Janusz Korczak – born Henryk Goldszmit to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland – knew hardship from a young age. His father grew ill and died after six years being institutionalized. His family having fallen on hard times, Janusz worked as a tutor even while he finished his own schooling.
While attending medical school, he adopted the pen named “Janusz Korczak” and began writing children’s literature. Today, two of his books – King Matt the First and Kaytek the Wizard – can still be found translated into English. Dr. Korczak graduated from the University of Warsaw and began a career as a pediatrician, still writing, as well. He also designed and developed Dom Sierot (Orphan House), a home for Warsaw’s Jewish orphans.
Dr. Korczak served as a military doctor in the Polish Army during two separate wars – the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-1906 and World War I. After the First World War, he continued his work as a pediatrician.
And after that war, Dr. Korczak began his true service – to the poor Jewish children of Poland. He served as director of Dom Sierot (the Orphan House), and even used his interest in writing to help the children start their own newspaper, Maly Przeglad (The Little Review).
During these years, Dr. Korczak also visited the Holy Land, his biblical and and historic homeland on multiple occasions. He hoped to move there, but couldn’t bear the thought of leaving “his children” behind.
When World War II began, Dr. Korczak again volunteered to serve Poland’s army. But because of his age, the military denied him the privilege to serve. So the good doctor (his children called him Pan Doktor, Mr. Doctor, or Stary Doktor, Old Doctor) watched as the Nazis overtook his country and city, unable to do anything about it. The Nazis ripped the children from their home and placed them in the Warsaw Ghetto. Dr. Korczak followed them there.
And Dr. Korczak would follow his children even farther down the Holocaust’s nightmarish path. When the Nazis liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, they prepared to send the nearly 200 Jewish orphans (either 192 or 196 of these precious children) to Treblinka extermination camp. And the doctor stayed with them.
First, the Polish Underground offered Dr. Korczak an escape to the “Aryan side” of the ghetto wall. He refused to leave his children behind.
A member of the dreaded Nazi SS – responsible for the liquidation and murder of Jews – recognized Dr. Korczak as a favorite children’s author. He offered the doctor either an escape or a destination that would mean better treatment than a death camp. But Dr. Korczak refused to leave his children behind.
And so, in early August of 1942, Dr. Korczak and his beloved Jewish orphans found themselves herded onto trains by the Nazis, their final destination Treblinka’s gas chamber. They were never heard from again.
But Dr. Korczak’s legacy lives on. His works on treating and raising children – even those with severe behavioral difficulties – inspired generations of childcare experts. His works for children still inspire generations of young people and those young at heart. And the selfless work he did for the youngest and neediest of God’s children can still inspire us all.Tags: children History Holocaust Janusz Korczak literature Medicine