Twelve years ago, when my wife, Elana, and I were liv­ing in Jerusalem, we vis­it­ed Yad Vashem. In an exhib­it on art in the Nazi ghet­tos, I first learned the sto­ry of Hen­ryk Gold­szmit, bet­ter known as Janusz Kor­czak — a promi­nent edu­ca­tor, author, and pedi­a­tri­cian, and the head of a Jew­ish orphan­age in Warsaw.

By July of 1942, War­saw had been under Nazi occu­pa­tion for two years and the city’s Jews were impris­oned in its ghet­to. The orphan­age — which had been relo­cat­ed from Krochmal­na to Chłod­na and final­ly to Sien­na Street as the bor­ders of the ghet­to were shift­ed and shrunk by the Nazis — swelled with near­ly two hun­dred chil­dren between the ages of sev­en and four­teen. Food rations had become scarce, and word had spread of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mass depor­ta­tions. Kor­czak was offered pas­sage out of the ghet­to by his influ­en­tial friends, but he remained with his orphans. In fact, as a film in the exhib­it explained, he decid­ed to help them stage an adap­ta­tion of the Ben­gali play The Post Office by Nobel lau­re­ate Rabindranath Tagore.

I was stunned. The Post Office? I knew the play. My class had read it in my ele­men­tary school in India, and our teacher had direct­ed us in a rag-tag pro­duc­tion. The plot cen­ters on an orphaned boy, Amal, who suf­fers from a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness. The vil­lage doc­tor instructs him to quar­an­tine. Nev­er­the­less, he man­ages to meet many engag­ing fig­ures through his win­dow, includ­ing oth­er boys his own age, a flower girl, and a wan­der­ing musi­cian. Though he’s rebuked for his imag­i­na­tion, Amal comes to believe that beyond the dis­tant moun­tains lives a great king who will some­day send him a let­ter. In the final scene of the play, as Amal lies on his deathbed, the king’s doc­tor and mes­sen­ger arrive at his house. Amal’s vision of the world is vindicated.

As a sev­en-year-old, I was less inter­est­ed in Tagore’s themes than I was in the fact that I was get­ting to wear a cos­tume I’d made with my teacher’s help and act in a play in which most of the main parts had been giv­en to me and my class­mates. Stand­ing in Yad Vashem, I remem­bered the chaot­ic ener­gy before the cur­tain rose, a room­ful of chil­dren jostling each oth­er and try­ing their best to keep qui­et. Now, how­ev­er, I also con­tem­plat­ed the coin­ci­dence that I, a Ben­gali man mar­ried to the Jew­ish grand­daugh­ter of Holo­caust sur­vivors, would come across a play from my youth at a Holo­caust muse­um. Why had Kor­czak put on a play in the ghet­to — what was he hop­ing to achieve? And why had he cho­sen this play in par­tic­u­lar? Under­ly­ing both ques­tions was per­haps a more fun­da­men­tal one: What is the val­ue of art in wartime?

I lat­er learned that The Post Office had received inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion by the time it was per­formed in the War­saw Ghet­to. After its pre­miere in Rabindranath Tagore’s school in Shan­ti­nike­tan in West Ben­gal, it was staged in Dublin and Lon­don in 1913 at the urg­ing of W. B. Yeats, then in 1921 in Berlin with Tagore him­self in the audi­ence, and then in Paris the night before the city fell to Ger­man forces in 1940.

When Kor­czak decid­ed to stage the play, he was fight­ing to keep his chil­dren and staff from los­ing hope and falling into depres­sion. He had orga­nized a series of week­ly chats” that spanned the range of his intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests— lit­er­ary analy­sis, visu­al art, women’s rights, and the nature of evil — and invit­ed every­one from news­pa­per ven­dors to poets to speak about their pro­fes­sions. For the old­er stu­dents and staff, he held study cir­cles. More­over, Kor­czak inte­grat­ed the arts into the every­day life of the orphan­age, with mar­i­onette plays along with musi­cal and the­ater pro­duc­tions. The chil­dren per­formed in some of these pro­grams, too.

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

When Kor­czak decid­ed to stage the play, he was fight­ing to keep his chil­dren and staff from los­ing hope and falling into depres­sion. He had orga­nized a series of week­ly chats” that spanned the range of his intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests— lit­er­ary analy­sis, visu­al art, women’s rights, and the nature of evil — and invit­ed every­one from news­pa­per ven­dors to poets to speak about their pro­fes­sions. For the old­er stu­dents and staff, he held study cir­cles. More­over, Kor­czak inte­grat­ed the arts into the every­day life of the orphan­age, with mar­i­onette plays along with musi­cal and the­ater pro­duc­tions. The chil­dren per­formed in some of these pro­grams, too.

For Korczak’s chil­dren, act­ing in a play was a mean­ing­ful enter­prise. Like my class­mates and me, they made their own cos­tumes, although theirs were sewn out of old bed sheets and torn socks. They were excit­ed by the prospect of the entire com­mu­ni­ty com­ing to see their show.

Kor­czak had been a stu­dent of theos­o­phy and med­i­ta­tion, and had delved into East­ern mythol­o­gy. I think he saw Amal’s jour­ney as a brave exam­ple. 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.”

For Tagore, the end of the play isn’t the end for Amal, but rather a kind of awak­en­ing — a move­ment from enslave­ment toward free­dom. I believe Kor­czak was inspired by the idea that art can change us, that the actors might find their sense of dig­ni­ty restored, and that those wit­ness­ing it might be giv­en a sense of hope and possibility.

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. Mass depor­ta­tions to Tre­blin­ka began three days lat­er, and nei­ther Kor­czak nor his chil­dren were spared.

Look­ing back, it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss Korczak’s approach or words with­out invok­ing the term protest.” Korczak’s protest was in the way he lived his life and in the world he cre­at­ed for his orphans. His choice to pro­duce The Post Office, a sim­ple play with com­plex themes, was in the name of art, renew­al, and life — a search in 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.