I first learned about Janusz Korczak a couple years ago, when I purchased the little book about him called Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents. (You can preview this, and several other books about him, at the Google book site here.)
When is the proper time for a child to start walking? When she does. When should her teeth start cutting? When they do. How many hours should a baby sleep? As long as she needs to.
I loved the short quotations, but I wanted to learn more. This past week I have been “blessed” with a nasty cold, which has been just the excuse I needed to curl up on the couch for hours at a time, to rest, sip my tea, and read about this interesting man. In addition to his educational theories, I have learned through these studies more about the history of Poland, World War II, the plight of the poor, and Zionism.
From my library I borrowed his biography, The King of Children, and read it cover-to-cover. It is one of those books which is as inspiring as it is depressing. I also purchased a few of the books Korczak wrote for children and his published diary, linked below. For the purposes of this blog and my readers, who are all very busy yet interested in education, I want to share just a few thoughts about this amazing man. When you are having a rough day at home with your children, however many you have, may you be inspired by this man who committed himself to the care of 200 penniless orphans!
Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit in a Jewish family in Poland in 1878 and died in the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka in 1942. His death was a martyrdom, because at the time of his deportation he had the opportunity to escape, but he chose to remain. Why? Because he was in charge of nearly 200 orphans, and he didn’t want to abandon them to their fate alone.
Korczak didn’t grow up thinking about orphans; he overcame a difficult childhood to become a well-respected pediatrician. He served poor and wealthy children alike, of all religions, despite living in a time and place where society was deeply divided along class, ethnic, and religious lines. In the children’s hospitals, he tired of healing the poor children, only to have to release them back into the unsafe, unhealthy environments that they came from. He ultimately wanted to reform the plight of all children, and (to make a long story short) he opened up a very unique orphanage for about 100 Jewish children, meant to serve as a shining example for other children’s institutions to follow. Shortly later, he opened a second orphanage for another hundred children, (this time Christian.) Unfortunately for the world, Hitler came to power, conquered Poland, and ordered Korczak and the Jewish orphans to re-locate to the Warsaw Ghetto. Two years later, they were ordered unexpectedly onto a cattle truck which took them all to the gas chambers in Treblinka. The events of those last 2 years are heart-breaking to read about.
Korczak was a prolific writer, however his major works were lost or destroyed after his death; what survived are samplings. He never married or had biological children, and he had multiple personal struggles throughout his life, including the scars left from his father’s early insanity and his intellectual struggles with the Zionist longings of many of his Jewish friends. Yet he worked endlessly, along with his assistants, and developed an intense respect for all children and their needs.
As a Montessori fan, I was very interested in comparing his ideas to hers; they never personally met, but I think if they had, they would have developed deep respect for each other’s work. As an aside, let me point out that their professional goals were identical – the global improvement of children’s environments – but their “laboratories” were almost opposites. Montessori worked with children during the daytime at school, away from their homes, and for the children younger than 6, she only had to work with them for half of a day, and in group sizes with limits of around 30. Korczak, on the other hand, had a hundred children under one roof to organize, except for the hours they were sent to the nearest public schools for academic work. He also dealt only with children ages 7 through 7th grade inside his orphanages. (Though his work as a doctor would involve people of all ages.) Above all else, both educators grew all of their ideas out of respect for the child’s innate dignity and potential.
The child never begrudges the time spent reading a story, having a conversation with the dog, playing catch, carefully scrutinizing a picture or retracing a letter. It is precisely the child who has got everything right, and we must give him freedom to drink his cup of happiness.
As I read about how hard Korczak worked each day for his charges, I was deeply humbled and embarrassed by how easy my own life is in comparison, and how I find myself on my worst days, frustrated and complaining about “how much there is to do” in my little household of 6. I’m so thankful for the inspiration of Dr. Korczak and the nasty cold which put me in touch with his life story! So much food for thought left behind…
For further reading:
The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korcak, by Betty Jean Lifton. If you can only read one book about Korczak, this is the one to pick. It is the most complete and well-written biography available.
Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents, by Janusz Korczak, edited by Sandra Joseph. This is a small, hardback volume with 100 brief quotations of Korczak to encourage parents. (Makes an excellent baby shower gift!) Includes a biography of Korczak in the afterward.
Ghetto Diary, by Janusz Korczak – snippets of sporadic reflections on his life, written during his final years, while living inside the Warsaw Ghetto and suffering starvation and exhaustion:
King Matt the First, by Janusz Korczak – his most famous book written for children. My 9yo son loved this book, as well as the one listed below. He rated them both “5 stars” on his book-report forms, which is the highest marking he gives. Maurice Sendak gave this book great praise. I’m hoping to find time some day to write a reading comprehension quiz for this book.
Kaytek the Wizard, by Janusz Korczak – another well-known book for children: