Joseph Stalin once told U.S. Ambassador Averill Harriman “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Perhaps this is why readers react so much more sympathetically to the personal account of the Holocaust in The Diary of Anne Frank than to any history or political science book on the subject. The deaths of Janusz Korczak and the nearly two hundred orphans he took care of are far from being a statistic. It is one of the most tragic episodes of Holocaust history, recorded both in his diary describing their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ghetto Diary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), and in a beautifully written biography by Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).
Janusz Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Jewish Polish educator, doctor and writer of children’s books and educational philosophy, was famous long before he perished along with his children during the Holocaust. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he devoted a large part of his life to writing about how to raise children. Unlike Rousseau, however, he practiced what he preached. Korczak devoted his entire life to taking care of thousands of orphans and destitute children. He worked first as a pediatrician, then as a leader of the Orphans’ Society. There he met the woman who would become his assistant, friend and greatest collaborator, Stefania Wilczynska.
In 1911 Korczak became the Director of an orphanage for Jewish children. In this context, he implemented some of the ideas expressed in his books: particularly that children need to be encouraged, not punished, and that they need a combination of guidance and autonomy to develop into decent human beings and good citizens. This was especially true of the thousands of homeless and hungry street urchins, both Polish and Jewish, that Korczak and Wilczynska raised, fed and educated over the course of their lives. Like in Korczak’s books, they created a “Children’s Republic”: not a utopia, but a place where the orphans had a lot of say in their upbringing and education, forming their own parliament, court and newspaper. Korczak, a keen psychologist, also encouraged them to write a diary where they learned to express their fears and sadness without allowing it to dominate their lives. He built for his orphans a state-of-the art orphanage: one of the first buildings with electricity and running water in Warsaw.
Not long after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they decreed the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto on October 12, 1940. Korczak was obliged to move his modern orphanage from the Polish section of town, on Krochmalna 92, to a smaller building on 33 Chlodna within the ghetto walls, and later to an even tinier place on 16 Sienna Street. Even in the face of incredible hardship, disease and starvation, Korczak struggled every day to feed, clothe, educate and comfort the nearly 200 orphans under his care. He would go asking for food and donations throughout the ghetto, stage plays and other cultural activities, in the attempt to foster some semblance of normalcy in disastrous conditions. Although several of his Polish former students and friends offered him false papers to escape the Ghetto, he refused to abandon the children.
But on August 6th 1942, even the most cynical couldn’t have predicted that the Germans would send thousands of children living in the Ghetto to their deaths, in Treblinka. They took Korczak, his staff and the children by surprise when they stormed into the orphanage and ordered them to march to the gathering place at the train station, for deportation to the East. Betty Jean Lifton vividly describes the orphans’ sad procession; one of the darkest and most touching episodes in Holocaust history:
“The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz, to whom he had dedicated the story of planet Ro, by the other. Stefa followed a little way back with the nine-to twelve-year-olds… As the children followed Korczak away from the orphanage, one of the teachers started singing a marching song, and everyone joined in: ‘Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high’” (The King of the Children, 340).
Although Janusz Korczak could not protect his beloved orphans from the gas chamber, he gave them one last gift: the comfort of facing their deaths with dignity.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory