Janusz Korczak

The editor of Children Webmag suggested that I might do a piece on Janusz Korczak for this month’s journal and I jumped at the idea because he is one of my primary heroes and mentors.

Let’s begin with his extraordinary life, before I reflect on the way in which he has influenced my thinking and practice in the field of residential child care and child welfare. (You will find plenty of extra biographical information if you type his name into search engines on the web.)

Janusz Korczak (real name Henryk Goldszmit) was born in Warsaw in July 1878 into a Jewish family. When he was 18 his father died and he became the breadwinner in the family. From 1898-1904 he studied medicine and also wrote for Polish newspapers under the pseudonym by which he became universally known. He became a paediatrician and after getting to know the local Orphan’s Society he became director of Dom Sierot, an orphanage he helped to shape and design. It was intended to be a children’s republic and had its own parliament, court and newspaper.

From 1914-18 he served as a military doctor, but immediately after the First World War he resumed his work among children. He founded another orphanage, called Nasz Dom. It was influenced by his knowledge of, and respect for, the kibbutzim in Israel. He encouraged the children to found their own newspaper, and became known himself through broadcasts and books. When the Nazis formed the Warsaw Ghetto his orphanage was forced to move into it. He did so too.

In late summer 1942 German soldiers came to collect the 190-200 children in his care and put them on a train to Treblinka. Despite having been offered sanctuary, Korczak insisted on going with them. He boarded a train with them, and they died together. There is a memorial grave in Powazki Cemetery, Warsaw, and also a wooden memorial in Yad Vashem, Israel.

These are the bare facts. There are some surprising gaps in what we know about this self-effacing and remarkable human being and social pioneer, and also many legends.

I can’t remember when I first heard about him, but from that time on his life and work have had a pervasive and profound effect on my own. Somehow as a child I obtained and read his extraordinary book known in English as King Matt the First (1923). I didn’t know then who wrote it, but now that I do, I realise that this realistic and challenging child’s perspective on government and power relations has unconsciously helped to shape my own political and philosophical understandings. It sowed the seeds that have grown into a commitment to understand children and childhood without relying on the lenses of contemporary fashions, or romantic and sentimental or harsh traditional ideologies.

Most of Korczak’s writing was in Polish and some is still hard to come by in English, but anyone who has studied his works realises that their creative imagination, insight, empathy come right from the heart of a man of huge intelligence, wide learning and instinctive understanding of children. If you want a couple of recommendations, try When I Am Little Again (1925) and How to Love a Child (1919).

So what are the specific influences of which I am aware?

First, a respect for each child as an individual, and children as a group (the two are not synonymous) that meant he was one of the forerunners of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The source document is his The Child’s Right to Respect (1929). This was not just a matter of pious pronouncements or well-intentioned communiqués, but something that he practised and embodied in every aspect of his life among and alongside children.

Next, a concept of childhood that acknowledged the importance of social pedagogy, – in short, the acceptance that professional constructions and understandings of children are always partial. Health, social work, child development, cognitive psychology, education and spirituality all have something to contribute to this understanding, but also something to learn from each other, and much that is common to the other disciplines and discourses. I like to think that, were Janusz around today, he would be an avid reader of, and regular contributor to, Children Webmag for this very reason!

The third inspiration is his belief (shared by the founders of the kibbutzim) that residential communities offer special opportunities for child growth and development, and for the discernment and encouragement of potential. Whatever others might think he did not see them as a last resort or a poor equivalent of a family, but rather (like many other pioneers in the field) as places of learning and discovery for every member of the community whether child or adult. Thus his vision of his orphanages as children’s republics: you can’t get much more radical than that!

And finally (for now), his willingness to lay down his life in order to be with his children in their hour of greatest need. His act of self-sacrifice on the railway platform in August 1942 continues to inspire and haunt me. I remember describing the incident in my President’s speech at the annual conference of the Social Care Association in Southport many years ago, and the challenge of his example has, if anything, grown since then. Would I be prepared to do the same? If not, how far would I go? Why am I engaged in caring for children if I am prepared to leave them when they most need me?

I hope this gives you a little idea of why I jumped at the Editor’s suggestion, and if not, let me conclude with some of Korczak’s gems, selected from A Voice for the Child (NSPCC/Harper Collins, 1999):

“If we are constantly astonished at the child’s perceptiveness, it means that we do not take them seriously.”

“The market value of the very young is small. Only in the sight of god is the apple blossom worth as much as the apple: green shoots as much of a field of ripe corn.”

“A baby can hold a very complicated conversation without being able to talk.”

“A child can read his parent’s face in the same way as a farmer reads the sky to predict the weather.”

I’d better stop there, but I hope you see that we are dealing with someone of immense perception and minute observation with a genuine love of little human beings we like to call “children”.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.