Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak was born in Warsaw Poland on July 22, 1878 into an educated and assimilated Jewish family.  His given name was Henryk Goldszmit.  The son of a successful lawyer and the grandson of a highly regarded physician, Janusz Korczak was an eminent doctor, writer, educator, philosopher, radio host and children’s rights advocate.

Janusz Korczak dedicated his life to caring for orphans and teaching adults how to treat children with compassion, decency  and respect.

Under the pen name of Janusz Korczak, he wrote several books, including How to Love a Child.  In his children’s books, King Matt the First was the central character – a heroic boy-king who sought to bring reform and playgrounds to his people.  His books, which have been translated into 20 languages, give tremendous insight into how a child views the world of adults.  Korczak founded a weekly newspaper written by children, Little Review.

In 1934, Janusz Korczak had a weekly radio program which talked about how to raise children.  Most of Poland listened to “The Old Doctor”.  When Janusz Korczak’s Jewish identity was discovered, he was accused of trying to ruin Polish children and his radio show was canceled.

Despite the ongoing persecution of Jews, in 1937, the Polish Academy of Literature awarded Korczak the Golden Laurel, for outstanding literary achievement.

With a deep passion for children’s care and education, Janusz Korczak gave up his successful medical practice to become the director of an orphanage for Jewish children. The orphanage was radically progressive at a time when children were beaten and starved in many institutions. Korczak taught the children to trust and rely on adults. He instituted self-government and a court of peers. He taught the children how to work together, accept responsibility, and respect themselves and others.

One of Korczak’s orphans said, “If not for the home, I would not know that there are honest people in the world who never steal. I would not know that one could speak the truth. I would not know that there are just laws.”

Janusz Korczak quote

Prior to 1935, Jews were thriving citizens of Poland and contributed to every aspect of society. When the persecution of the Jews began and anti-Jewish laws were enacted, Jewish businesses were boycotted. Jews could not attend universities and were forced to resign from their jobs. In 1939, Germany occupied Poland and all Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David on their arm, which Korczak refused to wear.

On Yom Kippur of 1940, it was announced that the Jews would be forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto. On November 29, 1940, the children of the orphanage were ordered to report to the ghetto. Korczak and the children moved to the crowded quarters at 33 Chlodna Street. Korczak’s many Christian friends implored him to go into hiding. He refused and said, “Who will take care of my children?”

Upon entering the gate of the ghetto, a German soldier confiscated their wagon of potatoes. Korczak protested and was arrested, beaten and thrown into jail for a month. Upon release from prison, Korczak was a very sick man.

Janusz Korczak Life StoryIn spite of his failing health, for the next two years, Janusz Korczak used all his resources, connections, and energy to help his orphans survive in the ghetto with food, clothing, education, and dignity. The orphanage was an oasis in the middle of hell.

In 1942, rumors spread that the Germans were going to liquidate the ghetto. A plea to exempt the children and orphans was denied.

Friends offered Korczak a way out. His Christian friend, Igor, obtained false papers for him. Disguised as a water and sewer inspector, Igor went into the ghetto to smuggle Korczak out and told him that this was his last chance to escape. Korczak berated him and said, “How can you possibly ask me to do that? I should abandon my children? They are going to be scared. Who is going to comfort them? I must go with them.”

Janusz Korczak Life StoryDuring the summer of 1942, 265,000 Jews were rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and marched to Umschlagplatz, where they were transported in cattle cars to Treblinka. Block by block, the German police laid siege to the ghetto. On August 5, 1942, the Germans came to liquidate the orphanage. Janusz Korczak lined up his children in rows of four holding their favorite toys and books – 200 children holding hands. Korczak was at the head, holding one child in his arms and another by his hand. One child carried the flag of King Matt with a Star of David as they marched through the ghetto. There were no cries or screams in the hot August sun.

One eyewitness recalls, “This was no march to the train cars, but rather a mute protest against the murderous regime…a process the likes of which no human eye had ever witnessed.”

Another eyewitness, Joshua Perle, wrote, “A miracle occurred. 200 children did not cry out. 200 pure souls condemned to death did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows, they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother Janusz Korczak that he might protect and preserve them. Several nurses followed by 200 children dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes were being carried to the alter. The very stones wept at the sight of the procession.”

Janusz Korczak and all of his children were murdered at Treblinka.

Janusz Korczak Life StoryAt Treblinka today, there is nothing there except 17,000 stones. Each stone is inscribed with a city, a town, a village, a country of the 870,000 Jews who were murdered there. There is not a single name on the stones except that of Janusz Korczak – teacher, doctor, author – who gave his life for his children.

As Sandra Joseph said in her book, A Voice For the Child, “Janusz Korczak is recognized and honored today, not only because he was a martyr, not only because he was a great writer and doctor, not only because he cared for the most neglected and poorest of children, not only because he made a unique contribution to the world of education, but because he was a man of great humility – who lived and died solely because of his deep belief in and love for children. Janusz Korczak truly was the champion of the child.”

To honor and commemorate the life of Janusz Korczak a 7′ by 20′ sculpture of “The Last Journey”, designed by Irving Roth,  was commissioned and erected in front of the Holocaust Resource Center.  In 2017, three scaled model Menorahs  have been fabricated by renowned Judaic artist, Gary Rosenthal, and are available for purchase, by calling our office at 516-621-8049 or at the JewishGiftPlace.  100% of proceeds go the support Temple Judea and the Holocaust Resource Center.


To view a 10 minute video about Janusz Korczak, narrated by Irving Roth, director of Temple Judea’s Holocaust Resource Center please click below.