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Janusz Korczak, “The King of the Children”

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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

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Heroism in Hell: Resistance, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman

Heroism in Hell: Resistance, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman

by Claudia Moscovici

Warsaw Ghetto, Wikipedia

Warsaw Ghetto, Wikipedia

It is difficult to imagine a more hellish environment than the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto created by the Nazis in the fall of 1940 and completely destroyed, along with 300,000 of its 400,000 inhabitants, by the summer of 1942. The Ghetto is extraordinary in many respects. The largest Jewish ghetto of Nazi occupied territories, it was one of the largest sites of the torture, predation and mass murder of Jews, 254,000 of whom were eventually sent to the Treblinka death camp. It is also the site of the greatest Jewish resistance against the Nazis. As Israel Gutman, author of Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising states, “The Uprising represents defiance and great sacrifice in a world characterized by destruction and death” (New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, xi).
The destruction came piecemeal, creating unbelievable psychological torture for the Jewish population of Warsaw. On October 16, 1940 the process began. The Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews, constituting about a third of the population of Warsaw, into a tiny area, less than three percent of the city’s living space. People were forced to leave their homes, most of their property, their neighbors and friends and their jobs. Governor-General Hans Frank ordered the building of the wall by mid-November, closing off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world. The SS shot on the spot anyone seen trying to escape from the Ghetto.
Adam Czerniakow, an engineer by profession, was named the head of the Judenrat (the Jewish Council). He had to contend with lack of sufficient food and shelter, disease and starvation, sending Jewish men to forced labor under horrific conditions, and eventually with the deportation of most of the Jews in the Ghetto, including babies and children, to death camps. On July 1942, he couldn’t take the pressure and the guilt any longer. He committed suicide, leaving behind a note to his wife in which he stated that he could not collaborate with the Nazis in the murder of Jewish children.
Following his death, even the orphaned children he tried so hard to protect were sent to death camps. In an incredibly moving passage, Gutman describes the dignity with which they left to die, led by the Director of the orphanage, Dr. Janusz Korczak:

“They marched through the ghetto to the Umschlagplatz where they joined thousands of people waiting without shade, water, or shelter in the hot August sun. The children did not cry out. They walked quietly in forty-eight rows of four. One eyewitness recalled, ‘This was no march to the train cars but rather the mute protest against the murderous regime… a process the like of which no human eye had witnessed’” (Resistance, 139-140).

For those left behind in the Ghetto following the mass deportation, the moment for resistance had arrived. As long as they had a modicum of hope left, the Jews didn’t revolt against the Nazi oppressors. They had the welfare of spouses, parents and children to think of, whom they believed they could save by cooperating with the Nazis. Most clung to the false hopes fostered by the Nazis through a campaign of misinformation. Furthermore, the conditions in the Ghetto weren’t conducive to resistance. Isolated from any source of income or help, starved, overworked and continually preyed upon by the Nazis, for two years the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for their survival. Even before the mass deportation began, the conditions were so bad that about 100,000 Jews died, mostly from illness and starvation. Only once the deportation to Treblinka took away most of the Jewish population, along with the last shred of hope, did the remaining Jews—mostly young men and women—decide to take action. They fought hopelessly and heroically, against all odds of ever emerging alive out of the uneven battle with the Nazis.
Based on previous experience, the Germans didn’t expect to encounter any resistance. On January 18, 1943, they entered the Ghetto after a four-month respite, to resume deportations and send most of the remaining Jews to Treblinka. This time, however, the few thousand Jews left in the Ghetto knew they had nothing to hope for and therefore nothing to lose. Abba Kovner, a partisan fighter and well-known poet, rallied the youth with these inspiring, unforgettable words:

“We will not be led like sheep to slaughter. True, we are weak and helpless, but the only response to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! It is better to die fighting like free men than to live at the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!” (Resistance, 102)

The Jewish fighters, organized by ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization) and ZZW (Jewish Military Union), fought back with all their might. They used the few guns they had at their disposal, homemade bombs–any weapons they could find–to ward off the Nazis. In the first attack, a few SS soldiers were killed and more were wounded. The Nazis momentarily withdrew, only to return a few days later, on the eve of Passover (April 19, 1943), with even larger forces and more ammunition, weapons and tanks. Their instructions from Himmler were crystal clear: the total destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazis proceeded to hunt down the Jews and burn the Ghetto to the ground. The Jewish resistance fighters, led by Mordecai Anielewicz, Yitzhak Zuckerman and Marek Edelman, fought bravely. They built a network of safe areas and tunnels underground and even on the roofs, with ladders. They returned the fire of the attackers, even though the Nazis were far more numerous and better armed. As the Nazis scorched the Ghetto, the bunkers, “which had been planned and equipped to provide refuge for months, became burning cages without air, water, or food” (Resistance, 236). Israel Gutman’s moving historical account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising offers an answer to the much-raised question—why didn’t the Jews fight their oppressors?—and offers an unforgettable portrayal of heroism in hell.

Claudia Moscovici
Literature Salon

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