by Joan Smith

Polish Jewish national hero Janusz Korczak was a talented doctor, teacher, writer and advocate for children. But in the end, it is his selfless love and devotion that is remembered by everyone who learns of his story. Born Henryk Goldszmit in 1878, he later adopted the pseudonym Janusz Korczak from a favorite book. At the age of 18 his father died and he became the sole source of income for his family through tutoring and writing. His first published article was a satirical sketch but he went on to make a significant and serious impression on the world. Janusz graduated from medical school in 1904 as a pediatrician and wrote for several Polish newspapers as he worked at the Children’s Hospital in Warsaw. He also served as a military doctor in the Russo-Japanese War, World War I and the Polish-Soviet War.

Deciding he could better serve humanity as an educator rather than as a doctor, Janusz joined the Orphans Aid Society in between wars and gradually ended his medical work. He met Stefania Wilczyńska (Stefa) there in 1910 and the next year appointed her to be his Deputy Director and house mother of Dom Sierot, the orphanage he designed and directed for Jewish children in Warsaw. His 100 children were an active part of a “republic for children” with its own courts and newspaper, where they learned responsibility for their own actions. He spent time in Palestine observing education on kibbutzim and was trying to emigrate in 1939 when World War II interrupted his plans.

In 1940, after invading Poland, the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto and the orphanage was forced to move there. Despite offers from friends to shelter them outside of the ghetto, Janusz and Stefa refused to leave. In the ghetto Janusz often had to beg from door to door for food, warm clothes and medicine for his charges despite his failing health. He did everything he could to establish as normal a life as possible for the children, continuing their roles in the orphanage administration and performing plays and concerts for the rest of the ghetto residents. He wanted the children to learn honesty and truth despite the harsh realities all around them. On August 5, 1942, Janusz and Stefa and a dozen of their staff led 200 orphans on an orderly and dignified march through the ghetto to the cattle boxcars that transported them to the Treblinka killing center, where they most likely were murdered the day of their arrival.

Janusz Korczak, Polish Jewish hero, was a prolific author of books about children and for children and collaborated with educational institutions. He developed his groundbreaking views by observing children, their teachers and caregivers first-hand in summer camps, schools and hospitals in Palestine, Berlin, Paris and London. He made a conscious decision not to have a family of his own but to dedicate his life to working with children. He was the “Old Doctor” on Polish radio, popular with listeners of all ages. He published articles in many magazines in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish through his lifetime. His ghetto diary, with notes, memories and observations, was published in 1958 in Poland. His legacy of love, understanding and dedication to “his” children, and all children, lives on.