Henryk Goldszmit was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1878. He is better known by his pseudonym, Janusz Korczak (pronounced “Yanoosh Kor-chock”)
Not only did Janusz Korczak become a well-known writer (Korczak even wrote quite a few children’s books that were apparently extremely well-known in their day, including King Matt the First) but he also became a pediatrician so as to better be able to help sick and poor children.
In 1912 he decided to go a step further and became the director of a new Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. He lived in the attic of the building and accepted no salary. He cared lovingly for the children and had a profound belief (which was not at all the mainstream view at the time) that children should be respected and listened to.
In 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. In 1940, they ordered Korczak’s orphanage to relocate to the Jewish ghetto, which was a deplorable slum filled with disease, starvation and corpses on the streets.
Korczak made daily begging expeditions to obtain food and medicine for the children. He attempted to maintain as normal a life for the children as possible: teaching and playing with them. He also took over a hospital for sick and dying children in his belief that children should die with dignity.
Although encouraged by non-Jewish friends to leave Poland and save himself, and despite being offered many opportunites to escape, he always replied:
“You wouldn’t abandon your own child in sickness, misfortune, or danger, would you? So how can I leave two hundred children now!” (Loving Every Child, p. 82)
You can all see where this terrible tale is headed. On August 5, 1942 Janusz Korczak lead his two hundred children on a parade through the streets to the train station. They carried the orphanage flag designed by Korczak, and each child carried one favorite toy or book. Korczak and his children were taken away in freight cars to Treblinka where they were all sent to the gas chambers.
This was not meant to be a biographical post about Janusz Korczak, but I don’t believe that one can discuss this book Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents, without knowing a bit about this remarkable man.
I stumbled upon this book after hearing a March 3rd NPR story about it: Parenting Advice From a Polish Holocaust Hero. I read it cover-to-cover right away, think about it often, and knew I would write about it one day after I was able to digest the enormity of Korczak and his wisdom, as well as write a post about him without crying.
Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents is actually a compilation of quotations from some of Korczak’s other works, primarily How to Love a Child (1919) and The Child’s Right to Respect (1929). It is divided into chapters that each cover a very general subject. For example: “Communication,” “A Child Will Play,” and my favorite – “Adults Are Not Very Clever.”
Janusz Korczak was so incredibly ahead of his time. The advice in this book could have been written yesterday. To think that he wrote these words in the early 1900’s just amazes me.
As I mentioned previously, the main theme of the book is respect for the child. Korczak’s keen observations about the interaction between children and adults really make it seem that this man was able to get inside a child’s head and see the world as the child sees it. His sense of empathy and compassion is overwhelming.
This book has profoundly touched me. Although Korczak’s story brings tears to my eyes whenever I think of it, I have to agree with Ari L. Goldman in his Foreword:
“But what I particularly like about this volume is that it takes Korczak’s wisdom about children out of the context of martyrdom. Most people learn about him through exhibits at various museums commemorating the Holocaust. Korczak, of course, deserves a place there. But he especially deserves to be remembered for what he taught us about children and about ourselves.” (Loving Every Child, p. viii)
This is a book to keep on your nightstand and pick up again and again. Even nearly one hundred years later, Korczak’s words serve as a reminder to us all, to listen to and respect our children.
Here are some of my favorite passages from Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents (actually, they are ALL my favorites, so it was hard to choose just a few):
“We plunder the mountains, cut down the trees, and exterminate the animals. More and more the forests and marshes are being replaced by buildings. We are planting human beings in ever new territories.
We have subjugated the world and have made use of the iron and the animals; we have enslaved other races, we have organized international relations in a cursory way and appeased the masses. Injustice and ill treatment prevail. We do not really consider childhood worries and apprehensions as very serious matters.
Any child is an unequivocal democrat and does not recognize any hierarchies. Whether it is another child’s hunger or the agony of a tormented animal, it causes him pain. Dogs, birds, butterflies, and flowers are equally close to his heart, and he feels kinship with each pebble and shell. He does not believe that only humans have souls.” (p.45)
“The child is small, lightweight, and there is just less of him. We ought to stoop and come down to his level.” (p.20)
“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.” (p.8)
“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.” (p.34)
You can also read an excerpt from the book at the NPR website.
Photo is of Janusz Korczak circa 1930, courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. (USHMM – Photograph #65010, courtesy of Międzynarodowe Stowarzyszenie im. Janusza Korczaka)