The Teacher of Warsaw

Mario Esco­bar; Gretchen Aber­nathy, trans.

  • Review
By – July 25, 2022

The Pol­ish physi­cian and edu­ca­tor Janusz Kor­czak (18781942) was born Hen­ryk Gold­szmit and raised in an assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish fam­i­ly in War­saw. High­ly influ­en­tial dur­ing his life­time for his pro­gres­sive ped­a­gog­i­cal meth­ods, he is best known today as the man who accom­pa­nied the chil­dren from his orphan­age into the gas cham­bers of Tre­blin­ka. In the Teacher of War­saw, Mario Esco­bar tries to recre­ate Korczak’s com­plex­i­ties, which have large­ly been erased by his mar­tyr­dom dur­ing the Holo­caust. This work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion presents a hero fac­ing unbear­able pres­sures as he tries to pro­tect his young charges from the Nazis. Deeply com­mit­ted to his work, yet also tor­tured by doubts about his deci­sions, this great human­i­tar­i­an is also sim­ply a man trapped by history.

The nov­el takes the form of Korczak’s diary entries. As Esco­bar makes clear in his after­word, these are invent­ed, only inspired by the actu­al, brief doc­u­ment that Kor­czak left behind. They include rem­i­nis­cences of child­hood, med­i­ta­tions on Jew­ish her­itage, and detailed accounts of the ago­niz­ing sit­u­a­tion of Poland’s Jews. Kor­czak inter­acts with many his­tor­i­cal per­sons, giv­ing insights into the impos­si­ble choic­es that con­front­ed them. The head of Warsaw’s Jew­ish Coun­cil, Adam Czer­ni­akow, deludes him­self into think­ing that he is staving off dis­as­ter by coop­er­at­ing with the Nazi regime, yet Kor­czak shows great empa­thy for his predica­ment. Marceli Godlews­ki, mean­while, is a Catholic priest and not­ed anti­semite whose past dis­sem­i­na­tion of hatred is, to Kor­czak, redeemed by his present will­ing­ness to help Jews escape. As Kor­czak artic­u­lates, one can view life through a micro­scope or a tele­scope. Each indi­vid­ual action may seem insignif­i­cant, but enlarged and viewed as a whole, every­thing seems to ful­fill a par­tic­u­lar purpose.”

Esco­bar does not ide­al­ize the novel’s East­ern Euro­pean set­ting. Kor­czak refers to bar­bar­ic acts com­mit­ted by pop­u­la­tions in Poland, Ukraine, and beyond against their Jew­ish neigh­bors. At the same time, there are rel­a­tive­ly few scenes of Jew­ish reli­gious life. One mov­ing descrip­tion of a wed­ding in the War­saw ghet­to con­tains sig­nif­i­cant errors — some­what sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing the author’s care­ful atten­tion to his­tor­i­cal details else­where in the nov­el. In oth­er words, Esco­bar presents a nar­ra­tive in which both Jew­ish strength and Jew­ish vic­tim­hood emerge.

One thought that Kor­czak records in his diary seems to reflect the author’s view­point more than his hero’s. Janusz Kor­czak did not come from a reli­gious­ly obser­vant fam­i­ly; his eclec­tic phi­los­o­phy embraced a vari­ety of sec­u­lar and reli­gious teach­ings. The nov­el refers to Jesus numer­ous times, imply­ing that Chris­tian­i­ty had a strong influ­ence on this Jew­ish thinker. Kor­czak states, I could not deny that I admired many things about Jesus … his love for his ene­mies, his desire for peace, his mer­cy.… Some­times Judaism felt too pes­simistic to me … ” He even draws on Jesus’s teach­ings about chil­dren to sug­gest that pas­siv­i­ty and accep­tance are nec­es­sary to salvation.

Nev­er­the­less, The Teacher of War­saw is a nuanced fic­tion­al­iza­tion, and it may moti­vate read­ers to learn more about the real man behind it — whose trag­ic cir­cum­stances left him unable to save the Jew­ish chil­dren in his care.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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