This week marks the 73rd anniversary of Janusz Korczak’s fatal march with the children of his Warsaw orphanage. While supporters arranged a path to freedom from the Nazis for him in 1942, the writer, educator and physician chose instead to stand by his children, and marched with nearly 200 of them to the train that would take all of them to their deaths in Treblinka. Some say that the children sang, but that might be legend. What’s known is that they walked in dignity, carrying the flag of their orphanage, with its emblem on one side and the Star of David on the other; they felt safe in Korczak’s presence.
While much has been written about Korczak and his innovative ideas about moral education, Marcia Talmadge Schneider’s new book, “Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Souls” stands out, as it is based on her interviews with 12 individuals who lived in his orphanage, whether as children or counselors. In 2001, while spending 6 months in Israel, Talmadge Schneider who had a 40-year career as an educator in Jewish and public schools, gained access to the Korczak archives at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, home of the Museum of the Ghetto Fighters. She then tracked down a dozen people who were “already in the autumn of their lives,” as she writes, “but their memories were still fresh.”
In their testimonies, many speak about how Korczak made a point of trying to understand them and their needs, both physical and spiritual, and how he was like a father to them. They speak of morning exercise, their job rotation, rewards in the form of picture postcards, a Court of Justice for settling disputes and daily doses of cod liver oil, with every aspect of their daily routine infused with love and respect.
Yitzhak Belfer, an artist living in Tel Aviv, told Schneider that Korczak “has a lasting effect on me all these years” and that it has been his life’s mission to “to tell about Janusz Korczak.”
Belfer came from a religious home and while the orphanage didn’t have set times for religious services, he was able to go into the “quiet room” for prayer when he wanted. Others commented that if a child were saying kaddish, Korczak would put on a kippah and say the prayer with him.
Klara Maayan, who worked in the orphanage, was 85 when she was interviewed. She recalls that when she first came to the building at 92 Krochmalna Street, she asked a man in work clothes placing the garbage in a wheelbarrow about finding Dr. Korczak, and that was him. She tried to show her letters of introduction, but there was no interview; he simply said, “I will just tell you that if you see one single, isolated child, standing along, you must take care of that child. Treat him or her as an individual with an individual personality and character, not as you would the whole group. Each individual is entitled to his own treatment and his own rights.”
Maayan worked there for two years — “two years that have been with me my entire lifetime; that period was the backbone of my life.”
She adds, “He gave the children back their lost childhood.”
Schneider Talmadge also gives much credit to the administrative assistant of the orphanage, Stefania Wilczyska, for her work in running the orphanage with Korczak. Neither Stefa, as she was known, nor “Pan Doctor,” as he was called, ever married. Korczak’s seminal work was “How to Love the Child,” and he also wrote several books for children, still in print in many languages, including “King Matt the First.”
Schneider Talmadge writes, “It is my hope and belief that we all must learn from this magical humanist and fulfill his dream of making a better world.”
On August 5th, Talmadge Schneider gave a brief dvar torah about Korczak at morning minyan at Park Avenue Synagogue. On the front façade of the synagogue (on Madison Avenue), just above the entrance, there’s a bronze relief by the sculptor Natan Rapoport that features Korczak surrounded by children. Talmadge Schneider urged minyan goers to take a close look at the beautiful artwork, and many did. “I don’t know if there’s anyone in the world who thinks of him on this yahrztzeit. I’m very proud to remember him,” she says.