Sunday, August 9, 2009

Remembering Janusz Korczak
by David Gilfix

Many years ago I wrote a play about the great Jewish/Polish orphanage director, Janusz Korczak, and it was ultimately produced in New York. The following is the introduction to the play:

If the value of a museum exhibition can be determined by its long-term impact, then the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum on Kibbutz Lohame Getaot in Israel was invaluable to me. It was at this museum in the early 1980s that I first learned about the Jewish/Polish orphanage director, Janusz Korczak. So powerful was this exhibit that I decided there and then to someday write a play about this man. I wanted to bring Korczak, his co-director Stefa Wilczynska, and the children they sought to protect back to life. I wanted to know them. And for me, the only possible way of doing this was in the form of a play.

Janusz Korczak, (the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit) was a complicated yet brilliant, multi-faceted man. There was Korczak the author, whose witty novels, social satires, and children’s books were read across Europe. There was Korczak the doctor, whose research and publications in medical journals were instrumental towards major improvements to pediatrics in pre-World War II Poland. Most of all, there was Janusz Korczak the exceptional orphanage director.

Korczak established a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw in 1911 called the “Dom Sierot,” and together with Stefa Wilczynska, he ran it for more than thirty years. He also ran a Christian orphanage in Bielany and served on the Board of Directors of several other orphanages. Korczak’s revolutionary ideas about child development almost single handedly upgraded the orphanage institution in Poland. His theories about a child’s “right to respect” and “the dignity of the child” had enormous influence throughout Poland and Europe. Korczak’s Children’s Court, which became integral to the way he nurtured and governed children within his orphanage, is still studied today.

When Germany invaded Poland in World War II and forced a huge portion of the Jewish population including the Dom Sierot inside the Warsaw Ghetto, Korczak’s total energy was devoted to saving his orphans as well as other abandoned children. Had the horrible events of the Nazi occupation not transpired, Korczak would still be remembered as one of the great educational innovators and child advocates of the twentieth century. However, his courageous response to the events of the Holocaust established him as something even greater.

Korczak received multiple offers from well-meaning friends outside the Ghetto walls to be smuggled to freedom. He rejected all of them, for he would not abandon his children. On August 5th, 1942, Korczak, Stefa Wilczynska, and approximately 200 orphans were put on a train that would take them to their death in Treblinka. Immediately thereafter, the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters adopted a new battle cry: “Remember Korczak’s children!” He had become legend.

Today Janusz Korczak is a national hero in Poland. Israeli school children learn about his exploits. And in Poland, at the site of the former death camp in Treblinka, there are numerous plaques commemorating the countries from which people died. Only one mentions a person’s name. It says, “Janusz Korczak and the Children.”

Related links:
From Joop Beerding:  The Netherlands Janusz Korczak Association
From Daniel L. Berek:  "The Selected Works of Janusz Korczak," which contains the only English-language translation of "How to Love a Child"
Also from Daniel L. Berek, scans of Korczak books and memorabilia on his Flickr page (an amazing collection)

Joop Beerding and Daniel L. Berek's comments follow:


Joop Berding said...

Dear David,

so good of you to put a memoir of Korczak on your weblog. he was and is one of the truly great educators of the 20th century. You are probably aware that there are Korczak Associations in many countries, not only in Poland, but also in Germany, France, Netherlands, but also in Russia, Japan and in many others. Korczak seems to radiate a universal message, or in any case a message that is relevant for very different cultures, about children's rights and the need for better provisions for children and youngsters. I am on the Board of the Netherlands Korczak Association, see, with an English section. The international website devoted to Korczak is Just one more thing: can you please correct the date of Korczak's and his children's deportation from the Warsaw ghetto: it was 5 or 6 August 1942. (historical sources contradict on the exact day)
Joop Berding
The Netherlands
my own website has news items on Korczak, mainly in Dutch but also a small section in English

Anonymous said...
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David Gilfix said...

Hi Joop,

I appreciate your comments. Korczak is not nearly as well known in the US as in Europe. I think of Korczak as a seminal figure in the field of education, child development, and child advocacy as well as a person of immense courage and integrity. To my knowledge only two of his own works are available in English: His Ghetto Diary, and the beloved children’s novel, King Matt the First. Thank you for your work with the Netherlands, Korczak Association and for all your links. Your own web is excellent (

By the way, thanks for providing the correct the date of Korczak’s deportation; it has been changed.


David Gilfix

Anonymous said...

Thank you

Joop Berding said...

Dear David,

I’d like to add the following to my initial response to your Korczak memoir. In the last 5 or 6 years a number of plays have been produced about Korczak both in the USA and in the UK. Can you provide me with some info on your play and its scope? I'd very much like to learn about this.

My own interest goes back to the mid-80s when I did my MA research in education. I read a short reference to Korczak in a book devoted to the so called 'anti-pedagogy', then en vogue. I got interested and found out a lot about Korczak (a.o. that he is absolutely anything but an anti-pedagogue). Since 1982 there exists the Dutch Korczak Association, of which I am a Board member since 1996. I have published several books, in Dutch, and many articles on Korczak, both in Dutch and English (also in two or three USA journals, a.o. in Encounter. Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 17, 4, Winter 2004; and Journal of Thought, 30, 4), from the educational perspective (which is my profession).

As for publication of Korczak’s works in English I can mention two references: one is “Selected Works of Janusz Korczak”, 1967, edited by Martin Wolins, with a.o. an integral translation of his major works “How to love a child” and “The child’s right to respect”. The second is of a more recent data, i.e. “When I am little again” coupled with “The child’s right to respect” (a different translation), edited by E.P. Kulawiec (1992). The biography “The King of Children” by Betty Jean Lifton (1988) was re-published in 2005 under the auspices of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

David Gilfix said...

Hi Joop,

Thank you for all the valuable information. It has been a long time since I have discussed Korczak with someone who shared my interests. I would very much like to read your own articles about Korczak. I remember searching in vain for a copy of “When I am Little Again,” and am excited to read the new translation (thanks for the info.).

I consider Korczak to be one of the truly remarkable people of the
Twentieth century. I did most of my research at the YIVO Institute in New York, which is a major center for preserving documentation of East European Jewry, and they had volumes of articles written about Korczak. The material was so fascinating that it was hard to stop reading and start writing.

Incidentally, another excellent bio is Mr. Doctor by Hanna Olczak, 1965. It is now out of print, but is well worth reading if you can find it. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but (if my memory is accurate) I believe Olczak actually knew Korczak.

My play, Yesterday in Warsaw, was produced at the 29th Street Theatre in New York City, and sold out for three weeks. The play takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto, and it involves, primarily, Korczak, Stefa, and five children. I received the rights to use Korczak's Ghetto Diary, and voice-overs of diary entries are interspersed, conservatively, throughout different scenes. The play did well in some contests and gained attention from several places, including a theater in London and in Denmark. However, for a variety of reasons things fell through, which is fine in retrospect; today I would not resuscitate the play, as I believe that it is an inadequate portrayal.

Anyway, I feel that I did my small part to let people learn more about Korczak. One of the best parts of the experience was meeting people who knew or were connected to Korczak. As an example, one person who attended the performance was a former teacher at Korczak’s orphanage who had flown in from Denmark. He and I spoke at length about Korczak’s educational philosophies. This man was a devotee of Esperanto and had published poems in that language.

Another man who was in Korczak’s orphanage as a child, surprisingly, worked at a fur store on my very street in New York. He provided a wonderful portrait of how he, as a child, perceived Korczak. This man had a unique and most fortunate survival story at Auschwitz. As I’m sure you know, Joseph Mengele would inspect each person upon arrival and at a glance determine who would live or die. Those who were told to go “right” were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Well, this man (who was then a teenager) was told to go “right,” but his brother was told to go “left.” As soon as he stepped behind Mengele he crossed over to the left – simply because he wanted to be with his brother. Brotherly love literally saved him.

Thank you, again, for all your information about Korczak.

David Gilfix

Anonymous said...

Dear David:
Thank you for sharing your article about Janusz Korczak.

I would be very interested in reading your play. For many years, I have been surprised and upset about how little Korczak is known in the US – even to educated Jews. Most kids in Russia grew up with his books, among which “King Matiush the First” (and the sequels to it) was the most beloved one. In fact, I did not know anyone who had not read (and loved) the novel and the child-king who, although made up by the author, was so “real” that he became part of our lives.

As we grew older, we (children, and not just the ones of Jewish origin ) learned about Korczak’s selfless work in the orphanage during Nazi occupation of Poland. One of the most famous underground singers and poets of the Soviet times Alexander Galich wrote an epic song telling Korczak’s story. Although forbidden by the authorities, the song was known, loved and sung in every educated household in Russia. One of its key episodes goes like that: the orphanage gets transported from Warsaw to an extermination camp. A few minutes before the death train is to take off, the German officer in charge sends his interpreter to tell Korczak that he was allowed to stay back. Korczak refuses, preferring to die with his orphans rather than accept any favors from the Nazis.

Whether the episode is a legend or had, indeed, taken place, I do not know – except, like most of my close friends, I grew up “knowing” the story and living through it. Many years later in the United States, I was present at a lesson in my daughter’s class in Hebrew School, and was hurt and outraged by the way the teacher was telling the students about the hero of my youth. I tried to speak up, but got a cold response: “Please give me the exact reference to the story you are telling.” I wanted to tell the teacher ( a girl probably half my age) that the reference was the knowledge all of my friends had possessed from their childhood, as well as the epic poem that every Russian knew by heart, even though the author was forced underground by the authorities and eventually assassinated in exile.

I am grateful to you for having finally telling the Americans about that remarkable author, pediatrician and a war hero. I hope people will notice and remember. I would love to read your play – could you tell me where I can find it?

Daniel L. Berek said...

Dear David,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Janusz Korczak on your blog and in your plays. Korczak is my constant inspiration, both as an educator and a human being.

You and your readers might like to know that "The Selected Works of Janusz Korczak," which contains the only English-language translation of "How to Love a Child" and other writings has been made available online, thanks to my colleagues of the Canadian JK Association. The url is:

Are your plays available in book form to read? I am very intersted! I have posted scans of my Korczak books and memorabilia on my Flickr page, at: