Janusz Korczak: A Polish Hero At The Jewish Museum

| 07 December 2006
photo shows man surrounded by children

Korczak with children from his orphanage. Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters House Archive.

What's the best way to educate a child, and make them want to learn? How do children cope who have lost their parents?

The Jewish Museum looks back 70 years to the life of Janusz Korczak whose answers to these questions are still influential today. It describes how his remarkable life and brave death have made him a hero in Poland.

Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish Jew. Born in 1878, he worked as a respected paediatrician. He also wrote famous books for children, amongst them King Matt the First - the story of a child king and his attempts to improve the lot of children in his country. But in the early years of the 20th century he gave up his career to set up orphanages for homeless children who wandered the streets of Warsaw, opening one for Jewish children and another for Catholics.

photo shows two women standing in front of museum display

Esther Rantzen, founder of Childline, opened the exhibition. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

His ideas were years ahead of his time. He believed adults should treat children as equals and never used corporal punishment. Most bad behaviour was dealt with by the children themselves in a 'child court' within the orphanages.

Esther Rantzen, founder of Childline, opened the exhibition. She commented that today the schools that have the least problems with bullying are those that have a 'child council', because they help children develop a sense of justice.

The child psychotherapist Sandra Joseph has been the force behind this exhibiton. Her interest in Korczak started when someone gave her a copy of book on childcare "How to Love a Child" - in Polish, which she could not read.

She commissioned the first English translation, and, as the book reached her chapter by chapter, she was deeply struck by his insights. She wondered about the real personality of this man, and interviewed many of the orphans who passed through his homes, now in their 70s. She says "without exception, they spoke about his love and warmth".

photo shows man with child

A picture of Korczak by one of his orphans, Yitzhak Belfer. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

In the 30s Korczak became something of a celebrity - some wealthier parents would pretend that their child had a fever so that they had an excuse to visit the famous literary man. He also gave popular radio talks on childcare as 'the old doctor on the radio'. Significantly, the station dared not air his real, Jewish, name.

Then in 1940 the Nazis invaded Poland, and Korczak and his Jewish orphanage were moved to the Warsaw ghetto.

Many of the artefacts in the exhibition are related to this time. A case shows objects recovered from the Ghetto, and a disturbing film shows abandoned and starving children lying in the streets. The rations of the ghetto were 185 calories a day - essentially a sentence of death by slow starvation. Many children crept through sewers in search of food to sustain themselves and their families.

photo shows head of man in his 50s close up

Korczak. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

Also on show are drawings by Yitzhak Belfer, who was raised in Korczak's orphanage but escaped the Nazis through Russia. He now lives in Israel, but is coming to the museum during January to talk about Korczak.

Korczak himself did not survive. On 6th August 1942, the 200 children in Korczak's orphage were deported to the Treblinka concentration camp. Knowing it was a death sentence, people twice smuggled false papers to Korczak so that he could escape, but he refused to abandon his charges. This eyewitness gives the last account of Korczak seen alive:

"I will never forget that sight to the end of my life. It was a silent but organised protest against the murderers, a march like which no human eye had ever seen before. The children went four by four. Korczak went first with his head held high holding a child in each hand. The second group was led by his assistant Stefa. They marched to their death with a look full of contempt for their assassins. 'Who is that man?' asked the German soldiers. I hid the flood of tears that ran down my cheeks with my hands. I sobbed and sobbed at our helplessness in the face of such murder".

photo shows children on bench with man

Korkczak with children. Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters House Archive.

Korczak has had a powerful afterlife. His work was posthumously adopted by the United Nations in their Convention on the Rights of the Child. UNESCO proclaimed 1979 "The Year of Janusz Korczak" to coincide with the International Year of the Child and the centenary of his birth.

Today at Treblinka a memorial stands consisting of 17,000 rocks representing the lost Jewish communities. Only one is inscribed: it says simply "Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) and the children".

Champion of the child: Janusz Korczak runs at the Jewish Museum until 8th April 2007. Afterwards, the exhibition is available for touring: contact 020 7284 1997 for more details.

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