January 23, 2008
Martyred protector of children still remembered by his charges, by Dina Kraft. (New York Times)
Tel Aviv, Israel: They are in their 80s now, the last living links to Janusz Korczak, the visionary champion of children''s rights who refused to part with his young charges even as they were herded to the gas chambers.
When they speak of him, the old men are young again: transported to their days in his orphanage, a place they remember as a magical republic for children as the Nazi threat grew closer.
"It was a utopia," said Shlomo Nadel, 85, one of the surviving orphans who managed to flee Poland before the Jewish orphanage was forced into the ghetto.
Nadel and the others were witness to life on 92 Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, the orphanage that became a laboratory for Korczak''s democratic educational theories, boasting a court and parliament run by the children.
"A child is a person at every stage of his or her development and has rights, the same rights as an adult, and needs to be treated accordingly," said Yitzhak Belfer, 85, who can recite by heart the system of points and punishment meted out by the children''s court. "That''s how it was with us."
Korczak''s ideas for a declaration of children''s rights were posthumously adopted by the United Nations, and dozens of Korczak associations exist worldwide. Last year, a compilation of his advice for parents was published under the title "Loving Every Child." Its message: Listen to children at their level, celebrate their quirks and dreams.
His work at the orphanage was interrupted in 1940 when the Nazis forced him and his orphans into the Warsaw Ghetto.
A pediatrician, educator and writer, he was born Henryk Goldszmit (Korczak was a pen name) to a Jewish family in 1878. He was beloved in Poland for his children''s stories and the radio show on which he counseled parents. Friends offered to smuggle him out of the ghetto, but he refused to abandon the children. When it came time to be deported to the Treblinka death camp in 1942, he led them, each clutching a favorite toy or game, in a silent march of protest to the train that would carry them to their deaths.
It is Korczak''s tragic end as a Holocaust martyr that is perhaps most widely known, and immortalized in the 1990 film by Andrzej Wajda. But to those who knew him, it is what he passed on to them in life that still makes him such a present force.
Belfer''s Tel Aviv home is filled with the paintings and sculptures he created in homage. Korczak is always depicted with the round owlish glasses that seem to swallow up his face.
Belfer and the others remember Korczak as the only father figure they knew, a man who would read to them from the books he was writing, changing plot lines and characters according to their input. He encouraged collecting treasures like feathers, buttons, pebbles and shells.
Yizak Skalka, 85, also from Tel Aviv, pulled out a copy of the postcard given to him by Korczak in 1935 when he left for Palestine at the age of 13. "I wish you joy and many rare stamps," it said.
"He knew everything about us and what we did," Skalka said.
Korczak said it was the job of adults to help translate the world to children, suggesting that a child be approached at times like "a foreigner who does not speak our language and who is ignorant of our laws and customs."
In 1989, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child drew from his theories, and Unesco named 1979, the International Year of the Child, after him.
Nadel recalled how children would often get into trouble for sliding down the main banister of the orphanage. One day when no one was looking, Korczak, curious to see what the attraction was all about, hopped on the railing and slid down. He then turned himself in to be tried in the orphanage court for breaking one of his own house rules.
"He had light blue eyes, like water, and blond hair," Nadel said. "We played with his beard. When he sat down, children would rush around him from all sides and not leave him alone."
In his apartment in the central Israeli town of Ramle, Nadel sorted through photographs from his time at the orphanage. Many of them he took himself. In Israel, he earned a living as a wedding and events photographer.
There are photos of children lounging in a rowboat, doing calisthenics in the courtyard and climbing up ladders perched on apple trees at the orphanage''s summer camp in rural Poland.
Nadel paused as he scanned the faces of the children he knew so long ago. "They went to Treblinka," he said finally. "All of them."
In the Warsaw Ghetto the doctor continued to care for the children, begging for food and medicine on their behalf.
Much of Belfer''s artwork recounts those scenes. Bronze sculptures portray the doctor as a giant figure hovering over the children with a protective arm. In a sketch the doctor is holding the children''s hands.
Nadel said one of his favorite memories was from Passover in 1933 or 1934. A festive meal would be held in the dining room. But with more than 100 children, Korczak had to find an innovative way to have them search for the "afikoman," the hidden piece of matzo redeemed for a prize by the child who found it.
His solution: make it a walnut hidden in one of the matzo balls served in the chicken soup.
"Everyone''s spoons were digging into the matzo balls, and I saw I had something hard inside mine," Nadel said. "Everyone rushed to see."
As he spoke, he reached into his left pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He unfolded it to reveal a dark leather pouch held together with fraying tape. Inside were shards of that walnut.
by Shlomo Nadel