On August 6, 2012 it has been exactly 70 years after the death of Janusz Korczak, and in October we celebrated the 100 anniversary of creating the orphanage, which was led by Korczak together with Stefania Wilczyńska. In order to pay the tribute to this great man, the Polish Parliament adopted the resolution under which the year 2012 was declared the “Year of Janusz Korczak.” On this occasion many cultural, informational, educational and publishing initiatives promoting Korczak and his achievements were held in Poland and abroad.
„I am not to be loved and admired, I am to act and love…”
Janusz Korczak (real name: Henryk Goldszmit) was born on July 22, 1878 or 1879 in Warsaw, as a son of Józef Goldszmit and Cecylia née Gębicka. Goldszmit family had lived in Poland for many generations – Korczak’s great grandfather was a glazier, his grandfather was a doctor, and his father – a well-known Warsaw lawyer. Korczak, as a Jew-Pole, felt dual national identity and kept saying about himself: “I am a Polish Jew born under the Russian occupation.”
From the childhood he liked to read. He was fascinated by compositions of W.L. Anczyc, J.W. Goethe, V. Hugo, J.I. Kraszewski, G. Zapolska and H. Sienkiewicz. With time, he was also very much interested in pedagogy and medicine. In 1898, Korczak began his medical studies and he worked for many years as a paediatrician, but he always remained also a writer.
He made his début in 1896, as a student of secondary school, with the humoresque “The Gordian knot” published in the satirical weekly magazine “The Spikes”. With time, he wrote more than 20 books (novels, narratives, prose poetry, articles and essays on educational and social issues), he published over 1400 various articles in magazines and left more than 300 items stored in the form of manuscripts or typescripts e.g. letters to friends, notes, documentation of educational practice, personal documents and a diary from the last months of his life. He was a writer who always cared about turning his words into actions, so they could have an impact on the world and change it.
On October 7, 1912 Janusz Korczak became the director of the orphanage at 92 Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. From the very beginning it was a care institution with high standards, ahead of its time, with specifically designed bedrooms, dining room, classroom and space for workshops for over 100 children. In the orphanage there was also applied an original program of education created by Janusz Korczak and Stefania Wilczyńska. He paid special attention to the children’s subjectivity, self-creation, education for independence, responsibility for one selves and others, and education to work. This was the house where rights of children were respected, children had their own self-government, arbitration by colleagues, school newspaper, and duties.
In 1919, Korczak wrote an essay, “How to love a child” about the rights of children and the education with wise and deep love necessary for the freedom of children and their right to unrestricted development. This work is known throughout the world, and till now it is a pedagogical credo. Korczak associated all his life and career plans with the struggle for these rights. He became an advocate, a lawyer and commissioner of children. He fought for them and supported in every possible way: as a doctor, teacher, lecturer, writer, journalist and leading children’s programme in the radio. Thanks to the daily work with the children in the orphanage, his knowledge of children’s psychology and pedagogical experience Korczak knew how to reach them, how to talk to them, and therefore his books: “King Matt the First,” “King Matt on the desert island”, “Bankruptcy of little Jack”, ” When I am little again” or “The stubborn boy” became so popular.
Janusz Korczak behaved like a father in relation to the children he was in charge of. He did everything to ensure their proper mental and physical development. He took care of their hygiene, measured and weighed them, was their hairdresser, confidant, arbitrator and teacher.
In 1939, soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, as a result of bombing the Warsaw, the orphanage building was damaged and was getting short of food. Korczak sought the help and donations wherever he could to provide protection and support for children. He did not hesitate to wander every day through the streets of Warsaw with a sack on his back, asking and beginning with the hope of getting food for more than 150 of children.
When, on October 1940, the Germans established a ghetto for Jews in occupied Warsaw, Korczak and his pupils were given the order to move and reside within the closed area. Janusz Korczak tried to get permission to leave the house in its original location, but his efforts were to no avail. As a result, just before the final closing of the ghetto on November 16,1940, children and personnel with their property moved to tight and not adjusted buildings at Chłodna Street at the beginning, and later on at Sliska Street.
Despite the tragic living conditions, hunger, lack of fuel, lack of clothing, and diseases prevailing in the ghetto, Korczak tried to meet the basic needs of children – he treated them, taught, told stories, fought for food. His orphanage became not only a shelter from external danger, but also a place of peace where Korczak’s educational program was conducted with the respect for children’s rights to subjectivity, dialogue, individuality and joy. Korczak fought for children to the end, even when they died of hunger and exhaustion he fought for their right to a dignified death.
He did not stop writing even in such extreme circumstances. His “Diary of the ghetto” is not only his autobiography from the time he spent there, but it is also a reflection about the morality of human behavior in extreme situations, in the face of death, pain and evil.
On August 5, 1942 together with his 200 pupils and personnel of the of orphanage Janusz Korczak went to Umschlagplatz and was departed in crowded train to the Treblinka death camp, where the following day they all were executed.
Janusz Korczak “Diary and other writings of the ghetto”, Book Institute/ W.A.B., Warsaw 2012.