My history hero: Reeta Chakrabarti chooses Janusz Korczak (1878–1942)
BBC journalist and broadcaster Reeta Chakrabarti chooses Janusz Korczak as a history hero
Janusz Korczak: in profile
Janusz Korczak, born Henryk Goldszmit, was a Polish Jewish educator and children’s author, and the founder and director of two Warsaw orphanages, one for Jewish children. He insisted on accompanying the Jewish children to the ghetto and then to Treblinka extermination camp, where all were murdered by the Nazis. A monument to Korczak stands in the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw.
When did you first hear about Janusz Korczak?
I wandered into an exhibition about him in Rome, and was overcome by the heroism of this ordinary man. I say ordinary – he was actually quite well known as a children’s author and an educator, but nothing can have prepared him for the decisions he had to take.
What kind of person was he?
Korczak trained as a medical doctor, but became a children’s author and teacher. He ran two orphanages in Warsaw – one for Jewish children, the other for Catholics. A liberal and progressive thinker, he set up a children’s “republic” in the Jewish orphanage, with its own parliament, court and newspaper. He suffered deprivation and danger for the sake of the children in his care, and ultimately chose to die with them, despite being given the opportunity to save himself.
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What made Korczak a hero?
His bravery and his loyalty to the children. After the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, Korczak’s Jewish orphanage was forced to move into it. He went with the children, though he’d been offered shelter elsewhere. He stayed with them until August 1942, when he was sent to Treblinka with some 200 children and staff. They were never heard of again; it’s assumed they all perished in the gas chambers.
What was Korczak’s finest hour?
When he led the children to the train to Treblinka, described movingly by eyewitnesses. The composer Władysław Szpilman recalled that Korczak told the orphans to be glad, because they were going to the countryside and would be free of the suffocating city. He wanted to spare them the terror of death.
Does he deserve greater recognition in the UK?
Yes! Korczak should be remembered alongside people such as Sir Nicholas Winton, Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler. They managed to save lives, but Korczak sacrificed his, refusing to abandon his children on their final journey.
On the podcast | Rebecca Clifford tells the stories of child survivors of the Holocaust:
Can you see any parallels between his life and yours?
I could never conceive of being put to the same test. But I love children, as he must have done. Also, in the Ghetto, the children performed The Post Office, a play by Rabindranath Tagore, who is revered in Bengal, where my family come from. That makes me feel connected in a tenuous sort of way.
What would you ask Korczak if you could meet him?
Did he ever consider trying to save himself? What did he actually say to the children before their last journey together? Was he able to stay with them until the bitter end?
Reeta Chakrabarti is a journalist and broadcaster, and a regular presenter of the news on BBC One and the BBC News Channel
This content first appeared in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.
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