Updated: Dec 31, 2019
He was the first Ombudsman for the rights of children.
He devoted his whole life to children.
He did not leave them even when the hour of the hardest, final trial came.
He went with them to death, although he was offered freedom.
The greatness of Janusz Korczak had an impact even on German criminals.
Janusz Korczak, also known as the "Old Doctor", was born on July 22nd, 1878 or 1879 in Warsaw, Poland (the year of birth can no longer be determined).
He was a physician, doctor, children’s writer, pedagogue, and an educator.
Korczak's whole life was connected with Warsaw.
His real name was Henryk Goldszmit. He came from the Polonized Goldszmit family - his great grandfather was a glazier, his grandfather was a doctor, while his father, Józef Goldszmit, was a well-known lawyer in Warsaw of Jewish origin.
At the age of 18, a tragedy in the family took place - the death of a beloved father.
As the financial situation of the family worsened, the young Henryk, while still being a student of medicine, began to work as a tutor for other pupils.
Already at that time he began to be interested in the psyche and living conditions of poor children.
In 1896 he debuted on the literary scene with a satirical text on raising children, Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot).
In 1912 he contributed to the opening of Dom Sierot in Warsaw, an orphanage of his own design for Jewish children in Warsaw, whose director he remained until his death.
Korczak supported the emancipation of the child - the child’s self-determination as well as the respect for law and rights. At his orphanage, he formed a kind-of-a-republic for children with its own small parliament, court, and a newspaper, which imitated the world of adults and prepared small people for adult life. The institutions were all similar to other institutions that existed in reality but were miniaturized and adapted to the needs of the child (e.g. courts).
The journal published for and by children was their forum, a forge of talents and an important pillar of assimilation - especially for children from orthodox Jewish families. Doctor Korczak was especially in favor of social rehabilitation and comprehensive and innovative care for children from poor families.
In the interwar period, he had his own radio program where he promoted and popularized the rights of children. Under the alias 'Old Doctor' he gave talks addressed to children, which had original forms and contents, listened to by whole families.
During the first days of the II World War, together with fellow tutors and co-workers he was present at the orphanage day and night, as well as looking after the wounded and taking care of lost children.
In September 1939 he spoke for the last time on the Polish Radio, appealing to the people to remain calm.
During the war, he wore a Polish military uniform and did not take it off in the occupied Warsaw.
He also never put on the armband with the Star of David, which the Nazis ordered every Jew to wear. He thought it was profaning the symbol.
He was later arrested and imprisoned for a brief period for not following this order.
When the Warsaw Ghetto was created at the behest of the occupier, Korczak’s orphanage was forced to move to smaller and smaller premises, and lastly to the Warsaw ghetto, where Korczak moved in with his children, although he was constantly thrown out by the Germans.
Korczak consciously turned down opportunities which could have saved his own life: he didn't accept help to leave the ghetto and going into safe shelter, which was offered to him by his friends. Korczak heroically refused to take advantage of the chance to escape, he refused to leave his pupils. He wrote his shocking Diary at night from May until August 4th, 1942. At this date, the notes are interrupted.
On the deportation day, in the morning of the 5th of August 1942, during the Grossaktion (the main stage of exterminating the population of the Warsaw ghetto) - he refused to abandon the children and workers of the orphanage.
The four-hour children's march to the Umschlagplatz was a shocking sight for the inhabitants of Warsaw.
This is how Władysław Szpilman remembered him:
"On August 5 (...) I accidentally witnessed the departure of Janusz Korczak and his orphans (...). He spent many years of his life with them and now, in their last journey, he did not want to leave them alone. He wanted to make this way easier for them. He explained to orphans that they had reason to be happy because they were going to the countryside (...). When I met them at Gęsia, the children walked, singing in chorus, beaming, a little musician played, and Korczak was carrying the youngest, also smiling, and told them something funny."
The next day, he voluntarily died along with his children and the caretakers of the orphanage in the gas chamber of the Treblinka concentration camp.
Chaim Stajer, an employee of the camp Sonderkommando, emptied the chamber in which Janusz Korczak and his pupils were murdered.
What he saw then, he remembered to his death:
"Korczak stood leaned over (...), he was as if encircled by a huge number of children who were holding him. I could not count them, but I estimate there were about 200 to 300 children..."