The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak

From the Spring 1962 issue


Janusz Korczak (Dr Goldschmidt) was a medical doctor, a well-known pedagogue and a writer of juveniles. He began as an assimilationist. Under the influence of the new currents he came ever closer to the Jewish masses and renounced his earlier assimilationist tendencies. He was a very talented writer for children, with bated breath. They made him famous not only among Jewish but among Polish children as well. His books helped to shape their character, accustomed them to the good, the refined, the clean, the modest. His best-known work is Król Macius Pierwszy (“King Macius the First”).

Joski, Moski, Srulki (popular names of Jewish children) is a reportage about a children’s colony, a report on the achievements in the field of education, a kind of advertisement and recommendation of children’s colonies as a vital educational means. That same book was adapted for the Polish scene and appeared under the title: Jozki, Jaski, Franki (names of Polish children). In addition he wrote: Spowiedz Motylka (“Confessions of a Butterfly”), a book about children’s life in a Russian school: Antek and Koszalki Opalki (“Stuff and Nonsense”).

Parallel with his literary work which earned for him the reputation as one of the best writers of children’s books in Poland, he practised the pedagogic ideals which he preached in his books, when he took over the administration of the orphanage on Krochmalna 92, which brought him renown as a great children’s friend, a superb educator, an inspired pedagogue who penetrated deep, very deep, into the souls of children. Good, normal relations between the educators and the children prevailed in the institution. All activities in the orphanage were carried out by the children themselves, there was no paid personnel as in other orphan homes. The concept of children’s self-administration was realised to the fullest degree. A children’s court would adjudicate all infractions of the institution’s rules. In Korczak’s children’s home a painstaking cleanliness was observed and the relations between teacher and children were of the best.

The institution cared for its pupils even after they had gone. The graduates from Korczak’s Home lived in a students’ hostel under educators’ supervision. Seldom does one find such attachment of pupils and graduates to an institution. Years later, when the graduates were already abroad, scattered over the seven seas, they continued to keep in touch with their greatly beloved teacher, Dr Korczak, and the rest of the teaching staff, through ardent correspondence.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Korczak was faced with the difficult task of maintaining the institution on its pre-war level. With the establishment of the ghetto boundaries it had to move from Krochmalna 92 to Chlodna 33. With painstaking and laborious effort the institution was transferred to its new location. But there too it did not find peace. That part of Chlodna was later excluded from the ghetto area and the children’s home had to move again to a new address, on Sienna 16, the headquarters of the former Association of Polish Business Employees. From there the institution was transferred to that place from where there is no return—to Treblinka.

Dr Korczak together with his right hand, Mrs Stefania Wilczinska, spared no efforts to obtain the substantial means necessary to maintain several hundred children. The old friends of the famous Warsaw institution were gone. It was necessary to recruit new members and friends who would care for and concern themselves with the hundreds of orphans and street urchins. Dr Korczak alerted all social institutions, and first of all Centos (Children's Welfare Organisation) about aid for his Home.

In Korczak's institution the children did not suffer hunger even in the bitterest days of the ghetto. The great children’s friend did not limit his concern to his own institution. He took under his wing the entire community of Warsaw's Jewish children. He was their defender, their passionate advocate. He roused the entire population to the need of the destitute children, and where the danger was especially great he intervened personally. This was the case with the children’s home on Dzielna 39. In that Home children dropped like flies. All of Warsaw was aroused. Dr Korczak took over the Home and put an end to the mismanagement that prevailed there. He did not content himself with merely alerting the Jewish institutions about the plight of the children. Together with his teaching staff he organised concerts and literary events for the purpose of raising funds and enrolling friends for the children’s homes.

Dr Korczak was the type of rebel who stopped at nothing and would not conform to his surroundings. When the Germans introduced the band of shame (arm band with the Star of David compulsory for Jews) he insisted that as a Major of the Polish Army he was not compelled to wear it. The Germans, however, placed little stock in this view and arrested him. It took much effort on the part of his friends and students to set him free.


During the war Korczak kept a diary, He also wrote a three-volume work, Dziecy 2 Eretz (Children of Eretz) as a result of his trip to E'Y (Eretz Yisroel). These works were probably saved because Korczak had transmitted them to his friends and students on the “Aryan” side.


Throughout, before and during the war, Korczak had worked together with Mrs Stefania Wilczinska. Theirs was a lifelong collaboration. Even death could not separate them. They went to their death together. Everything connected with Korczak’s name, the children’s home, his teaching of love for children, was the common contribution of both. It is difficult to say where Korczak begins and where Wilczinska ends. They are twins merged into one soul, one idea: love of children.


Wilczinska introduced the system employed in her children’s home to other children’s institutions. She would inspect other schools, instruct the teachers in the love of children and how to educate them in accordance with the most modern principles of pedagogy. Even in the most difficult war years Mrs Wilczinska would organise children’s excursions to the summer home in the nearby village, Gaclewski. She possessed excellent organisational abilities. She was a wonderful pedagogue herself, loved and respected by hundreds of graduates from the children’s home, appreciated by hundreds of educators and thousands of children.


That model institution, famous both at home and abroad, did not escape the general fate of extermination of the entire Jewish population during Warsaw's first liquidation—Aktion. The Juden-Sieger, the S.S.-murderers, and the Ukrainians came and took away the children together with the teachers and maintenance personnel, with Dr Korczak and Mrs Wilczinska at their head. 

Korczak's path to Treblinka is described by the former secretary of the Warsaw kehillah, who saved hundreds of good people, Nachum Remba, in his work on the Umschlagplatz (transfer point for deportation to extermination camps). Remba writes:

“It was a day that crushed me completely. The small ghetto was being blockaded. We had been warned that the nurses’ school, the apothecaries, Korczak's orphan home, the children's home on Sliska and Twarda and many others were all being taken away. It was a terribly hot day. I made the children sit down near the end of the building. I had hoped they would succeed in winning a reprieve for the afternoon and thus hold out until the next day. I proposed to Korczak that he come with me to the gmineh (Jewish Council) and persuade them to intervene. He refused. He did not want to leave the children alone for one minute.

“The loading began (into the trucks heading for Treblinka) I stood near the head of the Ordnungsdienst (Jewish Ghetto Police) that led the people to the trucks. I stood there and with thumping heart watched to see whether my plan would succeed. I kept asking myself about the state of the trucks (that is, whether they were not already full). The loading continued but the quota had not yet been fulfilled. A closely-packed, driven mass was harried on with truncheons. Suddenly Mr Sh. (Shmerling, the Jewish commander of the Umschlagplatz, to whom the Germans referred to as der jüdischer Henker), gave the order for the children to be led away…

“At the head of the procession was Korczak.” and Remba continues with an outcry, “No! I shall never forget that scene. That was not a march. That was an organised, silent protest against the banditry! In contrast to the herded mass that went to the slaughter like cattle, here was a march the likes of which is hard to conceive. All the children were grouped four abreast. Korczab, erect, eyes uplifted and holding two children by their hands, led the procession.

“The second group was led by Stefania Wilczinska; the third by Barniatowska, her children carrying blue knapsacks; the fourth by Sternfeld of the children’s home on Twarda. These were the first Jewish cadres who went to their death with honour, hurling looks of hatred at the barbarians, They presaged the coming of the avengers of our tragedy, who will avenge the evil deed.

“Even the Ordnungsdienst stood at attention and saluted. Upon seeing Korczak the Germans asked: ‘Who is this man’? I couldn't control myself any longer, tears began streaming down my face. I hid my face in my hands. I was overcome by a deep pain at our being so helpless, at our inability to do anything but stand there helplessly and look on at the murder.

“At night I imagined that I was hearing the thump of children’s feet, marching in cadence under the leadership of their teacher. I heard the measured steps, tramping on and on without interruption to an unknown destination. And to this day I see that scene in my mind. I see clearly the figures, and I see the fists of hundreds of thousands that will come raining down on the heads of the henchmen.”


TRANSLATOR'S NOTE:—In the latter half of 1943 the famous historian and archivist of the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum, a Left Poale Zionist, while hiding together with his family and 35 other Jews in the cellar of a Polish worker in Warsaw, wrote in Polish a sociological study entitled, Polish-Jewish Relationships during the Second World War and, in Yiddish, a number of biographical sketches of some of the leading Jewish personalities of the Warsaw Ghetto, including Janusz Korczak.

On 6th March, 1944, the bunker where Ringelblum was hiding was betrayed to the Gestapo. All of its occupants were arrested and shortly thereafter executed by the Germans. Ringelblum himself had, through the intermediary of a Polish family, arranged for the transfer of the two manuscripts to Adolph Berman, a colleague of his in the Warsaw Ghetto underground, now living in Israel. In 1957 Berman handed the manuscripts over to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw—the home of the original Ringelblum Archives. When I was in Poland in the winter of 1959-60 to do research for a book, I was privileged to receive copies of these manuscripts and authorisation by the Jewish Historical Institute for their translation into English. The chapter on Janusz Korczak has not been published in any language and appears here for the first time in English translation.