published Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Cleaveland: A hero for the ages

Clif Cleaveland

On Aug. 6, 1942, a train bearing hundreds of Jewish children departed Warsaw for the death camp at Treblinka. Aboard were Dr. Janusz Korczak, 10 of his colleagues and almost 200 orphans under their long-term care. Their lives ended the following day. A vital chapter in children's rights came temporarily to a close.

Born Henryk Goldszmit in 1878, he adopted the pen name of Janusz Korczak for a literary competition. In his early teens, when his father died, Korczak tutored children of the wealthy. He balanced medical studies at the University of Warsaw with undercover inquiries into the lives of destitute, Polish children, which informed much of his early writing.

Following military service in the Russian-Japanese War of 1905, Korczak established one of the first pediatric practices in Warsaw. Troubled by the growing plight of poor children in the city, he gave up his lucrative practice to found an orphanage for Jewish children. This opened in October 1912. After a rocky start, the institution, soon labeled The Children's Republic, became a model for orphanages in much of Europe. Hundreds of graduates of the Republic entered trades and professions that otherwise would have been denied them. Several returned to the staff of their alma mater as teachers and nurses.

Instead of being simply housed, orphans in the new facility had academic classes from kindergarten to high school. Children could learn a trade or prepare for college. They elected a council that established rules for their behavior. They produced a weekly newspaper and staged plays for their neighborhood. A summer camp opened opportunities for fresh air and outdoor sports.

Korczak championed broader educational reform for all children of Poland. He exposed and condemned harsh punishment that was routinely inflicted upon students regardless of age. He insisted that children had rights within all compartments of society. Repeatedly, he testified on behalf of children when they were charged with crime, arguing that they should not be sentenced and confined as adults.

Conscripted by the Russian army in World War I for service on the Eastern front, he ministered to wounded soldiers as well as children displaced by combat. Amid the horrors of trench warfare, he wrote "How To Love a Child," a common-sense manual for child care. At war's end, he almost died of typhus, an illness that would kill his mother who had come to care for him.

Returning to The Children's Republic, Korczak renewed his efforts to reform how Polish people regarded and treated children. For several years, he hosted a program on national radio that featured homey advice on child-raising. He founded a second orphanage for Catholic children based upon the protocols of the Republic.

Korczak's writings ranged from tracts on educational reform to children's rights. He wrote novels for children. "King Matt the First" imagines a kingdom ruled by a 12-year-old boy who seeks to correct the injustices of adult politicians.

Growing anti-Semitism in Poland of the 1930s progressively restricted Korczak's activities to the care of his Jewish charges. Poland's defeat by Nazi Germany in 1939 led in the autumn of the following year to the sequestration of 400,000 Jews into an area of less than 1.5 square miles. The orphanage was forced to move twice to ever smaller quarters. Battling starvation, disease and despair, Korczak maintained the caring protocols of the orphanage. In July 1942, the orphans presented their final play, "The Post Office" by Tagore.

On Aug. 6, Nazi soldiers forcibly removed all institutionalized children from the Warsaw Ghetto. The door to the orphanage opened. Korczak, carrying a young child, holding the hand of another, led the children outside. Children alternated carrying the green flag of King Matt to which a Star of David was affixed. Staff followed. On a hot day of terror and chaos, they walked two miles to the train station. They waited calmly until ordered to climb into boxcars, which were sealed for their final journey to Treblinka.

On a personal pilgrimage, I retraced the steps of the doctor and his children from the site of the orphanage to Treblinka, a memorial falling into disrepair. Then and now, I find the courage and devotion of the doctor and his staff both astonishing and inspiring, a reminder of the power of a deeply principled person in confronting evil.

"The King of Children" by Betty Jean Lifton is a fine biography of this modern-day saint.

Email Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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