Janusz Korczak (born Henryk Goldszmit), prior to World War ll was a famous Polish doctor, author, radio personality and the long-time director of a Polish orphanage.
He was a widely recognized humanitarian, who was also a prolific author of children’s books and a great supporter of children’s rights. One of his best known books, published in 1923 was “King Matt the First,” the tale of a child prince who becomes king when his father dies.
King Matt is so naïve, that unlike his predecessors, he decides to build a better world by making friends with other kings. He also rules that all schoolchildren receive chocolate and poor children can go to summer camp to enjoy the pleasures wealthier children enjoy.
But the real world was not as kind as the one of King Matt. In 1939, at the outset of World War ll, Germany invaded, conquered and occupied Poland. The Germans forced Jews to surrender most of their possessions and live tightly confined in a German creation, the Warsaw Ghetto.
Dr. Korczak ran a Jewish orphanage in that Warsaw Ghetto.
Before World War ll, he would make an annual pilgrimage to Palestine (Israel today) and could have escaped to Palestine as some other Jewish people did, but he refused. On August 5th, 1942 German soldiers came to the orphanage to seize the children and the staff and march them two miles to a train bound for the Treblinka gas chambers.
A German roundup of Jews often meant overwhelming German force. Large numbers of heavily armed soldiers would arrive in military vehicles loud enough to frighten everyone, accompanied by aggressive and barking German Shepherds.
Some Jews were beaten and shot on the spot and the many frightened survivors were shoved onto vehicles to be transported to death camps such as Treblinka.
Because of Dr. Korczak’s prominence, he was made an exception and given the chance to leave, a chance that might once again let him escape to Palestine. But again he refused.
Instead, he said “You do not leave a sick child in the night and you do not leave children at a time like this.”
Dr. Korczak calmed the children. He had all 192 boys and girls, ages as young as 2 and 3 and as old as 13 or 14, dress in their finest clothes, as if they were to make a very special trip and he asked each of them to take a favorite toy or book with them on the journey.
Then with the procession carrying the green flag of King Matt, the 63 year old Dr. Korczak led the march to the train station, holding hands with some of the children. There everyone, including Dr. Korczak boarded the train, the gas chambers awaiting them.
Dr. Korczak could not stop the murder of these children but through his courage and compassion, he could make the process better for them, and he surrendered his life to do so.