Janusz Korczak, physician, educator, and writer, was born in Warsaw of assimilated Jewish family. After qualifying as a medical practitioner, he immediately turned his attention to the poor, and in particular to children, later orphans. His first publication, Children of the Streets, appeared in 1901. He served on the Russian front in the First World War, then headed two orphanages in Warsaw, one Jewish, one non-Jewish.

He continued to write and to pioneer a more enlightened approach to the bringing up of children. At the beginning of the Second World War he was removed from the non-Jewish orphanage. He tried to ignore the Nazi occupation of Poland and refused to wear the Yellow Badge, for which he was jailed for a while. He kept a diary throughout the occupation (extant). He refused to let his Polish friends smuggle him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to the ‘Aryan side’ as he was not prepared to leave his orphans to face their fate alone.

On 5th August, 1942, (title of Ficowski’s poem), the Germans rounded up Dr. Korczak, his staff, and his 200 children and marched them three miles to the deportation train. An eyewitness reported to Emanuel Ringelblum, who kept daily records of life in the Ghetto, that Korczak ordered his orphans to march in a disciplined way with their heads held high and looking at no one. He led them, and his staff, holding a child’s hand in each of his. On arrival at Treblinka they were all gassed to death.

 

5.8.1942

In Memory of Janusz Korczak

 

What did the Old Doctor do

in the cattle wagon

bound for Treblinka on the fifth of August

over the few hours of the bloodstream

over the dirty river of time

 

I do not know

 

what did Charon of his own free will

the ferryman without an oar do

did he give out to the children

what remained of gasping breath

and leave for himself

only frost down the spine

 

I do not know

 

did he lie to them for instance

in small

numbing doses

groom the sweaty little heads

for the scurrying live of fear

 

I do not know

 

yet for all that yet later yet there

in Treblinka

all their terror all the tears

were against him

 

oh it was only now

just so many minutes say a lifetime

whether a little or a lot

I was not there I do not know

 

suddenly the Old Doctor saw

the children had grown

as old as he was

older and older

that was how fast they had to go grey as ash

 

Jerzy Ficowski

(Translated by Keith Bosley)