Dr. Korczak and the Children (Korczak Und Die Kinder)
DR. KORCZAK AND THE CHILDREN (Korczak und die Kinder)
Play by Erwin Sylvanus, 1957
Erwin Sylvanus's play Dr. Korczak and the Children (1968; Korczak und die Kinder, 1957) was written not in direct reaction to the atrocities of World War II but in response to a phenomenon that Sylvanus, along with other playwrights like Rolf Hochhuth , Peter Weiss , and George Tabori , felt was perhaps even more horrifying: the "amnesia" that overtook many Germans during the period of the "economic miracle" of the 1950s. His play, based on the true story of Dr. Janusz Korczak, confronts German audiences with their complicity during the war and their rapid postwar forgetfulness. The central motif of the play is the one lie Korczak told—it is a stark contrast to the many lies and the denials practiced by the Germans after the war.
The real Dr. Korczak ran a Jewish orphanage where he advanced his progressive theories of education. He was also an author and beloved national star of a children's radio program in Poland. When the orphanage was moved to the Jewish ghetto established in Warsaw in November 1940, Dr. Korczak went too, despite many offers to save him. In August 1942 he and nearly 200 children were rounded up for deportation to Treblinka, where they were all murdered. Eyewitnesses described the children laughing and singing as Dr. Korczak led them, refusing to let them be frightened by their captors. Several other more recent plays and films, including Michael Brady's Korczak's Children (1983) and the Polish film Korczak (1990), directed by Andrzej Wajda, realistically depict the experiences of Dr. Korczak and his orphans. Sylvanus, however, chose nonrealistic theatrical conventions to portray the Holocaust.
Chief among these are conventions made famous by Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello. In what he called his epic theater, Brecht advocated a presentational style of playing. Thus, he often had his actors speak directly to the audience. In this way he hoped to force the audience to take a position, not just sit back passively. For example, at the beginning of Dr. Korczak and the Children, the narrator tells the audience that the play will deal with World War II: "Ah, you're startled, are you? There's still time to get up and leave, you know. You're not involved yet in what we're going to show you here." The play also calls for actors who play actors, taking on various characters. As the actors are forced to take on certain roles that are uncomfortable for them (for example, the one who plays the SS officer who insists he was "only doing his duty"), the audience also begins perhaps to feel a similar discomfort.
The other playwright who influenced Sylvanus is Pirandello, whose plays, especially his most famous, Six Characters in Search of an Author, often emphasize the tensions between illusion and reality and between the identities of the actors and the characters they play. During the course of Dr. Korczak and the Children, as in Six Characters in Search of an Author, the actors/characters discuss the play itself as they are performing. They, the contemporary German actors, complain about the casting and discuss the issues in the play. Thus, the audience is also encouraged to view the play skeptically, particularly the Nazi perspectives. Korczak is presented as a tragic hero who tried to live the truth but was ultimately forced to lie to comfort his children. The play takes up the question of lying versus truth telling. Korczak is presented as a man who never lied—except once. When his children are going to be taken away to die, he decides to lie to them about their destination. He tells them that they're going to the Promised Land, so the children feel happy and unafraid.
In the final scene the narrator takes on the role of a rabbi who describes the landscape that Korczak and his children inhabit, borrowing the words from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones. It seems to be a world of death and hopelessness. But the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and the bones will rise up; breath will enter them, flesh will come upon them, and they will live. And as Ezekiel speaks the bones do indeed rise up and become human beings. And the Lord promises to bring the people of Israel, who had been dead, hopeless heaps of bones, into the Promised Land, as Korczak promised his children. Thus, the play ends on a note of hope and as a tribute to Korczak's dream for his orphans. The ending also emphasizes Korczak's dream of a future Israeli state.