On July 18, 1942, the edu­ca­tor, med­ical doc­tor, and Pol­ish-Jew­ish lit­er­ary per­son­al­i­ty Janusz Kor­czak staged a play at his orphan­age in the War­saw Ghet­to. The per­for­mance of Pocz­ta (The Post Office) was an adap­ta­tion of a Ben­gali play, Dak Ghar, by the play­wright and Nobel lau­re­ate Rabindranath Tagore.

It’s extra­or­di­nary to imag­ine art flow­er­ing in this place and time. By July of that year, Korczak’s Children’s Home had twice been relo­cat­ed, as the bor­ders of the ghet­to had been shift­ed and shrunk by the Ger­man author­i­ties. Korczak’s orphan­age swelled to hold near­ly two hun­dred chil­dren between the ages of sev­en and four­teen, as food rations became increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to acquire. Hunger, star­va­tion, and ill­ness were ever-present, and word had spread of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mass depor­ta­tions. In this time of fear and suf­fer­ing, why did Janusz Kor­czak have his orphans stage a play, and one by an Indi­an play­wright no less?

The Post Office was first per­formed in Rabindranath Tagore’s school at Shan­ti­nike­tan in West Ben­gal; fol­low­ing this, it was per­formed out­side of India notably sev­er­al times before Janusz Korczak’s stag­ing of it. In 1913 it was per­formed in Dublin and Lon­don, at the urg­ing of W.B. Yeats. It was per­formed again in 1921 in Berlin with Tagore him­self in the audi­ence, and it was per­formed in 1940 in Paris the night before the city fell to Ger­man forces.

I first encoun­tered The Post Office as a child in ele­men­tary school in India. We read it in class and then our teacher involved us in a rag­tag pro­duc­tion where we made our own cos­tumes. The plot cen­ters on an orphaned boy, Amal, who’s been quar­an­tined in his home due to a mys­tery ill­ness. Amal is instruct­ed to stay indoors by the vil­lage doc­tor and is forced to expe­ri­ence the world through his win­dows, through which he meets many engag­ing fig­ures: young boys his own age, a curd-sell­er, a flower girl, the vil­lage watch­man, and a wan­der­ing musi­cian. Though he’s rebuked for his imag­i­na­tion, Amal comes to believe that beyond the moun­tains in the dis­tance lives a great King, who will some­day send him a let­ter. In the final move­ment of the play, as Amal lies on his deathbed, the King’s doc­tor and mes­sen­ger arrive at his house and in this moment Amal’s vision of the world is vindicated.

In the bleak­ness of the War­saw Ghet­to, Kor­czak was fight­ing to keep his chil­dren and his staff from falling into depression.

As a sev­en-year-old child I was less inter­est­ed in Tagore’s themes than I was in the fact that I was get­ting to put on a cos­tume and per­form in a play where the main parts were most­ly chil­dren. I still remem­ber one moment that sur­prised me. Amal has to stay inside his house, and he miss­es his out­door toys. He asks the neigh­bor chil­dren to come by, this way he can vic­ar­i­ous­ly expe­ri­ence them play­ing with his favorite things. As a boy who loved his train sets, I found that moment mov­ing and res­o­nant. Of course, I couldn’t have imag­ined that decades lat­er I’d encounter the his­to­ry of this same play and come to real­ize that a sin­gle work of art can serve so many purposes.

In the bleak­ness of the War­saw Ghet­to, Kor­czak was fight­ing to keep his chil­dren and his staff from falling into depres­sion. He planned a series of week­ly chats,” where the pos­si­ble sub­jects spanned the range of his intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests: lit­er­ary analy­sis, visu­al art, the rights of women, the emo­tions of the indi­vid­ual, phi­los­o­phy, and the nature of evil. Kor­czak also orga­nized talks to be held in the ball­room of the orphan­age — where every­one from news­pa­per ven­dors to poets were invit­ed to speak about their pro­fes­sions — and for the old­er stu­dents and staff Kor­czak held addi­tion­al study cir­cles. He inte­grat­ed arts into the every­day life of the orphan­age, with per­for­mances of mar­i­onette plays along with musi­cal and the­ater pro­duc­tions. The chil­dren per­formed in some of these pro­grams, while notable artists liv­ing in the ghet­to led others.

For Korczak’s chil­dren, stag­ing a play was a mean­ing­ful enter­prise. They made their own cos­tumes out of mate­ri­als like old bed sheets and torn socks. They were excit­ed by the prospect of the entire com­mu­ni­ty com­ing to see them perform.

I think Kor­czak was inspired by the play’s themes. He’d been a stu­dent of theos­o­phy and med­i­ta­tion and had delved into East­ern mythol­o­gy. I think he saw Amal’s jour­ney as a brave exam­ple in dark times. Tagore once described the play:

Amal rep­re­sents the man whose soul has received the call of the open road… that which is death’ to the world of hoard­ed wealth and cer­ti­fied creeds brings him awak­en­ing in the world of spir­i­tu­al freedom.

So the end of the play isn’t the end for Amal but rather some kind of awak­en­ing, as Tagore describes, a ges­ture toward free­dom from what enslaves us. I believe Kor­czak was inspired by this sense that art can unlock us, that in the per­for­mance the audi­ence can be moved and the actors might find their sense of dig­ni­ty restored.

What would have hap­pened if the actors of yes­ter­day were to con­tin­ue in their roles today?

Jerzyk fan­cied him­self a fakir.

Chaimek — a real doctor.

Adek — the lord mayor.

So wrote Kor­czak in his diary after the per­for­mance of The Post Office. Three days lat­er mass depor­ta­tions to Tre­blin­ka began, and nei­ther Kor­czak nor his chil­dren would be spared.

Look­ing back, it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss Korczak’s approach or his words with­out invok­ing the term protest.” As a wit­ness and as a vital actor in his attempts to save the chil­dren in his orphan­age, Korczak’s protest was in liv­ing. His stag­ing of The Post Office, a sim­ple play with com­plex themes, was in the name of art, renew­al, and life — a kind of search­ing in the dark­ness for human connection.

Jai Chakrabar­ti is the author of the nov­el A Play for the End of the World (Knopf), which won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for debut fic­tion and is long-list­ed for the PEN/​Faulkner Award. He is the author of the forth­com­ing sto­ry col­lec­tion A Small Sac­ri­fice for an Enor­mous Hap­pi­ness (Knopf, 2023). His short fic­tion has appeared in numer­ous jour­nals and has been anthol­o­gized in The O. Hen­ry Prize Sto­ries, The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries, and award­ed a Push­cart Prize. He was an Emerg­ing Writer Fel­low with A Pub­lic Space and received an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Brook­lyn Col­lege and is a trained com­put­er sci­en­tist. Born in Kolkata, India, he now lives in New York with his family.