A Light in the Dark­ness: Janusz Kor­czak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust

  • Review
By – January 27, 2020

For Janusz Kor­czak, the most cel­e­brat­ed pedi­a­tri­cian of his time, it was always about the chil­dren. Born in War­saw 1878, Kor­czak lived in a time when pri­or Euro­pean val­ues were turned upside down, most dra­mat­i­cal­ly by the Nazis who were ascend­ing to pow­er. But even before the Nazi era, the atti­tude toward Jew­ish peo­ple in Europe was com­pli­cat­ed. Korczak’s real name, Hen­ryk Gold­szmit, was changed when his pedi­atric advice radio show became pop­u­lar; although War­saw was a Jew­ish city at the time, a Jew­ish name was not an asset.

This accu­rate, exten­sive­ly-doc­u­ment­ed, and well-writ­ten record of Holo­caust his­to­ry focus­es on child care and the con­trasts between child-rear­ing in Nazi Ger­many and Korczak’s approach — both in his pre-Holo­caust teach­ings and famed War­saw Jew­ish orphan­age, Dom Sierot.

Despite hav­ing well-off par­ents, Kor­czak was raised in emo­tion­al pover­ty. Not allowed to play with oth­er chil­dren, he was fre­quent­ly crit­i­cized by both of his par­ents and felt that adults lacked respect for chil­dren. When his father was com­mit­ted to an insane asy­lum and took his own life, the fam­i­ly lost all their mon­ey and at eigh­teen years old, Kor­czak was respon­si­ble for sup­port­ing his moth­er and sis­ter. Draw­ing on his trou­bled, iso­lat­ed child­hood, he became a pedi­a­tri­cian and cham­pi­oned children’s rights. He was also an edu­ca­tor, a human­i­tar­i­an, an author, and a vision­ary. He left a high­ly suc­cess­ful pedi­atric prac­tice to become the direc­tor of a Jew­ish orphan­age in War­saw, which lat­er became part of the ghet­to. The orphan­age famous­ly oper­at­ed as a demo­c­ra­t­ic repub­lic gov­erned by a children’s par­lia­ment which ham­mered out rules for its admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing a Court of Peers where each child had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve. This orphan­age gave hope to chil­dren with trou­bled lives and taught them the use of tools for build­ing pro­duc­tive futures.

In con­trast, Hitler, who also expe­ri­enced an unpleas­ant child­hood, became a pur­vey­or of hate and destruc­tion. While Kor­czak trea­sured chil­dren and pro­mot­ed their rights, Mar­rin points out that Hitler, on the oth­er hand, saw chil­dren as objects to be bru­tal­ly mold­ed into beasts of prey,” pre­vent­ed from expe­ri­enc­ing ten­der­ness or devel­op­ing inde­pen­dent thought. Hitler believed the young were not pre­cious in them­selves, but objects to be mold­ed to serve his ide­ol­o­gy,” Mar­rin writes. The author inten­tion­al­ly leaves the read­er won­der­ing how a small dark-haired, aca­d­e­m­ic under-achiev­ing odd­ball” man­aged to con­jure up the hor­ror that over­whelmed Europe and almost the world, result­ing in mil­lions of tor­tur­ous deaths.

A sig­nif­i­cant part of the book spot­lights the War­saw ghet­to. Its cre­ation, life with­in its dis­heart­en­ing walls, the revolt of a hand­ful of under-equipped, mal­nour­ished hero­ic inhab­i­tants, and the ulti­mate destruc­tion of the entire ghet­to are explained in painstak­ing, well-doc­u­ment­ed detail. Although the con­clu­sion is well-known, the book also gives rise to a des­per­ate hope that per­haps the end will dif­fer from the one we know from his­to­ry. Despite the depic­tions of heart-wrench­ing inhu­man­i­ty, dai­ly degra­da­tion, and the sadis­tic tor­ture suf­fered by Jews and non-Jews, sev­er­al peo­ple shine as exam­ples of dar­ing, decen­cy, and sac­ri­fice. Some among those who inspire hope are men­tioned in this book. One who is now remem­bered as a hero is Ire­na Sendler, who may be respon­si­ble for sav­ing the most War­saw ghet­to child-sur­vivors. A well-born and strong­ly prin­ci­pled Chris­t­ian, she was a social work­er whose clients were orphaned chil­dren. Dur­ing the Nazi peri­od her efforts were chan­neled into help­ing Jews — she and her col­leagues are cred­it­ed with sav­ing 2,500 chil­dren. Sec­u­lar and well-edu­cat­ed, Ste­fa­nia Wilczys­ka became the direc­tor of gen­er­al man­age­ment for Korczak’s Dom Sierot staff. She joined Kor­czak and the orphans on their last march and per­ished with them in Treblinka.

Known anti­semite Zofia Kos­sak, a writer who referred to Judaism as a dis­mal and grotesque faith,” was out­raged by Nazi sav­agery and orga­nized the Pol­ish under­ground Coun­cil for Aid to Jews, run by Catholics and Jews. Her orga­ni­za­tion pro­vid­ed forged iden­ti­ty doc­u­ments, mon­ey, and safe hous­es. Kos­sak is the only pro­fessed anti­semite hon­ored by Yad Vashem. These and oth­er coura­geous human beings are sin­gled out as illu­mi­nat­ing the dark­ness of those days.

Nev­er­the­less, the book ends on a note of pes­simism. In an inter­view, Ire­na Sendler, who lived until age nine­ty-eight said, Human­i­ty has under­stood noth­ing. Reli­gious, trib­al, nation­al wars con­tin­ue. The world con­tin­ues to be a sea of blood.” Despite the rev­er­ence in which Kor­czak is regard­ed today, the author laments the ongo­ing world-wide sac­ri­fice of chil­dren to the gods of war.

Kor­czak draft­ed the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of the Child issued by the League of Nations and sub­se­quent­ly reis­sued by the Unit­ed Nations. This doc­u­ment negates the con­cept of eugen­ics, stat­ing that chil­dren are to be val­ued for them­selves” and should be edu­cat­ed to devel­op abil­i­ties, indi­vid­ual judge­ment and (a) sense of moral and social respon­si­bil­i­ty.” In Tre­blin­ka, only one stone mon­u­ment is engraved with a person’s name. In Eng­lish, the inscrip­tion reads Janusz Kor­czak (Hen­ryk Gold­szmit) and the children.”

Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and free­lance writer, Helen Weiss Pin­cus, has taught mem­oir writ­ing and cre­ative writ­ing through­out the NY Metro area to senior cit­i­zens and high school stu­dents. Her work has been pub­lished in The New York Times, The Record, The Jew­ish Stan­dard, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She recent­ly added Bub­by” to her job description.

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