Korczak, Janusz

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KORCZAK, JANUSZ (Henryk Goldszmidt ; 1878 or 1879–1942), Polish author, educator, and social worker. Korczak, who was born into a wealthy and assimilated Warsaw family, qualified as a physician and soon became interested in the poor, working as a volunteer in summer camps for underprivileged children. His social concern was first revealed in Dzieci ulicy ("Children of the Street," 1901), which described the horrifying plight of homeless orphans in the cities, living on their wits and stealing to survive, yet retaining their sense of right and wrong. Dziecko salonu ("A Child of the Salon," 1906) painted a contrasting picture of a pampered middle-class boy whose existence depends on the dictatorship of money. Both books aroused discussion and controversy, especially among the reactionary elements subjected to Korczak's incisive criticism. In 1911 the writer became the head of a new Jewish orphanage in Warsaw and retained the post for the rest of his life, apart from his World War i service as a Polish medical officer. Korczak's educational approach, revolutionary in its time, gave children a system of self-government and the opportunity of producing their own newspaper, Mały Przegląd ("Little Journal"), which appeared as a weekly supplement to the Zionist daily Nasz Przegląd (1920–39). His success prompted the authorities to secure his aid in establishing a parallel non-Jewish orphanage near Warsaw. Korczak also became a probation officer, a lecturer at the Free Polish University and the Jewish teachers' institute, and a frequent broadcaster on topics relating to children and adults.

On the basis of his experiences Korczak published theoretical works, such as Jak kochać dziecko ("How to Love a Child," 1920–21) and Prawo dziecka do szacunku ("The Child's Right to Respect," 1929). Two early children's books were Mośki, Jośki, Srule (1910), the story of three Jewish boys, and Józki, Jaśki, and Franki (1911). In later years, in his small bare room in the Jewish orphanage, Korczak wrote many others, including Sam na sam z Bogiem ("Alone with God," 1922), on prayer; Kiedy znów będę mały ("When I Am Small Again," 1925); Król Maciuś Pierwszy ("Matthew the Young King," 1928); and Kajtuś czarodziej ("Kajtuś the Magician," 1934). These were translated into several languages, including Hebrew, and later became especially popular in Israel. His last works include Uparty chłopiec ("A Stubborn Boy," 1937) about Pasteur; Ludzie są dobrzy ("People as Good," 1938); and Refleksje ("Reflections," 1938).

With the rise of Hitler and the spread of antisemitism Korczak's Jewish consciousness deepened and he became Poland's non-Zionist representative on the Jewish Agency. In 1934 and again in 1936 he visited Palestine, where he met many of his old pupils who had become ḥaluẓim, spending some time at kibbutz Ein Ḥarod. The educational and social philosophy of the kibbutz movement greatly impressed Korczak, who would undoubtedly have settled in Ereẓ Israel, had this not meant deserting his orphans in Warsaw. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, he strove to protect the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, to which it had been transferred in 1940, and rescued many other hapless youngsters. When the Nazi deportation order was served in 1942, Korczak, suppressing the truth, told his children that they were going on a picnic in the country. When he, his assistant, and some 200 orphans at last reached the cattle trucks waiting to ship them to Treblinka, Korczak refused a last-minute offer of his freedom in return for abandoning his charges and went with them to his death. Korczak's heroism and martyrdom created a legend and invested him with the glory of a saint. His achievements have inspired various studies and Erwin Sylvanus' German drama Korczak und die Kinder (1958; Dr. Korczak and the Children, 1958). Commemorative postage stamps were issued on the 20th anniversary of his death in both Poland and Israel.

Korczak committees have been formed in Poland, Israel and West Germany. The Warsaw Committee was established in 1946, but because of the Stalinist regime in Poland at the time it did not become active until 1956, when it undertook the publication of his works, the assembly of archives, lectures on his works, etc. Much of its activity was related to the fact that many of its members – including for a time the chairman – were Jews. After the Six-Day War, however, the Jewish members were gradually weeded out and a Pole, who was prepared to suppress Korczak's Jewish origin and his positive approach to Ereẓ Israel, was appointed chairman.

The Israel Committee was established in 1957 and the West German Korczak Society in 1977.

In 1972 the Warsaw Committee was awarded the annual Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize by the German Booksellers' and Publishers' Association. The citation, however, referred to Korczak only as "a Pole [who] from 1917 directed a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw [and] lived and died with the children entrusted to him in the Warsaw Ghetto on the death march in Treblinka." The Israel Korczak Committee protested against the failure to mention that Korczak was a Jew, and against giving the prize to Poland, on the grounds that it was an antisemitic country. As a result of these protests the West German government agreed to grant an equal amount to the Israel Korczak Committee, but the committee decided not to accept it unless it received an official prize in the same way as the Polish Committee had.

In 1972 there appeared Min ha-Getto, which includes Korczak's ghetto diary, documents, and a chapter on his life and activities in the ghetto. The first volume of the collected works of Korczak Im ha-Yeled ("With the Child") consisting of three works published before the end of World War i, translated into Hebrew from the original Polish by Ẓevi Arad, appeared in 1974. In 1976 there appeared a volume of his writings translated into Hebrew under the title Yaldut shel Kavod, and in 1978 another similar volume Dat ha-Yeled.

The centenary of the birth of Korczak was widely celebrated, and the Polish Government took the initiative in having 1978 proclaimed the Janusz Korczak Celebration Year. In Israel an International Conference was held under the auspices of unesco, from April 12–17, with sessions held in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, where a permanent Janusz Korczak Exhibition was opened and a special medallion struck by the Bet Loḥamei Ha-Getta'ot. In Jerusalem a school was named in his honor. An official representative of the Polish government attended the celebration.

A monument by a Russian immigrant sculptor, Baruch Saktsier, showing Korczak with a protective hand round some of his wards at the Warsaw Jewish orphanage, was unveiled in the Memorial Garden in Yad Vashem dedicated to Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust.

The Polish celebration, to which Israeli representatives were officially invited, took place in Warsaw in October. The original date fixed for the celebration, October 11, was postponed to the following day at the request of the Israel Committee since the original date fell on Yom Kippur.

No less than 70 schools have been named after him in Poland.

I. Perlis has revealed the Jewish background of Korczak and his positive attitude to Israel.


H. Olczak, Mister Doctor (1965); J. Hyams, A Field of Buttercups (1969); P. Apenszlak, Una luz en las Tinieblas (1961); J. Frost, in: Jewish Education, 33:3 (1963), 89–96; Z.E. Kurzweil, Modern Trends in Jewish Education (1964), 171–97; E. Dauzenroth, Janusz Korczak der Pestalozzi aus Warschau (1978); I. Perlis, in: Mi-Befenim 40 (1978), 368–374. add. bibliography: M. Shereshevski, Shetei ha-Moladot (1990), incl. bibl.; I. Perlis, Ish Yehudi mi-Polin (1986).