Janusz Korczak was born in 1878 in Warsaw into a Jewish family. A doctor and an author he had a great empathy with children and in particular orphans. His philosophy about how to treat children, which included regarding them as individuals and treating them with respect, was way ahead of its time. But Korczak became caught up in the Nazi invasion as Director of the Warsaw Ghetto Orphanage. On August 6th 1942 Korczak, his staff and 200 children were deported from the ghetto and murdered in Treblinka.
In 2004 I visited the former orphanage of the Warsaw Ghetto ( pictured above) with a group from my synagogue.
One of our members, Jeffrey Segal, an actor, read to us in the orphanage grounds, from Korczak's final words written in his ghetto diary. He was driven almost mad by his daily search for food donations for the 200 children in his care. " Aug 2nd 1942. Our Father who art in heaven... This prayer was carved out of hunger and misery. Our daily bread. Bread."
On the bus out of Warsaw up to Treblinka where Korczak and the children were deported and killed on arrival I wrote a poem, A message to the children.
This year ( 2011) the poem was set to music by Helen Bonney, author and composer and a soundtrack recorded by her son Jack Cooke. The poem has been published in Poetry Salzburg and was set as an essay question for a student on the English degree at Salzburg University. The student called the poem, “an artefact.”
In the poem I tried to imagine what Korzcak might have said to the children the night before they are to be deported. The first two lines come from a speech he made in the 1920s to a group of children leaving the orphanage in happier times. But on that dreadful night in 1942 what could he offer the children, but to take their hand and go on the journey with them?
The next morning, Aug 6th 1942, the children were given a little bag with a piece of bread and a bottle of water. They were dressed in clean clothes and their hair was neatly combed. Then they had to march, four by four, through the streets to the siding where the cattle cars were waiting.
Armed soldiers lined their route, /even as the pavements weep beneath your feet/
Monument to Korczak and the children in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery
You can listen to the song here and read the text of the poem:
You can find out more about Janusz Korczak at this link