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In Memory

In memory of Janusz Korczak

Halya Coynash
"I don’t know what parting words I would have for the children. I would like to tell them a lot, to tell them that they are free to choose their path”.

On 21 July 1942 on the eve of his birthday, Janusz Korczak wrote the following words in his “Pamiętnik” [“Diary”] :

“It is a hard thing to be born and to learn to live.  The task before me is much easier – to die. After death it may again be hard, but I am not thinking about that. The last year, the last month, the last hour.

I would like to die calmly and in full consciousness. I don’t know what parting words I would have for the children.  I would like to tell them a lot, to tell them that they are free to choose their path”.

Janusz Korczak, doctor, writer, educationalist and All and Everything for the children in his care was born on this day, 22 July, in 1878.  Born in Warsaw into a Polish Jewish family, he studied medicine before devoting all his life to working with orphaned children and children from very poor homes. His writings – including “How to love a child”, “The right of the child to respect”, “When I’m small again” and many others, give us some sense of a man who was quite realistic about life and about the children in his care, and whose commitment to them was unwavering and absolute. 

Prisoners within the Warsaw Ghetto, Janusz Korczak, pani Stefania Wilczyńska and a few other adults fought to find food and medicine for the almost 200 children in their care, and to continue the life of the children’s home and school. 

Many have written about the “choice” Janusz Korczak supposedly had to save his own life.  There is even a myth about a German officer who offered to let Dr Korczak go.  Reality hurts and it is ever tempting to clutch at those stories.  They are however both superfluous and a profound impertinence.  Aleksandr Lewin, who as a young man worked with Dr Korczak during the 1930s writes:

“Did he really make any choice?

There is a lot of testimony suggesting that it was intended that Korczak leave the Ghetto and find shelter in the non-Jewish area.  There were those who had been in his care, as well as friends, who made enormous efforts to bring this about, including Maryna Falska and Igor Newerly.  Let us think about it however: was he supposed to leave the children?  It is enough to ask the question, and the answer becomes quite clear: he couldn’t. He was there where his children were, and he was with them to the end. And therefore he made no choice, there was no choice for him to make. He did not even take the suggestions made into consideration, simply rejecting them. The suggestion therefore that he made a choice, that he considered various possibilities for saving his life, shows unintentional disrespect to his memory”.[1]

On 5 August 1942, Janusz Korczak, pani Stefa, the other adults and all the children walked in file to Umschlagsplatz from where the trains left for the Treblinka Death Camp. 

No facile words.  No words at all …

Janusz Korczak: from Pamiętnk:

“Someone wrote caustically that the world is a lump of mud suspended in eternity, and a human being is an animal who has made a career.

Maybe this is so.  However, there is one thing to be added: that lump of mud knows suffering, is able to love and to weep, and is full of yearning.

And the career of a human being, if measured conscientiously, is questionable, so very questionable”


“Farewell” 1919 

“We give you nothing.

We do not give you God, for you yourselves, through your efforts, must find him in your own heart.

We do not give you your motherland, because you must find it through the efforts of your own heart and thoughts.

We do not give you love, there being no love without forgiveness, and forgiveness is toil, hard toil, which each must undertake for him or herself.

We give you only one thing – yearning for a better life which does not exist, but will one day come, the yearning for truth and justice.

Perhaps that yearning will bring you to God, help you to find your Motherland and Love”.

[1]  Aleksandr Lewin: Janusz Korczak: znany i nieznany

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