now has seven streets named after Jews, including Berek Joselewicz, who fought for Polish independence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Ludwik Zamenhof, the Warsaw physician who developed the international language Esperanto.

But the street named after Kurzmann will be the first named after a Jewish Pole who died in the Holocaust.