Jewish Journal

JANUSZ KORCZAK YEAR: There are no children, just people

Katarzyna Odrzywołek / Poland

April 20, 2012 | 1:58 pm


A common initiative promoting the works of the Old Doctor has begun the whole Poland over. Enough to think that not that long ago, while visiting Cracow bookshops and asking about his works, I met only with surprised look and an answer: “I am sorry, we don’t have it. There is only King Matt.” A book I remember perfectly from my childhood which is still lying on one of the shelves of my family library, waiting for the younger generations to come. So where are the other writings of Korczak: Kaytek the Wizard, Playful Pedagogy, How to Love a Child, The Rules of Life, Alone with God, Ghetto Diary? It turned out that the Old Doctor, although present, is no longer needed and started to disappear. All those for whom he was a role model, who remembered and followed him are already dead. Nowadays, young people see in him a victim of war and anti‑Semitism. Korczak wrote “Death is not difficult – more difficult is the life.” The idea of his life became the background suppressed by his martyr’s death. Korczak was a man who perceived commitment in social service to be the most important goal in his life. What do we mean today under renunciation, sacrifice, and disinterest? The majority would say: outdated ideals, old fashioned, no one needs them today. People like him, who feel responsible for the future, who believe in effectiveness of positive activity, fall into oblivion. Who was Janusz Korczak? How much, my dear reader, are you able to tell about him?

Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) was born in Warsaw, on 22 July 1878, in a Jewish family, however, totally knit together with the Polish culture and language. A family of vivid writing, educational and social interests. His father, Józef Goldszmit, was a well known and acknowledged lawyer in Warsaw, fighting for the development of secular education for the Jewish children. Korczak’s grandfather, Dr Cwi Hirsz Goldszmit, was a surgeon in the Jewish Hospital in Hrubieszów. In their social and educational activity, Henryk’s family was a strong supporter of Haskalah – the Jewish Enlightenment that professed ties with the Polish culture and raising in the spirit of progress. Korczak felt like he was to pursue the aspirations of his ancestors. All his childhood, youth and work connected him with Warsaw; “Warsaw is mine and I am hers.”[2] His childhood was full of peace, love and abundance. It was disturbed with the death of his father, who died after a long-standing mental illness (1896). The young Henryk, a 5th grade pupil in a philology class of a Praga gymnasium, became responsible for providing for the family. He gave private lessons, collaborated with the illustrated humoristic and satirical Kolce [Thorns] weekly. He wrote numerous satirical pieces and columns. His literary début – the Gordian Knot – he devoted to the problem of upbringing in a family. He said: “I am a man immensely interested in social issues.”[3] In 1898, he began medical studies at the Warsaw University and almost at the same time he took part in the Ignacy Paderewski literary contest, where for the first time he appeared under the pseudonym Janusz Korczak. And that was the name which was to make him famous in Poland and bring him international respect.[4]

Meanwhile, he became a student of the secret Flying University and got engaged in the activities of the Warsaw Charitable Society. He finished his medical studies in 1905 and supplemented his knowledge in the clinics of Berlin, Paris and London. In all these places, he was interested in institutions of care and education. Being a young doctor, he started collaboration with the Summer Camp Society and participated in the summer camps as an instructor. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) he worked as a doctor in a hospital train. Since 1914, he served as a junior ward-head in a divisional field hospital and during the civil war he took care of two Ukrainian orphanages near Kiev. In 1919, being already an officer of the Polish army, he worked in an epidemic hospital in Łódź. And although he confessed in his diary, at the dusk of his life, that he betrayed medicine, in fact he remained a doctor until the end.[5] He cured his children from the orphanage, weighed and measured them, examined their biophysical development. He followed up the medical knowledge with the experience of a pedagogue and the sensibility of a psychologist. In 1912, he took charge of a newly built Orphanage, called Dom Sierot [Orphans’ House], for Jewish children at 92 Krochmalna street. Stefania Wilczyńska became the head master of the house. For both of them, it determined a common fate – till the end of life. The war got Korczak away from the children of the Orphanage. After his return, in 1919, he set up in Pruszków, near Warsaw, an orphanage for Polish worker’s children called Nasz Dom [Our House] becoming thus the soul of two care entities. There he created a modern and unique educational system. What this care entity looked like in the eyes of the children? “If it wasn’t this house, I wouldn’t know that there are, in this world, honest people who do not steal. I wouldn’t know that one can tell the truth. I wouldn’t know that there are justice rights in the world.”[6]

What did Korczak’s private life look like? Did he set up a family? Later, in 1937, in a letter to his friend Mieczysław Zybert he wrote: “(...) I decided not to set up my own house. It was in a park near London (...) and soon did I feel as if I had killed myself. With power and force I led my life that only seemingly was unordered, lonely and alien. I chose the idea to serve children and their affairs to be my son.”[7] It was not philanthropy then, neither mercy that made him devote his life to children. It was a fully conscious decision of broadly defined social service. Until the very end.

In the interwar period, Korczak continued his rich journalistic activity. New volumes of his pedagogical treaties and essays for adults and children, as well as fantastic and realistic novels for children appeared systematically. In 1937, the Polish Academy of Literature awarded him with the Golden Laurel for his literary achievements. Between 1926 and 1930, he ran a unique magazine for children entitled Mały Przegląd [The Little Review]. Janusz Korczak won also great authority as a lecturer at the National Institute for Special Pedagogy, at the Free Polish University, at the National Teacher’s Training Institute, at the Nursery School Teacher Seminary, and as an author of lectures in numerous social associations and organisations, as well as during paediatrician and special school teacher’s symposiums. He was also an expert for children with the district court. Korczak departed for the Holy Land twice (1934 and 1936), where he visited his friends. On the wave of the growing anti-Semitism and fascist atmosphere, he thought intensively on emigration to Palestine. The belief that one can be both a Jew and a Pole accompanied him for the whole life. He decided to stay in Warsaw, which was influenced by his love of the mother country and the sense of responsibility. As the Old Doctor, between 1935 and 1936, he hosted in the Polish Radio a programme for children called Gadaninki [Small talks], which was heartily listened also by the parents.

In September, when the war broke out, Korczak put on his Polish army officer’s uniform as he believed we would be called up. Unfortunately, his age did not allow it. He volunteered for the Polish Radio Information Service and he was one of the best collaborators of the Emergency Service. Not paying attention to the exploding shells and the whistling bullets, he appeared several times a day and brought information about all those who needed help and all those who could have provided it.[8] Once the Hitler’s occupation began, the existence of the orphanage became endangered. At that time, there were 100 children. Korczak raised money and gifts among people of good will, institutions and private persons. He used to write proclamations “To Jews”, “To Citizens Christians”. Korczak did not subordinate to the order of wearing the Star of David on the arm. He wore the uniform of the Polish officer which resulted in repressions, including imprisonment. In October 1940, the Dom Sierot orphanage, which numbered 150 children, was moved to the area of the ghetto, first to Chłodna street and then to Śliska. Korczak tried very hard not to let the children feel a dramatic change of conditions. There was still functioning the old house order, the children’s council and the arbitration by fellow charges. They still published the House Newspaper, the circle for useful entertainment was still working, as well as the system of voluntary cleaning duties. Korczak organised in the House a primary school and cycles of interesting lectures. Holidays were celebrated festively. Music, poetry, and theatre were sources of joy and consolation – an escape from the nightmare of the ghetto. Despite the prohibition introduced by the occupant, “at Korczak’s” there were played pieces of Polish composers such as Chopin, and the poetry of Konopnicka and Broniewski was declaimed. The guests watched, clearly moved, Rabindranaht Tagore’s The Post Office performed by the children on 18 July 1942. It was a play prohibited by the Nazi censorship, chosen by Korczak somehow as a presentiment of the upcoming death, to which he wanted to prepare the children mentally.[9] Korczak’s Dom Sierot beamed with the Polish culture and introduced its values to the ghetto, which was defending desperately the universal values.

The basic problem for Korczak was not only the care for children’s mental health, but also the constant struggle with hunger and illnesses. The conditions at Śliska street were terrible. Due to the still increasing mortality in the ghetto, there were still more children coming to the already overcrowded rooms. For over 200 children, there was only one small kitchen, one toilet, halls divided with screens and wardrobes into a canteen, a sewing room, a parlour and a “dolls corner” during the day, and a bedroom during the night. Korczak slept in a small isolation ward with several ill children.

“The number of children, despite lack of space, increases to 250 (...) nutrition worse and worse. Despite efforts, one can get neither fat nor potatoes. Instead of meat – horse blood from the slaughterhouse, sometimes horse meat. Compared to the homeless shelters, however, and the poverty of the families, Dom Sierot is an oasis of welfare and cleanliness.”[10]

Moved to the deep with the fate of the children who die lonely on the street of famine, cold and diseases, of those who die shot by the Germans while sneaking behind the wall in search of bread, of those abandoned by their parents unable to bury them, Korczak turned to the director of the health faculty: “There have to be organised dying-houses for children. If we are not able to bring them to life, let us at least provide them with a humane and decent death.”[11] The Old Doctor worked actively for the benefit of all social and cultural actions. He collaborated with the underground movement. His body was, however, on the verge of physical exhaustion – he had ill heart, pleural effusion, unoperated hernia, ill red eyes, bladder disease, coughs. Additionally – a big ulcer on the neck. He did not want to go to the hospital – he did not want to leave the children. On 7 February 1942, he took an additional job as a pedagogue in the care entity at Dzielna 39 with 700 children. At nights, from May to August 1942, he wrote his Ghetto Diary. He did it irregularly as he was running out of ink, lacked paper, the carbide lamp was going out or the fatigue after the difficult experience of the day was so big…

When the last hours of his life were to come, he wrote in his Diary: “I do not wish bad to anyone. I cannot. I do not know how to do this.”[12] This last entry is dated on 4 August 1942. The liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on 22 July 1942, and on 6 August it covered all dormitories and orphanages. Now, only the terrified eye-witnesses testify how it happened. One of them, Nachum Remba, reports: “Szmerling, the Jewish commander of the Umschlagplatz, called by the Germans the

, ordered to bring out the dormitories. On the head of the march, there was Korczak. No! That image I will never forget. It was not a march to the carriage, it was an organised silent protest against banditry! Contrary to the cramped mob that went like kettle to slaughter, he began a march never seen earlier. All children were grouped in fours, Korczak on the head with his eyes turned to the sky. He held two children by the hand and led the march. (…) These were the first Jewish Madre which went to Heath with dignity, throwing to the barbarians looks full of contempt. (…) Even the order service stood at attention and saluted.”[13] This view will not be forgotten, this march still lasts… it becomes a legend.

Today, in the whole country we recall again those events and the person of Janusz Korczak – a man of great intellectual and moral respect. Mr Marek Michalak – the Ombudsman for Children – in his speech of 2 January 2012 paid attention to the great social and educational role of Korczak, from whom the contemporary Polish society can learn a lot.[14] He advises us how to raise children more wisely, how to develop better relations with them, and, in a long run, build together the future of the family and the whole society.

According to Korczak, the balance of somebody’s life matters for the world only if this life was of social value and left something for the people afterwards. Otherwise, what would we need a biography for? Korczak asked and still asks us: “...have you lived? How much have you worked? How many loaves of bread have you baked for other people? How many trees have you sowed or planted? (...) Have you given out, shared, presented your life? How much have you defended what you were fighting for?”[15]


  1.Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984.
  2.Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, Janusz Korczak: An Attempt at a Biography, Warsaw 2011.
  3.Hanna Mortkowicz-Olszakowa, Janusz Korczak, Warsaw 1978.
  4.Aleksander Lewin, Janusz Korczak, pisma wybrane [selected works], Warsaw 1984.
  5.Janusz Korczak, życie i dzieło [life and work], Handouts from the International Symposium, Warsaw, 12-15 October 1978.

Katarzyna Odrzywołek

First-year MA History student at the Pedagogical University, Third-year BA Politic Studies student, Head of the History, and Jewish Culture sections of the Historians’ Student Scientific Circle at the Joachim

[1] See: http://2012korczak.pl/node/86/ (access 3 March 2012)

[2] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 45.

[3] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 46.

[4] The true pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit was in fact Janasz Korczak and was derived from Ignacy Kraszewski’s novel, which tells the story of the feeling of a young, poor, orphaned nobleman Janasz to the daughter of his benefactor - a rich lord. During the announcement of the results, the first part was twisted into Janusz, and so it remained.

[5] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 48.

[6] Ibid., p. 48.

[7] Hanna Mortkowicz-Olszakowa, Janusz Korczak, Krakow 1949, p. 92.

[8] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 50.

[9] More on art on http://www.e-teatr.pl/pl/artykuly/61593.html, (access on 4 March 2012)

[10] Stella Eliasberg. Czas zagłady [Time of extermination]. [in:] Wspomnienia o Januszu Korczaku [Memories of Janusz Korczak], Warsaw 1981, p. 301.

[11] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 52.

[12] Ibid., p. 53.

[13] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 55.

[14] See: http://2012korczak.pl/node/86/ (access on 3 March 2012)

[15] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary, Poznań 1984, p. 44.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.




Jews visiting Central & Eastern Europe frequently come with stereotypes and prejudices about the region.  In particular, group heritage and education tours for young Jews...

Read more.