“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?”
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)