Janusz Korczak

“Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be.”

- Janusz Korczak (1878–1942)

 

UNESCO declared 1979 “The Year of the Child” but it also named it “The Year of Janusz Korczak” to mark the Centenary of his birth. Janusz Korczak was a well-known Polish doctor and educator, a children’s author and a journalist. He was a man who made it his life’s work to bring happiness to more and more children. Though he has been compared with Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Socrates, there are many still who are unaware of this remarkable man and his accomplishments. His message is practical and clear and so rich in understanding.

One of Janusz Korczak’s successes was an orphanage established in Warsaw in 1912 to help children of the street and children whose families were too impoverished to care for them. When Poland was invaded in 1939, the orphanage was forced to relocate to the deplorable conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Korczak was often encouraged to leave Poland during this time, but he would not abandon the two hundred children in his care. On August 5th 1942 when the children were ordered to the execution camp at Treblinka he remained true to the children and his ideals and accompanied the children and shared their fate.

Joshua Perle, an eyewitness, described the procession of Korczak and the children through the Ghetto to the deportation point:

“... A miracle occurred. Two hundred children did not cry out. Two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak, so that he might protect and preserve them. Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar. (...) On all sides the children were surrounded by Germans, Ukrainians, and this time also Jewish policemen. They whipped and fired shots at them. The very stones of the street wept at the sight of the procession.”

The story of the children in his orphanage and his martyr-like death is tragic and achingly sad. But for me, his true legacy is his Declaration of Children’s Rights.

Long before there was any such document from the League of Nations, Geneva Convention, or the United Nation, Janusz Korczak envisioned a document that would not be merely a “plea for good will” but a document where duties were not confused with rights. It was to be a list of the most essential demands establishing the rights of children. 

The world may now endeavour to abide by the declaration established by the United Nations but its precursor, Janusz Korczak’s Declaration of Children's Rights still unfortunately needs a paradigm shift in adult thinking and parental behaviour to become a reality. The first world countries may think that their children are no longer victims of adult misguidance but we still have a long way to go.

If children can grow up in a world where there are adults they can trust, if parents and educators, clergy and those of us who write for children can create environments where children can feel respect, love and care; perhaps they will grow into adult society capable of perpetuating respect, love and care. If this is not already the challenge of every adult; it should be!