Janusz Korczak – a Hero of the Spirit

In a time and place where the world was filled with hate, cruelty, destruction and murder, the name of Janusz Korczak stands out as a representative of all that is noble in the human heart.

Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit (July 22, 1878 or 1879– August 7, 1942), was a Polish-Jewish educator, children’s author and pedagogue,

After spending many years working as director of an orphanage in Warsaw, Poland, he stayed with his orphans and went to his death – despite opportunities to save himself – when the entire population of his institution was sent by the Nazis to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942.

Korczak was born in Warsaw in 1878 or 1879 (sources vary) to Józef and Cecylia Goldszmit, While still in high school he began to tutor younger children. In 1896 he debuted on the literary scene with a satirical text on raising children,

In 1898, he began to use Janusz Korczak as a pen name for his continued writings. During the years 1898–1904 Korczak studied medicine at the University of Warsaw and also wrote for several Polish language newspapers. After graduation, he became a pediatrician.

In the early part of the 20th century, he began working in an orphanage and later as director of an orphanage of his own design for Jewish children. There he formed a kind of a republic for children with its own small parliament, court and a newspaper. He reduced his other duties as a doctor.

In 1939, when World War II erupted, Korczak volunteered for duty in the Polish Army, but was refused due to his age. He witnessed the Nazi takeover of Warsaw. When the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, his orphanage was forced to move from its building to the Jewish ghetto. Korczak moved in with the children in July,

On August 5 or 6, 1942, German soldiers came to the orphanage to collect the nearly 200 orphans and about one dozen staff members to transport them to the Treblinka extermination camp. Korczak had been offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” by the Polish underground, but turned it down repeatedly, saying that he could not abandon his children, insisting that he would go with them.

On the dreaded day, the children were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy. Korczak was marching with them, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, as the column was being led to the slaughter. It is said that a German SS officer at the scene, who recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite children’s books, offered to help him escape, but Korczak would not hear of it. He boarded the train to Treblinka with the children and was never heard from again.

The story of Janusz Korczak and “his” children has served as an inspiration to the generations of defiant humanity in the face of hellish depravity. Statues and memorials depicting the scene of the distinguished educator with his orphans have been built in Warsaw, Jerusalem and other cities. Schools and streets also bear his name in a number of places.

There are atrocities in every generation. There are also heroes in every generation –.heroes of the spirit; Janusz Korczak was among the greatest of them.