Janusz Korczak

Overview of the life and thought of Janusz Korczak, Polish educator and Jewish doctor.

Janusz Korczak - Polish Child Educator

Janusz Korczak was born July 22, 1878 in Warsaw, Poland. His birth name was Henryk Goldszmit. He was born into a rather well-to-do Jewish family. Henryk's father was a lawyer and provided well for his family until mental illness required his placement in a psychiatric hospital until his death in 1896. Henryk Goldszmit began writing in high school and in 1899 won a literary contest using the pseudonym of Janusz Korczak. He used that name for the rest of his life.

In his youth, Korczak had decided on a career in medicine, specifically in pediatric medicine. As a boy in Warsaw he had seen the orphans who begged in the streets. At the age of 20 Korczak began his studies to be a doctor. He also started giving aid to poor children in Warsaw. Upon his completion of his studies and upon being made a doctor, Korczak first began his medical work in a children's clinic.

In 1904, Korczak was drafted into the Russian army as a doctor. He served in the war between Russia and Japan from 1904 to 1906. Upon his return to Warsaw following the war, Korczak returned to his work at the children's clinic and his efforts to help the poor children. He also began to make a name for himself as a doctor for the wealthy of Warsaw. He would heal the rich and then use the fees he earned to aid the poor. During the years of 1906 through 1911 Korczak broadened his medical knowledge, as well, by traveling to Paris, Berlin and London. In 1912, Korczak opened the Dom Sierot, or house of the orphan. It was an orphanage but crafted upon ideas and pedagogic theories that were to become the foundations of Korczak's approach to children's education. Janusz Korczak believed in that society held two classes: adults and children. He saw children, because they are weaker, as being exploited, abused and neglected by adults. Korczak wanted to create an orphanage where children had responsibility and voice in their environment. It was to be a classless environment. Korczak thoroughly believed and promoted the philosophy that children were complete individuals and had exercisable rights. In Dom Sierot children could vote on orphanage issues. Children could express discontent with adult teachers. There was a children's court where children could go to seek redress for grievances from other children or from adults working at the orphanage. It was in this children's court that Korczak could teach that forgiveness was greater than seeking revenge for a considered wrong.

Korczak established a children's newspaper with children correspondents from all over Poland contributing articles and editorials on issues that concerned children. The children's newspaper was a weekly edition that accompanied a daily adult paper. In 1926, the children's newspaper reached a circulation of 26,000 readers.

Along with his duties as director of Dom Sierot, Korczak continued his literary endeavors. He wrote treaties on "How you shall love a child," and "The rights of a child to be respected." He also wrote books for children using characters to teach children they are important in an adult world and have talents all their own. One of his most well-known characters was "King Mat," a child king Korczak used to illustrate his ideas.

Janusz Korczak also worked on Polish radio. He was a popular figure giving child-rearing advise and pediatric medical advise. He was known as the Old Doctor, yet he was forced off the air when his Jewish heritage was disclosed.

Korczak also worked with the Warsaw courts for minors. He acted as an expert witness with cases involving children. He always sided with the accused child and would cite factors such as the child's background and home life and education that he thought had to be considered in such judicial matters.

In 1934 and 1936 Korczak traveled to Palestine to visit the Jewish homeland. It had taken years for him to take these trips. He would always put them off saying their was too much to do at the orphanage or with his other duties. He finally did go and lived on a kibbutz and taught child-rearing philosophy to the kibbutz residents.

In 1939 World War II began. In the city of Warsaw, after it fell to the Nazis, the Jews were slowly forced to move into a single sector of the city. The sector became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1940, Dom Sierot was ordered by the Germans to move into the Ghetto. Korczak and his staff moved more than 200 children to a new home in the Ghetto. The conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were atrocious. Food, water, medicine was all something Korczak had to bargain and beg for daily for his charges at the orphanage. The Nazis systematically would herd households out of the Ghetto to be shipped off to labor and death camps. The orphanage managed to survive until August 1942, when the occupants of Dom Sierot were ordered out, as well. The children marched in organized columns with Janusz Korczak at the head. They marched out of the Ghetto and over to a large field adjacent to the railroad yards where Jews were detained until they were ordered into the boxcars. It is reported that Janusz Korczak was given several opportunities to escape from the field. He refused, not wanting the children in his care to be frightened. Janusz Korczak, his assistant Stefania Wilczynska, the orphanage staff members and over 200 children were taken to Treblinka concentration camp and were all killed on about August 5, 1942.

Janusz Korczak was a great doctor, teacher and care-giver to children. He tried to make the lives of children better, happier and more productive. He believed so much in children that he gave his life to be with them and comfort them as they were killed in a Nazi death camp.

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