Spring08: Thinking about Janusz Korczak

Through a combination of chance online events, I've decided to write something here in my blog today about someone who is a great hero to me, Janusz Korczak. Wikipedia is a great place to learn something about this amazing man, whose dedication to the education of children can be an inspiration to us all; there is also a brilliant movie, called simply Korczak, which brings his story to life on the screen.

Trained as a pediatrician, Korczak became director of an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw in 1911. He organized the orphanage as a kind of "self-government," with the children administering the orphanage through their own parliament for making the rules and their own court for administering justice. The children also published their own newspaper. He gained greater fame in Poland throughout the 1930s with a national radio show for children, although because of Jewish persecutions (the history of anti-Semitism in Poland is long and painful), the show was canceled.

In 1940, when Poland had been invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, Korczak and his orphans (about 200 children) were relocated to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Korczak fought to protect their safety and well-being in the ghetto against overwhelming adversity. Then, in 1942, the Nazis sent them to the death camp at Treblinka. Although Korczak's Polish friends begged him to escape and hide with them for the rest of the war, he would not leave the children, and died together with them at Treblinka.

One of the prompts in the last few days that had me thinking very much about Korczak was an article in the New York Times about some of the last survivors of the Jewish orphanage who escaped to Israel (then Palestine) before the war and who still remember and revere Korczak. Here is the New York Times article: In Orphans’ Twilight, Memories of a Doomed Utopia. It's a lovely article with a beautiful anecdote about a treasured "afikoman" from a Passover now 70 years ago...

I was also prompted to write something here about Korczak because of a discussion going on at both the classroom2.0 ning and the fireside learning ning about the current situation in Israel today, about teaching the Holocaust/Shoah, about how we think about the world bigger than ourselves... while also taking care, as Korczak always did, to notice the world right in front of and the needs of every child who shares that world with us. I think his story is one that can be an inspiration to any teacher, anywhere.

If you are curious to know more about Korczak, there is an essay online by Betty Lifton, whose book about Korczak is very good, and the film by Andrzej Wajda that I mentioned earlier, Korczak, is also great. This image from wikipedia shows the Yad Vashem Memorial for Korczak and his children:

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