Refused to Abandon His Orphans: Janusz Korczak

He could have escaped with his life, but instead accompanied the children to their death.

Janusz Korczak was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, educator, and children’s book author who sacrificed his life rather than abandon 192 doomed orphans.

Born Henryk Goldszmit in 1878, he started using Janusz Korczak as a pen name at age 20, and went by that name for the rest of his life. Janusz studied medicine at the University of Warsaw and became a pediatrician.

Janusz devoted his life to the emotional and physical well-being of children. He published several books which became classics of Polish children’s literature. One of his books, Kaytek the Wizard (1933) is the story of a normal schoolboy who learns he has magic powers, anticipating Harry Potter by 60 years.

In 1911, Janusz became the director of Dom Sierot (Orphan House), a unique orphanage for Jewish children. Believing his young charges deserved respect and responsibility, Janusz created a mini parliament, court system, and newspaper so they could have some control over their own governance.

Janusz had his own radio program in the 1930’s where he promoted the rights of children. He was awarded the Poland Silver Cross in 1933 for outstanding achievement in the fields of medicine and education.

Janusz traveled to Mandate Palestine every year and spent time on a kibbutz. In 1938, with the situation for Jews in Europe rapidly worsening, Janusz was urged to stay in Palestine, but he refused to abandon the orphans at Dom Sierot.

Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Warsaw Ghetto was created in 1940. Janusz’ orphanage was forced to relocate to the ghetto. Janusz lived with the orphans in their cramped new building. After settling in, he immediately organized a theater production to keep the children distracted and busy.

Janusz had friends in the Polish resistance movement who repeatedly offered to help him escape to safety, but he refused to leave the children.

In August 1942, Nazi soldiers came to take the 192 orphans at Dom Sierot into custody before transporting them to the Treblinka extermination camp. Again Janusz was offered sanctuary by his friends in the underground resistance, but he insisted on staying with the children.

The orphans were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a small knapsack and a favorite book or doll. Witness Wladyslaw Szpillman later described the moment, “[Janusz] told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man….”

When the group reached the Umschlagplatz holding area before being sent to the death camp, one of the guards recognized Janusz as the author of his favorite children’s book, and offered to help him escape. Once more, Janusz refused to abandon his orphans. He boarded a cattle car with the children and was never seen again. Most likely, Janusz and the orphans were killed in the gas chamber right after arriving at Treblinka.

For sacrificing his life so that 192 orphans wouldn’t face death alone, we honor Janusz Korczak as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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