Can one tell the life of a person using only images and his or her own words? This new album, published in commemoration of the Korczak Year, is such an attempt – yet surprisingly, it has quite a few layers of imagery and substance.
The idea of a 'photobiography' – a book made up of photographs and quotes taken from the writings of the protagonist – presupposes that such an activity is possible and that it makes sense to do so. The task can be difficult, however, as the lack of any commentary or interpretation leaves the reader alone to face mute images prodded only by scarce shreds of text, which often function out of their original context. With Janusz Korczak, this formula may be especially problematic. On the one hand, his story is one well known – a Jewish pedagogue from Warsaw who died at Treblinka with his pupils. On the other, there are aspects of Korczak's biography and personality that can hardly be rendered through image and short text.
Korczak was a brilliant and very prolific writer. In his country, he is most famous for his children books like Kaytek the Magician (originally: Kajtuś Czarodziej), considered an early forerunner of Harry Potter (Korczak's book was published in 1934). But he also remains an underestimated author of insightful novels about childhood and adolescence (Sława, Dziecko Salonu), as well as tremendous paedagogical books on bringing up children (How to Love A Child [originally: Jak Kochać Dziecko), a must-read for every parent bringing up a child today. Last but not least, Korczak is the author of The Ghetto Diary.
Read more about Korczak as a writer...
Certainly, these elusive qualities of Korczak as a writer – as well as even more subtle qualities of his heart and mind – are extremely difficult to communicate in a photo album. Surprisingly, this photobiography accomplishes its goal in being both informative and deeply moving. It does so thanks to the great skills of the photo editor and author of the book, Maciej Sadowski, who also happens to have selected the book's quotations from Korczak.
One also has to admire the high quality of the pictures presented in the album. Many of these images – often more than 70 years old, were already far from perfect at the very moment they were made – have been digitally processed by Sadowski. Eventually, they have revealed new details, some of them unknown even to scholars of Korczak. Apart from the photographs of Korczak and the children of his two orphanages, the Photobiography presents a wide panorama of his life and times with rare archival photos of Warsaw, where Korczak spent all of his life.
One can also compare the covers of his books which were often published in beautiful editions, as well as the front pages of Mały Przegląd (The Little Review) – a weekly supplement to Nasz Przegląd (Our Review), a popular Jewish paper – founded by Korczak in 1926 and edited by children using materials and letters sent by them from all over Poland. One can also witness the facsimiles of manuscripts and documents, which do help in bringing Korczak's life a bit closer to the contemporary reader.
As a result, as one reads the Photobiography, there is a constant invitation to contemplate every image to uncover a truth which cannot be accessed by words or the work of Korczak scholars. Page after page the reader feels drawn into the self-contained cosmos of these pictures, studying the remnants of the world gone by. At times this visual reality seems in a way all that there is and ever was.
Korczak's life caught in these images - and you can virtually read it in his face as it changes over the years - proves to have been a life of hardship and despair. In this sense the book serves as the perfect illustration of his memorable words: "My life was difficult but interesting. Exactly what I asked God when still a young boy".
Janusz Korczak Fotobiografia / Photobiography, a bilingual (Polish/English) edition, was published with support of Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
An electronic version of the album is available at the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada's website: Janusz Korczak: Photobiography.
• Maciej Sadowski
Janusz Korczak Fotobiografia / Photobiography
Concept, text selection, graphic design: Maciej Sadowski
Consultant: Marta Ciesielska
English translation: Jolanta Stawujak-Romaszko
286 x 225 mm, 192 pages, hard cover
Iskry Publishing House, Warsaw 2012
Sources of photographs: City of Warsaw Historical Museum - The Korczakianum Centre for Documentation and Research, Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Ghetto Fighters' House Museum Israel, Museum of Independece in Warsaw, National Library in Warsaw, and more.
Partners of the the publication: City of Warsaw Historical Museum, Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Fundacja Dzieci Niczyje, Embassy of Israel in Poland.