Physician, pedagogue, writer, journalist and social activist. Born as Henryk Goldszmit 22/07/1878 or 1879 in Warsaw, died 6/08/1942 in Treblinka.
Janusz Korczak was born into the polonised Goldszmit family - his great-grandfather was a glazier, his grandfather was a doctor and his father, Józef Goldszmit, was a well-regarded Warsaw attorney. He himself, as both a Jew and a Pole, felt that he had two nationalities.
In the eighth year of his life Henryk began attending the Augustyn Szmurło primary school in Warsaw, which was known to be quite strict. Later he studied at the Praga Secondary School (Gimnazjum Praskie), where classes were held in Russian. He didn't like school, he was a mediocre student - he even had to repeat a year. He did, however, have a real interest in literature, to which he devoted all of his free time. He grew up in relatively difficult circumstances because of his father's mental illness, which led to his death in 1896. This situation forced him to give private lessons in order to help the family - his mother and sister Anna - financially.
In 1896 he published his humorous sketch entitled Gordian Knot in the satirical weekly Kolce (Thorns). This was his literary debut and also the beginning of his journalistic activity. In 1898 he passed his secondary school-leaving exam and enrolled in the Medical Department of the Imperial University (Uniwersytet Cesarski) in Warsaw. He studied medicine for six years, because he had to repeat the first year. He kept on evolving as a writer. He wrote articles and reviews for Kolce and collaborated with various magazines. During his studies, he created his first novel Children of the Streets, which was published in 1901. During that time he also worked at a free reading room for children.
In the years 1900-1915 he was an active member of the Summer Camp Society (later he collaborated with the Polish Culture Society and the Warsaw Hygiene Society amongst others). In the final years of his medical studies he began to work at holiday camps: in 1904 and 1907 he worked as a tutor of Jewish children at summer holiday centres. These experiences were the basis for the following pedagogical work and resulted in two books: Mośki, Joski, Srule (published in 1910) and Józki, Jaśki i Franki (published in 1911).
In March 1905 Henryk Goldszmit obtained his PhD and began working at the Jewish Berson and Bauman Hospital for Children in Śliska 51 street in Warsaw. As the resident doctor, he was obliged to provide 24-hour care to the ill and medical advice in the hospital's infirmary (regardless of faith); apart from that he also acted as a home-visiting doctor. Korczak was drafted to the Russian-Japanese war and in the years 1905-1906 gained experience as a military doctor.
In order to deepen his medical knowledge he went to Berlin for a year (1907/1908) and Paris for half a year (1910). There he attended lectures on pediatrics and pedagogy. He took the opportunity to observe children's hospitals and centres providing therapy and education to the youngest. In 1910 or 1911 he stayed in London for a month, where he visited the local schools and nursing homes. It is there, where he decided not to have a family of his own and to devote his life solely to work with children.
In 1912 he once and for all gave up work at the hospital and took up the post of director of the newly-opened Jewish House of Orphans, which operated under the patronage of the Help to the Orphans Society. There he collaborated with Stefania Wilczyńska, who helped him implement his authorial pedagogical concepts and creatively contributed to the development of the establishment. The House of Orphans became for Korczak a place of daily detailed observation of the psychophysical development of a child. There, innovative paedagogical ideas were conceived, such as that of the children's parliament, court, newspaper and notary.
In 1914 Korczak was drafted to the army, originally as the head of the ward of a division field hospital in the Ukraine. He later became a pediatrician in a shelter for Ukrainian children near Kiev. In Kiev he met Maria (Maryna) Falska, with whom he later collaborated. During the war he wrote one of his most important books entitled Child in a Family - the first part of the four piece cycle How to Love a Child - which was issued in 1919 (the whole cycle was published in 1920). After returning to Warsaw in 1918 he once again worked at the House of Orphans.
Since November 1919 Korczak became closely involved with the then recently opened centre Our Home run by Falska (since 1921 it was run by the Our Home Society). He visited the establishment regularly as a doctor and pedagogue. In 1928 Our Home moved to Bielany, but Korczak maintained contact with the institution.
In 1926 he initiated the publishing of the experimental weekly for children and youths - Mały Przegląd, which was a supplement to the daily Nasz Przegląd. It was a periodical practically completely created 'by children and for children'. Korczak was its editor until 1930 and later handed over the post to Igor Newerly. The last issue of Mały Przegląd was published on Friday, the 1st of September 1939.
In the twenties Korczak began collaborating with institutions educating teachers and tutors such as: the National Seminar for Teachers of Jewish Religion and the Study of Social-Educational Work at the Free Polish Higher School. He was particularly involved with the National Institute of Special Pedagogy.
In 1932 began living with his sister. In that time he took up new responsibilities, he worked as an expert witness in children's cases at the District Court and as a foreign document clerk for the National Health Service amongst others. Since the end of 1934 he was also involved with the Polish Radio. Under the alias 'Old Doctor' he gave talks addressed to children, which had original forms and contents. He also collaborated with many magazines (Robotnik, Opieka Społeczna amongst others), also publishing articles in Hebrew and Yidish (for instance Olami, Olami Hakatan, Hechaluc Hacair, Dos Kind).
Korczak visited Palestine twice in 1934 and 1936. He traveled around the country, but he mainly observed the pedagogical work carried out amongst the children in the kibbutzim and researched the potential and possibilities of Jewish life developing there.
During the first days of the II World War, together with fellow tutors and co-workers he was present at the House of Orphans day and night. In September 1939 he spoke for the last time on Polish Radio, appealing to the people to remain calm. From the very beginning he constantly tried to obtain support for his institution. In the summer of 1940 he managed to organize summer camp for the children at a branch of the House of Orphans in the Wawer district of Warsaw. In the autumn of 1940 the House of Orphans - as a Jewish institution - was relocated to the ghetto to Chłodna 33 street, to the building of the Maria and Józef Roesler Secondary Trade School and Korczak was arrested for a brief period for not wearing an armband with the Star of David, which the Nazis ordered every Jew to wear.
In October 1941 the House of Orphans was once again forced to relocate. Korczak fought constantly for financial resources to pay for the maintenance of the children, but above all he made efforts so that, despite of the hopeless situation, life in the House of Orphans would run according to the prewar rhythm. As much as possible the old ways of functioning and internal habits were preserved. In the beginning of 1942 Korczak officially took up supervision of the shelter for orphans Main House of Shelter in Dzielna 39 street, which was in terrible condition. In May 1942 he began writing a diary which described the dreadful reality of the Nazi occupation.
Korczak consciously turned down opportunities which could have saved his own life: he didn't accept help to leave the ghetto and going into hiding, which was offered to him by his friends and on 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 abandoning the children and workers of the House of Orphans. Sources state that an attempt to remove him from the house was made by workers of the Jewish community (not by Germans). He must have taken into consideration that he wouldn't survive the 'resettlement to the east', but most probably he didn't know that Treblinka was a death camp.
The last march taken up by Korczak and the children to Umschlagplatz is legendary, certified by many accounts and memories (not always coherent and credible in detail). It lived and continues to live its own life - in a mythologised version. However the essence of this legend reflects the real truth about Korczak - that he was a solid moral authority for all those who looked up to him for guidance and hope.
Author: Agnieszka Witkowska (Korczakianum), December 2011