Janusz Korczak — the Old Doctor of Warsaw

A great lover of children and social reform, Janusz Korczak’s heroic death was matched by his zeal for educating the poorest of Polish society.

Memorial to Janusz Korczak at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Memorial to Janusz Korczak at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The name Janusz Korczak, if it is known at all, is usually associated with its owner’s heroic last act. Incarcerated in the Warsaw ghetto, with nearly two hundred children from the orphanage he founded, he refused several offers of rescue he received from his Polish friends, and accompanied the children instead on their journey to Treblinka, and to what he knew was, for all of them, certain death.

This was an ending worthy of the monuments which have since been erected to Korczak, and the societies founded in his name. But the tragic culmination can obscure what came before: an eventful, sometimes turbulent, and in many ways truly luminous life.

‘Korczak’ was the literary pseudonym of Henryk Goldshmit, born in 1878 into a progressive Jewish family in Warsaw, in what was then a Russian-governed part of a country partitioned between three occupying powers: Russia, Austria and Prussia. His childhood began in middle-class comfort; his father was a successful lawyer, and the family was well-off enough to hire various governesses who taught Henryk and his older sister French and German. But mostly he was a solitary and hypersensitive child; the essential solitude of children in the world of adults became an important element of his later thought. He was also, even in childhood, sensitive to the inequalities he witnessed among children who played in courtyards of adjoining buildings – some of them very poor – and the lack of justice illustrated by these disparities. The need for equality and justice became his guiding principles in later life; but even in childhood, he struggled with such moral dilemmas.  At the age of five, he disclosed to his grandmother his plan for reforming the world: liquidate all money. The naiveté is of course childish, but little Henryk’s need to consider such questions at the age of five was impressive.

Indeed, almost from the beginning, Henryk seemed to be on a quest to find principles for improving the conditions of children – and the wider world. In his own young life, the period of relative calm came to an end when his father fell into a state of mental illness, probably as a result of syphilis; and the family became gradually impoverished. At the age of twelve, Henryk was expelled from the safety of home to attend ‘gymnasium’ – a stage of education equivalent to high school, which lasted eight years. His schooling took place in Russian – the dominant power’s language – and the educational methods of the time were not exactly gentle. Moreover, in a system which observed numerus clausus – a quota for Jewish students – anti-Semitism was rife, and sometimes violent. Korczak later wrote a story about such a school called ‘A Feral Week’; what he remembered most powerfully was the division between adult ‘masters’, and the young ‘slaves’, on whom verbal and sometimes bodily violence could be committed with impunity.

There are people for whom their childhood evaporates from later memory, and those who remember it in all its emotional textures and events. Korczak belonged to the latter; and his memory was aided by a detailed journal, which he kept from early on, and which formed the basis for some of his literary writing. There was, for example, an early story, titled ‘Confessions of a Butterfly’, in which he wrote, ‘Only recently, I have felt the awakening of aspiration to a higher idea… I am fourteen years old. I have become a person – I know, I think. Yes, cogito ergo sum.’

The urge to understand himself and the world through writing was bolstered by his extensive readings: of Goethe, Victor Hugo, many Polish classics, and a book called Reformers of Education, to whose roster of distinguished names he hoped, someday, to add his own.

That ambition was eventually fulfilled; but before he found his true calling, there were years of striving and dramatic events, often connected to the larger dramas of Polish history. There was also further education. Korczak’s facility for writing was great, and literature seemed to be his destined profession. Instead, he decided to study medicine, explaining his choice pithily: ‘Literature is words,’ he wrote in his diary;  ‘medicine – deeds.’  Principles needed to be enacted and embodied. Despite the numerus clausus, which also applied to higher education, he was admitted to The Tsarist University of Warsaw, where, in an age of student activism, he participated in a student strike, after which he was arrested. He also spent a summer in Switzerland, where he visited schools and hospitals founded on the principles of Johann Pestalozzi, who as early as at the end of the 18th century taught that only combining intellectual, moral, practical and physical education assured the proper development of children. These were ideas which Korczak fully embraced, and which were consistent with the guiding principles for his own life. ‘Yes, a purpose in life makes for happiness,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and such purpose can only be work for others, not for oneself, thinking about the happiness of others, not one’s own.’

The turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century was marked in Poland by widespread political and social activism, and dreams of regaining independence. These were bolstered in 1904, when the Russo-Japanese war broke out, leading eventually to the Russian Revolution. In the summer of that year – in what could be seen as the first try-out of his future profession – Korczak led a group of impoverished Jewish children to a summer camp in a Polish village. The venture was funded through charitable donations, and Korczak wrote lively, informal newspaper articles about the transformation of his frightened, unwashed, unsocialized wards into children who could play, joke and express wonder at nature. His style was – and remained even in his later books and serious essays – informal, direct, fragmentary. It undoubtedly reflected the way he talked to children; and it is as fresh and immediate today as when he was writing.

It was his work with children, as an observer and shaper of children’s minds and hearts which makes Korczak an ethical hero; but his path towards reaching that goal was hardly direct. In 1905, he was mobilized by the Russian authorities to fight in the Russo-Japanese war, travelling by train as far as Harbin, in Manchuria. There, he tried his best to help the wounded and the ill in utterly primitive medical conditions. Undoubtedly, he had in mind the example of Anton Chekhov – another writing doctor, whom he admired from early on, and whose journey to the penal colony of Sakhalin may have served as an example.

In 1906, Korczak returned to Warsaw – a city in turmoil, stirred by the Russian revolution into new demands for Polish independence – and he took up a job in a hospital. He also became a published author; and his popularity as a doctor was greatly increased by the appearance of two of his books: Child of the Salon and School of Life.

But his deepest aspirations still had to do with creating a place of refuge for the most deprived children. After emerging from a brief imprisonment – the result of illegal activism – he met Stefania Wilczynska, who also dreamt of creating a refuge for the poorest children, and became his valued partner in this enterprise. It was an ambitious goal, and they worked hard to realise it, with the help of generous philanthropic donations. Korczak was appointed to the governing body of a society called ‘Help for Orphans’, which planned an orphanage in a building yet to be constructed. To prepare for his new directorship, he also travelled to Paris and London – where he was highly impressed by two orphanages in Forest Hill. Today, his visit there is commemorated by a memorial plaque.

Eventually, Korczak and Stefania moved to a splendidly up-to-date, well-funded new building, where his life’s mission finally found its embodiment and fulfilment. The beginnings of their work weren’t easy. The children admitted to the orphanage were of the poorest and most deprived kind: orphaned; abandoned; living on the street; and often resorting to thievery in order to feed themselves. Paradoxically, on admission to the orphanage, they were often angered by what they saw as luxury within: polished floors, table settings with such unknown things as cutlery, well-made beds for every child – and they expressed their anger by fighting with each other, and trying to destroy the unaccustomed orderliness, which they must have experienced as maddening wealth, and perhaps even a mockery of their condition.

Korczak distributed tasks to the children which they gradually learned how to fulfil, meted out reprimands and exacted promises of better behaviour which were mostly kept. He did all of this by talking to children as equals, and with great directness. (Later, he wrote an essay called ‘How to Talk to a Child.’) He also introduced several important innovations: a notice board on which both children and grown-ups could register requests; notices; and a schedule of tasks. There was also a mailbox, where you could post written requests, complaints, questions or even confessions. In addition, Korczak initiated a children’s supplement to a newspaper he edited, called ‘In the Sun’, featuring accounts of the institution’s daily life, as well as faithfully transcribed conversations with children, written in his inimitably informal style, and their own descriptions of their lives.

Eventually, the children learned to love him. But in 1914, his work was once again interrupted by war: this time, the Great War, which affected not only the eastern parts of Europe, but the entire world. In that conflict, he served with distinction as a medical officer – spending a considerable amount of time in a hospital in Kiev, where conditions were truly unspeakable. By the time he came back to Poland, the country had become, for the first time in well over a century, an independent nation. The euphoria and the political turmoil were great; but Korczak – after suffering, along with many others, a bout of typhus – soon returned to his chosen life’s work, as the director of a new refuge for children of the working classes, called, initially, ‘Our Home’, and subsequently, the ‘House of Orphans’.

Here, Korczak Initiated the same customs as in the first orphanage, and added two important institutions: a court, based on a written code of laws, in which various transgressions committed by the children – as well as their elders – were tried by the children themselves. In the code, great emphasis was placed both on notions of justice and forgiveness; and most of the small crimes and misdemeanours were, after discussions with the accused, dismissed. It is worth noting that in the first months of the court’s functioning, Korczak placed himself before the court several times, mostly for administering small punishments to children of which he later did not approve.

There was also, even more impressively, a children’s parliament, based on democratic governance, and the laws of the new Polish Republic – thanks to an increasingly turbid atmosphere between the wars in Poland, featuring many high-level political assassinations and filled with partisan conflicts and increasing tendencies to right-wing anti-Semitism, Polish public life did not provide a particularly successful model of a well-functioning democracy.

Indeed, the children in the orphanage often suffered anti-Semitic attacks on the street, and at one point wrote a moving letter to Polish children living in the same neighbourhood, appealing to them to stop their insults and attacks. It is, in retrospect, a piercingly moving document.

Within their own small republic, however, Korczak assigned great importance both to the children’s ethical development, and their physical and psychological health. He measured each child’s physical growth and weight regularly; and as always, he talked to children with great directness, and without a hint of a patronising tone, about their experiences and feelings, their aspirations and heartaches. He knew that true ethics – as opposed to repressive moral codes – cannot be separated from the inner life.

He also, even during his busiest periods, continued to write books for and about children – some of which went on to become classics of Polish children’s literature. Eventually, he was nicknamed ‘the Old Doctor’, and in that capacity delivered weekly radio programmes which became extremely popular both among children and adults, before being cancelled, probably also on anti-Semitic grounds.

When war was first announced, he made a radio broadcast again, appealing to children and their parents for calm. When the Nazi government required all Jews to wear a yellow band, he was one of the very few who refused to do so.

Throughout the first months of terror, he fought desperately to assure safety for the orphanage, and food for the children. Then, in October 1941, by the orders of the Nazi government, the children were transported to the Warsaw Ghetto, which was now cut off from the rest of Warsaw by a high wall. The horrors of that place are by now well known; but even within its macabre confines, Korczak fought desperately and angrily to assure that the children would have food, and to deliver to them continuing education. He also, amazingly, continued to keep a diary, almost until the end.

He knew what that end would be, and he met it with audacious dignity. The orderly walk to Umschlagplatz, from which deportations took place, has been described as a march of defiance. Korczak held two children by the hand, and was followed by others, walking in orderly foursomes. Even after eight decades, no reaction to such an image is possible except grief – and a salute to the best of minds, and the greatest of souls.


Eva Hoffman