Janusz Korczak: A Hero of the Holocaust

If you were to walk through the entire cemetery, gazing upon stone after stone after stone, you would find only one engraved with a name. That name, is Janusz Korczak.

“God, give me a hard life but let it be beautiful, rich and aspiring.” — Janusz Korczak, Prayer from his youth, recorded in the Warsaw Ghetto Diary

The name Janusz Korczak may not ring a bell for many Americans. If you’ve heard of him at all, you probably read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. But even there, Korczak was one of many stories featured tangentially alongside the feature story of the Zabinskis, a husband and wife team of zookeepers in Warsaw who used their property to hide Jewish refugees, protecting them from the Warsaw Ghetto and from unspeakable concentration camps once the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Or perhaps you read about him in The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman, which is the autobiographical account of Szpilman’s own years in the Warsaw Ghetto. In both books, Korczak is but a side story, an annotation on a central plot. You may have even read right past him amidst all the other compelling tales. But in Europe, Janusz Korczak’s story is legendary. In fact, in Europe, Janusz Korczak is as well known as Anne Frank. There is a monument to him at Yad Vashem in Israel, another in Warsaw and a memorial stone dedicated to him at the concentration camp in Treblinka, where he died.

By education, Janusz Korczak was a pediatrician in Poland at the dawn of the twentieth century. His passion for writing and for children catapulted him to fame in another area, as the author of several books for and about children, which are still available to Polish families today. In 1912, his love for children resulted in his establishing an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. Korczak, himself, was the director. When the Warsaw Ghetto was opened in 1940, the children were ordered to abandon their home and relocate within the heavily guarded walls of this 1.3 square mile living hell, along with 400,000 other Jews. Korczak was offered refuge on the “Arian side” of the fence, but he chose to escort his children into the Ghetto and to remain with them there.

For three years, Korczak devoted all his energy to creating some semblance of home for his children amidst the atrocities of the Ghetto. He treated each child with dignity and respect. He ran his orphanage like a democracy, with a court system run by the children themselves, teaching them always to show kindness and consideration toward others. He begged for food for the children for hours each day, if only to bring home a few crusts of bread or a bit of watery broth to share. And then in 1942, there were rumors that Ghetto residents were to be rounded up and placed on a transport to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. Shortly before the transport arrived, Korczak directed his children in a play about a little boy that dies. At the moment of death, the boy sees a radiant light, feeling immense joy and happiness for which there could be no parallel in this world. Many have claimed that Korczak chose this play because he wanted to prepare the children for what was to come. He had a great desire to protect them from fear.

In early August 1942, troops arrived and transport carriers stopped outside the Warsaw Ghetto. Along with thousands of others, the children were requested to board the trains. Again, Korczak was offered an escape via the Polish underground. Instead, witnesses watched, amazed as he and all 196 children exited the orphanage, dressed in their best clothes, each child carrying a favorite toy. There were no tears. There was no distress. Korczak, along with his children – some as young as two or three years, with the oldest being no more than thirteen –  walked peacefully together, hand in hand, toward the train. They boarded together. Once SS officers slammed the doors shut, Korczak and his children were never heard from again. Later, it was confirmed that they had been executed together in the gas chambers at Treblinka, along with hundreds of thousands of others; Treblinka was second only to Auschwitz for its number of executions.

If you were to arrive at Treblinka today, you would find an awe-inspiring memorial to all those who lost their lives in that horrendous place. There is a symbolic cemetery set up to honor hundreds of thousands of Jews who were killed in the gas chambers there. In the “symbolic” cemetery, there are 17,000 stones standing erect, representing persons, families and populations of entire towns that were destroyed at the Treblinka death camp. But if you were to walk through the entire cemetery, gazing upon stone after stone after stone, you would find only one engraved with a name. That name, is Janusz Korczak.

It is puzzling to think that of 70,000 stones, only one is engraved with the name of a person. Is that perhaps because, amidst the hundreds of thousands of victims, this one man very clearly, at every turn, before and during the atrocities of WWII, sacrificed himself and his safety and security for the most vulnerable of all? Could it be because Korczak did not have his life taken from him, but rather that he laid down his life for the weakest, most defenseless of his “friends?”

korczak stone

We call this, this life, sans wealth, sans freedom, sans accolades, given over for the most vulnerable and ending in a gruesome death that did not have to be – this life that placed God before self and served others on His behalf – we call this sacrifice.


The Jews, our older brothers and sisters in Christ, have a tradition which states that in every generation, there will be 36 Just Men, whose shoulders bear the weight of salvation. These men, through the purity of their souls and the righteousness of their lives, provide a foundation on which rests the security and the future of the world. It is widely held that Janusz Korczak was one of those precious 36.



NOTE: Be Alarmed: I share the above story in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which has been designated for observance this entire week (4/12-4/19).  Sadly, it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are being educated about the Holocaust at all. Thursday an alarming survey was released  showing that a full 41 percent of American adults do not know what Auschwitz was – this figure includes 66 percent of Millennials. In fact, 22 percent of Millennials had never even heard of the Holocaust. Be vary wary – those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

We need to help our children and young adults to learn more. There are so many books to help readers to gain some understanding of that time period in history – education need not be limited to “boring” textbook accounts. Check out some of these harrowing stories, mostly nonfiction, some historical fiction, that will hopefully inspire further curiosity about this unbelievable time in human history:

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson….(autobiographical account of the youngest Jew saved by Oscar Schindler)

Night by Elie Wiesel (about his experiences at Auschwitze and Buchenwald concentration camps with his father from 1944-1945, at the height of the Holocaust)

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (Diary of a Jewish girl in hiding for two years during the German occupation of The Netherlands)

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (true story about a couple that owned the Warsaw Zoo, and saved over 300 Jews on their property through the war)

The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 by Wladyslaw Szpilman (inspiration for Oscar award-winning movie, The Pianist)

Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally (award-winning novel and inspiration for the movie by the same name; based on detailed testimony of “Schindler’s Jews” – demonstrates beautifully the courage and cleverness of Oscar Schindler and his ability to work agains his own to save over 1,200 Jews from certain death)

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (pure fiction, but places you right in the setting of WWII – on both sides; this amazingly well-written novel follows a blind French girl and a German boy through their parallel experiences during WWII – Pulitzer prize winner with great historical accuracy; does not focus concentration camps, but rather the chaos of the war, and the evil that begat it)

Are We Sacrificing our Children’s Future to the Evils of the Past?

Rather than warn about the dangers of communism, the objective of these authors seems to be to show even brutal communist leader, Joseph Stalin, in a favorable light.

One of my children transferred into a public school for the first time this year, as a junior in high school. I’d heard rumors. I watch the news. I was somewhat prepared for the 120px-Hammer_and_sicklechallenges. And, of course, there were reasons that I chose homeschooling for his primary years. That said, I’ve been astonished at the overt jabs made in his textbooks – particularly history – toward all that I hold dear.

Here just two examples that demonstrate an antithetical understanding of faith in God, completely separating faith from rational thought:

Franklin never denied the existence of God. Rather, he pushed the Lord aside, making room for the free exercise of human reason. (p. 91, referring to Benjamin Franklin)

You may see this as flowery prose. But I’ve read Franklin’s autobiography. Anyone who has studied Benjamin Franklin at all knows that he never “pushed the Lord aside.” To even imply that he did is disingenuous, if not malicious. On the very first page of his autobiography, Franklin refers to the “blessings of God. And on the second page, he states,

And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all Humility to acknowledge, that I owe the mention’d Happiness of my past Life to his kind Providence, which led me to the Means I us’d & gave them Success. My belief of this, induces me to hope, tho’ I must not presume, that the same Goodness will still be exercis’d towards me in continuing that Happiness…

Does that sound like a man who would ever push the Lord aside? Read the book – there are plenty of passages that would directly dispute the textbook quote above.

Here is another example that again sets up a “rational vs. religious” disparity. This quote was taken from a packet the kids were given to study for the same class:

Despite the inroads of rationalism, nineteenth-century Americans remained a profoundly religious people – as they have been ever since.

Here is a quote that takes on religious conservatives. I found this among many in a completely degrading and dismissive article highlighted as a sidebar on p.301:

…the more recent evangelical engagement with politics that was labeled the New Christian Right sprung up in the 1980’s — epitomized by organizations such as the Moral Majority — mostly has been a conservative force of reaction against great changes in American society. The fundamentalist Moral Majority crystallized around the politcal issues of opposition to abortion and gay rights, as well as promotion of school prayer and vouchers for private schools. [emphases mine]

Not only did they demonstrate opposition to religious values, as seen above, but further on in the sidebar, they slammed religious motives by implying that Christians are bigots:

Unlike earlier evangelical reformers, they are motivated less by millennial perfectionism than by alarm at the growing diversity and secularization of American society, and they have joined with other religious conservatives in their political campaigns.

But along with a great challenge the writers have in seeing religious people as rational individuals with laudable motives, the book also appears to show unbelievable sympathy toward anti-religious political philosophies – particularly Communism – a belief system that Our Lady sought to halt by asking that Russia be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Catholics have long sought to educate the public on the dangers inherent within communist ideology. Saint John Paul II , through the Hand of Divine Providence, played a key role in the ultimate demise of the Russian communist empire (USSR).

Even in secular circles, most adults who grew up during the cold war have some understanding of the dangers of Communism, which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the 20th Century.

In an introduction to the Cold War, these authors seems to show communist leader, Joseph Stalin, in a favorable light, while they cast a shadow over President Truman (emphases below are mine):

“I am getting ready to go see Stalin and Churchill,” President Truman wrote to his mother in July 1945, “and it is a chore.” On board the cruiser Augusta, the new president continued to complain about the upcoming Potsdam Conference in his diary. “How I hate this trip!” he confided. “But I have to make it win, lose or draw, and we must win. I am giving nothing away except to save starving people, and even then I hope we can only help them to help themselves.”

Halfway around the world, Joseph Stalin left Moscow a day late because of a slight heart attack. The Russian leader hated to fly, so he traveled by rail. Moreover, he ordered the heavily guarded train to detour around Poland for fear of an ambush, further delaying his arrival. When he made his entrance into Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin miraculously spared the total destruction that his forces had created in the German capital, he was ready to claim the spoils of war.

These two men, one the veteran revolutionary who had been in power for two decades, the other an untested leader in office for barely three months, symbolized the enormous differences that now separated the wartime allies. Stalin was above all a realist. Brutal in securing total control at home, he was more flexible in his foreign policy, bent on exploiting Russia’s victory in World War II rather than aiming at world domination. Cunning and caution were the hallmarks of his diplomatic style. Small in stature, ungainly in build, he radiated a catlike quality as he waited behind his unassuming facade, ready to dazzle an opponent with hisbrilliant, terrifying tactical mastery.Truman, in contrast, personified traditional Wilsonian idealism. Lacking Roosevelt’s guile, the new president placed his faith in international cooperation. Like many Americans, he believed implicitly in his country’s innate goodness. Self-assured to the point of cockiness, he came to Potsdam clothed in the armor of self-righteousness. – p. 700 [emphases mine]

Please remember, Stalin is a man responsible for the deaths of over 20 million of his own people. But I didn’t find a word about his murder rate. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Granted, this is an American history book. But some back story may have been helpful as the writers describe our conflict with communists. Instead, the book explains that the Cold War was the result of land disputes in Europe after WWII, and American “distrust” of Russian motives. At the first mention of communism, here is the wording:

“After emerging victorious from World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves locked in a bitter rivalry that threatened to trigger nuclear destruction of the entire planet. At stake in this contest were not only national ambitions but also incompatible ideologies – capitalism and communism – that amplified popular suspicion and animosity. Americans feared that as agents of world communism, the leaders of the Soviet Union planned the destruction of the free market as well as individual liberty. Indeed, Americans became convinced, especially during the McCarthy “Red Scare” era of the early 1950’s, that the Soviet Union had organized an insidious conspiracy that reached into the State Department and Pentagon and compromised the interests of the United States. Playing on the fear of ordinary citizens, Senator Joseph McCarthy accused famous writers, filmmakers, and musicians of being Soviet spies and Communists intent on helping the enemy. Wars waged in far-off countries such as Vietnam aimed to halt the spread of communism, and a growing anxiety over imagined Soviet aggression served to heighten among the American people a sense of the United States having a special mission as defender of democracy and capitalism.” – 100 [emphases mine]

Communism isn’t the only philosophy looked kindly upon in this textbook. Socialism is painted not merely with sympathy, but positively. Just about everywhere I read the word socialism, it was juxtaposed with the “injustices” of capitalism. Beneath the photo of a campaign poster for “Eugene V. Debs” on the Socialist ticket, the caption reads:

Presidential campaign poster for Eugene V. Debs on the Socialist party of America ticket in 1904. The poster’s imagery appeals to industrial workers, miners, and farmers, and its slogan, “Workers of the world unite,” was a key call to action of the party to challenge the injustices of capitalism. – p. 573

When describing Debs, the book says that his party was never effectively organized to create change, but,

…he was eloquent, passionate, and visionary. An excellent speaker, he captivated audiences, attacking the injustices of capitalism and urging a workers’ republic. – p. 573


By 1911, there were socialist mayors in thirty-two cities, including Berkley, California, Butte, Montana; and Flint, Michigan….although torn by factions, the Socialist party doubled in membership between 1904 and 1908, then tripled in the four years after that. Running for president, Debs garnered 100,000 votes in 1900; 400,000 in 1904; and 900,000 in 1912, the party’s peak year. – p. 573

According to Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolsheviks in the Communist Revolution of 1917, “The Goal of Socialism is Communism“. The tone of this book should be extremely concerning to all freedom-loving Americans. The most damning comment I found about socialism was that it didn’t gain much popularity. Otherwise, tenants seemed to be couched in rather idealistic terms.

But capitalism?

While some historians have argued that paternalism was part of a social system that was organized like a family hierarchy rather than a brutal, profit-making arrangement, there was no inconsistency between planter’s paternalism and capitalism. – p 269

Industrial capitalism — the world of factories and foremen and grimy machines — tested the immigrants and placed an enormous strain on their families. – p. 471

Many businesses used injunctions and “yellow-dog contracts” — which forbade employees to join unions – to establish open shops and deny workers the benefits of collective bargaining. Other employers wooed their workers away from unions using techniques of welfare capitalism – spending money to improve plant conditions and winning employee loyalty with pensions, paid vacations, and company cafeterias…. – p. 626

As I skimmed through this text, the distinct message was that religion and capitalism are bad. Communism and Socialism, on the other hand, seem to be held as superior alternatives to those values inherent in the fabric of our Republic.

According to Paul Kengor in his recently released book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism,

We won the Cold War in the political arena, but lost it in the classroom. If and when communism is taught at all in American schools, the communists are lauded for their idealism, their devotion to equality for women and minorities. Their actual track record – the politically created famines, the wars of aggression, the body count in the tens of millions – is too frequently passed over in silence. – p. 3

That has been my experience with my son’s text. While I merely skimmed the book, I could not possibly find room in this post to share all the mud slinging I found – whether directly or by insinuation – directed toward our Catholic values.

Communism is dangerous. Socialism is a leap in that direction and gaining in popularity among the young in America, as demonstrated by the huge popularity of Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed democratic socialist, who ran against Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary.

Recently, a poll conducted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that 58% of Millennials would rather live in a Socialist, Communist or Fascist nation than a Capitalist one. After surveying this book, I must say that I am not surprised. Sadly, few of those who responded to the poll could properly define socialism, communism or fascism.

My aim here is merely to shed a light on my own experience and suggest that you take a closer look at your children’s texts. You may be surprised.

I did meet with my son’s principal to discuss my concerns. He was very kind, and frankly, surprised by some of what I showed him. But do you know what he said? He told me that I was the first parent to speak out since they began using this book four years ago. Do you know what that tells me?

I was right to SPEAK OUT.

And YOU should SPEAK OUT too.

We should not stand idly by and roll our eyes at the anti-Christian, anti-capitalist, anti-American propaganda being imposed upon our children. Speaking out is the only way we can take back our schools. Action is critical. For if we allow our schools to mislead and even fail to educate our children about key events in the past, aren’t we dooming them to repeat it?








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