CHILDREN’S REPUBLIC: JANUSZ KORCZAK IN WARSAW
JANUSZ KORCZAK: A FATHER OF ORPHANED CHILDREN
The black-swan-kind visitor of the former Treblinka death camp in Poland sidesteps the heart part of the memorial complex. Made of bulked untooled stones with a total height of 8 meters, the monument is central to a symbolic cemetery of rocks: the final resting place for 750 to 850 thousand people (by various estimates), the forced victims of the ‘Endlosung’ (final solution). Thousands of small stones 17 000 reveal any inscription. The ones larger pay honor to the Jewish communities, whose people were killed on this open site among the woods in the heartlands of Poland. As few as two stones amid the thousands of symbolic burials (as the victims of Treblinka were initially gassed and later burned to ashes, in wider means, they had no graves) are generally given an isolated prominence. The one with the ‘WARSZAWA’ inscription bears the name of the city, which was fated to contribute the most dramatic figure to the abyssal death toll in Treblinka. Another piece of rock, the only personalized of Apr. 17 000 mortuary monuments, memorizes the lettering: JANUSZ KORCZAK. HENRYK GOLDSMITH I DZIECI (Janusz Korczak. Henryk Goldsmith and children).
Leaving behind the narrow-mindedness of the post-war communist beliefs, in our generation, the historical image of Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldsmith by birth) is to be conventionally put equate with Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, J.F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King jr. It must be said, that the fame and awareness rather confounded the famous doctor as it was a little more than his care of children and the reshaping of the public mind towards parenting. Henryk himself was lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family of assimilated Polish Jews. Though, in the face of the well-to-do income of the legal servant father, the presence of nuns, and material conditions, the Goldsmith family was far from being an island of homeyness. The oncoming pediatrician, a child himself at the time, had no way but to take hard on the stand-off of his father, the semi-depressive conditions of his mother, and a standoffishness of a sister.
As if it wasn’t enough, Goldsmith Sr. sent Henryk to a private school with draconian means of education: another island of isolation for a boy, who now suffered from the gulf between adult educators and their immature fosterlings. The pupils were systematically exposed to punishments and the Polish language was forbidden in this Russian school. These two (the lack of homeyness and the harsh school experience) patterns of early years would later assert forming influence over the mindset of Janusz Korczak as an educator. Subsequent to the death of Jozef Goldszmit at the age of fifty-two in 1896 (possibly by his own hand due to a longstanding mental disease), the eighteen-year-old Henryk had to undertake care of his mother and sister. It was now four years after the passing away of his beloved grandmother, the only family member young Henryk had used to share his inner world.
In the years of medical studying, HENRYK GOLDSMITH ventured into writing and went into private teaching for the Warsawian children of families from all walks of life, thus immersing oneself into the world of poor and the rich with an insight into the means of parenting. The ongoing pediatrician and a man of letters: all in one, assumed a Janusz Korczak pseudonym. Years down the line and being a headmaster of the children’s orphanages in Warsaw, the talented educator would be appraised with the by-names such as: ‘Stary Doktor’ (An old Doctor), ‘Pan Doktor’ (Mister Doctor), and ‘Father of Orphaned Children.’ Korczak championed equal rights for children in wider aspects of social existence. In his writings, he underlined the natural dependence of the young ones on the adults, providing his thoughts on the alternative means the grownups should use this privilege of parenting. As it would be manifested later on with his doings in orphanages, Janusz Korczak advocated an equal attitude towards any child regardless of the welfare of his family.
WARSAW was fated to become the Alpha and Omega for Janusz Korczak. Except for his military service and journeys to France, England, Germany, Switzerland, and Palestine, Henryk would spend the major part of his life in the capital of Poland. Bielańska 18 was Henryk’s first home (and probably the birthplace) in close proximity to the Warsaw Arsenal. Later the birthplace of Korczak would be demolished to make space for ‘PAWEŁ TARASOWICZ’ department store, therefore leveled in the 1950s. The young Henryk had no recollections of his birthplace as the Goldsmith family soon moved to Krakowskie Przedmieście 77, next to the corner with Senatorska. Two years later the Goldsmith family moved again to Miodova 19, attached to the Archbishop’s Palace complex, a few blocks from the previous place of residence. Later they lived for a while at plac Krasińskich, Nowosenatorska (Jana Moliera nowadays), Leszno. Originating from the public school at the age of seven, Henryk had been a supervisee of a number of educational institutions in Warsaw.
BERSOHN AND BAUMAN CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL
The discovered sense of purpose as a children’s writer and pediatrician of Henryk Goldsmith faced a new challenge coming. Following completing a medical degree in March 1905 he was drafted into the tsarist army, a call for a credentialed lieutenant to witness the horrors of war on the far East front with Japan. In Goldsmith’s judgment, the war made nothing new than ‘anatomizing’ the pre-existing social illnesses. Upon returning to Warsaw in little less than a year of service, the war-hardened lieutenant was now puzzled with his own assumed (in the months of absence) status of the acclaimed juvenile writer, praised as JANUSZ KORCZAK. The literary critics character the author as nothing less than a ‘voice of polish literature’, who pleaded for necessity and social disparity. At that time, Korczak was being welcomed at the doors of the Warsaw intelligentsia: a privilege he would not take for granted for years to come. All while in a position to choose prestigious medical institutions in Warsaw and beyond and to take advantage of his literary star, the doctor reclaims his pre-war (Russo-Japanese) position at the Children’s hospital, clamped between Sliska and Sienna streets in the heart of the Warsaw.
The thought-starter to build a free hospital for caring for Jewish children could be run back in history as far back as 1873, a year when two generations of a wealthy Jewish family purchased a plot of land between Sliska and Sienna streets. The new medical institution with the good fortune to be opened in 1878, was in debt of gratitude to the members of two Jewish families. The elderly Bersohn couple and their daughter (Bersohn by birth, Bauman after marriage) with her husband Solomon Bauman. A medical hospital center included the main building (the one preserved today) and a sub-scale separate pavilion. Routinely where it happens, a new build institution was administered under the binary address of Sienna 60 / Sliska 51. Towards the time of giving employment to a young doctor Henryk Goldsmith in early 1905, the medical complex had custody of an admission room, the infectious unit, and surgery with surgeries. Initially sized for caring for 27 patients at once, the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital had been constantly expanded to include seven hospital rooms with 43 beds, a laboratory facility, and even an open outpatient clinic free of charge for the children from families of any religious confession. The medical institutions were widely regarded as a mark of pride for the Jewish community in Warsaw.
Once resuming (after the military service) his position at the Children’s Hospital in early 1906, Janusz Korczak took the plunge into a medical routine. The little patients largely used to be treated for the symptoms of scarlet fever, dysentery, and even typhus and tuberculosis. Apart from pure medical treatment, doctor Goldsmith advocated (among his colleagues) for a completely new culture of treatment of children. The educator Korczak nullified the bygone taboo on toys within the hospital, with one’s eyes open to the existence of the mental state of his little care recipients apart from the physical. Pediatrician Goldsmith treated children for infections and injuries, as well as the educator Korczak advocated for caring for the mental condition, the factor which used to remain in place after release from the hospital and falling back on poverty, violent parenting, and even abuse.
In his rare free time, doctor Korczak invested time in putting things in order within a hospital library of 1400 volumes of medical records since 1878. The famous pediatrician would practice at Bersohn and Bauman Children’s hospital, with a period of absence, of seven years from 1905 until 1912. His doctor’s salary of 200 rubles annually would be complemented with dividends from the ongoing literary activity and a modest income from the private medical practice with house calls to treat sick children all around Warsaw. Before long, a good many wealthy families admired the idea to welcome the famous doctor and writer as a guest, occasionally at a made-up pretext of their own children as a means to lure Korczak.
On such not that rare occasions, doctor Goldsmith predominated over the public figure of Korczak and could be sarcastically rude to the ‘charlatans’. Along with that, the doctor charged a symbolic fee (Apr. 0.2 rubles) from needy families, conventionally a sum several times lesser than the cost of the horse carriage to get to a patient. In wider means Janusz Korczak acted as a ‘pediatrician Robin-Hood of Warsaw’, charging wealthy families and putting his time and talent into treating the ones in need. The doctor dropped distinction in the social status of the families and treated children with parents of any professions (including offsprings of doctors), confessions, and political beliefs.
The terrene of the hospital complex, sandwiched between Sienna and Sliska, had been constantly expanded to the extent a number of adjusting buildings were to be incorporated. As late as the 1910-s the financial health of the Bersohn and Bauman Foundation decayed dramatically and the hospital was to be closed in 1923. The collaborative efforts of the Warsaw pediatricians resulted in the supersession of the property to the supervision of the ‘Society of the Friends of Children’, consequently initiating a large-scale restructuring. The initial one-story main building dating back to the days of Janusz Korczak’s practice was now accompanied by three floors and ready to open and treat up to 150 patients as late as 1930.
The medical complex between Sienna and Sliska was spared the devastation of the Siege of Warsaw in 1939, although would be included in the borders of the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940. At the height of the liquidation of the ghetto in August 1942, the hospital was moved to the infamous Stawki 6/8 facility next to the ‘Umschlagplatz’ area. As for the buildings at Sienna/Sliska, they were partially damaged during the Warsaw Uprising and some erections were fated to be demolished after the war. It took time to witness a children’s hospital in the same place, although another reconstruction was maintained not earlier than four decades later. In 2018 the former medical center was entrusted to the planned museum of the Warsaw ghetto.
1912-1940: 92 KROCHMALNA STREET
Pediatrician office at the Children’s hospital, private medical practice, and literary activity as a public advocate for mindful parenting: all these were not to become Korczak’s apogee of life. His treatment methods did outside the conventional curing diseases to the extent that doctor Goldsmith now cherished the idea to take the helm over an orphanage. Within four years subsequent to his return (from military service in 1906) to Warsaw, the Warsaw intelligentsia, as well as acclaimed flag bearers of pediatrics, was puzzled by the rumors depicting doctor Korczak as an educator of children from troubled homes. In contrast to the public belief of his contemporaries, Janusz Korczak renounced the idea, that his choice was a sacrifice. Contrariwise, the supervision of the children’s institution pushed the boundaries of conventional pediatrics and potentially explored new horizons of caring for little souls in broader terms. Korczak masterminded his own diagnostic system to reveal the symptoms beyond physical diseases. In exactly the same way doctor Goldsmith diagnosed intoxication, a fever, or typhus, educator Korczak seized room for applying pedagogics to educate a full individual.
In the very year 1906, when doctor Korczak resumed his interrupted practice at the Child Medical Complex at Sienna/Sliska, the “Aid for Orphans” society of Warsaw agreed upon the necessity to build up an orphanage. As soon as May 12, 1910, a land plot at 92 Krochmalna was bought to fulfill the idea in the air. The acquisition of real estate demanded 24 000 rubles, yet the area was from being appraised as an appropriate place for a children’s institution. The Krochmalna street, regarded as a troubled district at that time, took its name from the Polish word ‘Krochmal’, thus ‘starch’ in English as a tribute to a starch factory dating as far back in history as the end of the XVIII century. The purchased plot of land with a cozy fruit garden was surrounded by warehouses, factories, workshops, affordable housing, little shops, and a catholic church nearby. The far end of Krochmalna street, with much higher residential density, was infamously regarded as a hotbed for villainy and prostitution. The demographic image of the district had been historically formed with the working class offshoots, with Polish and Jewish workers assimilated towards each other.
As late as the summer of 1907 doctor Goldsmith made his planned way to Germany, a country well-appraised for its sophisticated medical system and regarded as a center of academic enlightenment in Europe. The image would be tragically distorted in the years of the Third Reich. Apart from attending lectures as a moderate student in Berlin (he was only 29), doctor Henryk Goldsmith used to make visits to German orphanages, asylums, and juvenile detention centers. On the way back, he visited Zurich. With getting a chance to catch the practice of the foreign institutions, doctor Korczak now (upon return) enthusiastically dived into planning a new orphanage in Warsaw. Several times a week he used to get acquainted with the architects and played meaningful participation in construction, the cornerstone of which was laid as soon as June 14, 1911. The famous pediatrician craved to build an institution as state of art among the alike establishments and spent another six months in Paris and London, gaining experience. The final cost of the orphanage at Krochmalna 92 totaled 114 000 rubles.
In view of the fact, that the construction effort of an orphanage for 106 children was behind schedule and over budget, few citizens of the Children’s republic would be able to settle in in October 1912 at the earliest. Children were taken to a place at Krochmalna 92 at the height of a rainy October day with bags over their shoulders and sticks, belongings they possessed at the summer camp in the country. Doctor Korczak himself accommodated a small premise in the attic. Rainy-soaked children witnessed a new stucco four-story building, an image close to the fairy tales. They were welcomed to enter a spacious dining room on the dist floor with a high ceiling, panoramic windows, and delicious dishes, cooked as if they were VIP guests. Children were amazed by span-new classrooms and workshops, an administration office, and three floors of convenient bedrooms with heating, electricity, and hot water. Apart from these almost prestigious facilities for the first 85 pupils, the orphanage included a wing for families, who were ready to adopt a child.
Educator Korczak seized the advantages of a new institution to found what would be called ‘Children’s republic’. The young care recipients had an analogy of voting rights, the feasibility to voice their own thoughts within a newspaper or under the frame of a local parliament. The headmaster advocated a modernized treatment of children as personalities rather than little bread consumers, who could be useful as citizens for only years to come. In the course of the next twenty-seven years, several generations of polish orphans would be lucky enough to become education recipients at Krochmalna 92 in Warsaw.
As for doctor Korczak himself, he used to accommodate the attic until 1932 and moved in together with his sister in an apartment in the city center. Over these decades Korczak had the tough luck in another military service, early in the First World War and later at the height of the Russo-Polish war. As early as the first days of the Second World War in September 1939, the surrounding manufacturing area was exposed to air raids and the orphanage building was slightly damaged and evacuated for a while. Sixty-year-old headmaster filed a request upon assignment to active military service, only to get a denial. In the months that followed the number of little lodgers increased to a figure of two hundred in order to give house room to newly made orphans, whose parents had lost their lives during the siege of Warsaw.
In November 1940 the orphanage of Janusz Korczak was forced to abandon the long-go (for twenty-eight years) residence at Krochmalna 92. While waiting for a reply on his later appeal to the occupational authorities in Krakow (Korczak produced reasons for the orphanage to remain where it had been, beyond the borders of the ghetto), doctor Korczak was open to alternatives. He addressed the headmaster of the ‘PAŃSTWOWE GIMNAZJUM MĘSKIE KUPIECKIE IM. ROESLERÓW’ (State Merchant Male Gymnasium named after Roeslers) with an offer to interchange buildings with mutual respect to the estate. Four years from those weeks, the area around Krochmalna would be badly damaged during the Warsaw uprising, yet the former orphanage at Krochmalna 92 survived the war, in obvious contrast with most of the surrounding area.
Over the after-war years, a number of institutions were consequently rooted within the building, a journalist club in particular. The idea to restore the initial purpose of Krochmalna 92 would live as tactless plans for years until coming true. The educational institution at the modern address of Jaktorowska 6 bears the name of Janusz Korczak and locates ‘Korczakianum, pracownia naukowa Muzeum Warszawy’ (Korczak’s Documentation and Research Center) museum, opened in 1993. The year 1979 witnessed the inauguration of a portrait sculpture to honor the famous pediatrician in front of the building.
AN EXPULSION: CHLODNA 33
The first year of the German occupation put a debilitating strain on the health of the Janusz Korczak orphanage’s care recipients: the provision gathering used to demand increasingly challenging efforts of its headmaster. In the late half of October 1940, the issued decree on lining up the segregated area for Jews within specific boundaries was followed by the sight of maps with the very outlines of the Warsaw ghetto. Whatever alteration of the map (at that days one could find at least a few variations of the upcoming borders, the fact, which yet more frustrated the unwilled residents) caught doctor Korczak’s eye, and the famous pediatrician and litterateur couldn’t fail to notice that the boundaries of the newly separated area would dissect Krochmalna street and leave the orphanage beyond the announced limits. The further operation of the institution for the Jewish children in the same place would be regarded as the fault of the uncompromising German decree. The first thirteen months of the occupation in fact witnessed minor disturbances towards the orphanage on Krochmalna 92. The period even witnessed the german educators at the door, who recognized (in parallel with a racial disdain) the experimental methods of the well-known Jewish pediatrician.
Without losing any time in waiting for the forced expulsion in November, doctor Korczak simultaneously adopted two alternatives. In the first instance, the orphanage headmaster made an appeal to the office of General-governor Hans Frank in Krakow. The inquiry was to be delivered on behalf of the Warsaw Judenrat along with other supplications. In his letter, doctor Korczak advertised the self-sufficiency of the institution, in particular the fact, that the orphanage had used to raise its own staff from the educatees. The recognized pediatrician underlined the argument, that his pupils used to keep the house (including the repair works after the siege of Warsaw) order in line with sanitary regulations. Korczak brought the appeal to the end with a please for assistance (he advocated the preservation of the Krochmalna 92 residence), which would never be granted otherwise than a later rejection.
Minimizing one’s expectations of German sympathy, doctor Korczak made up his mind to find an alternative decision, namely an appropriate building within the uncompromised boundaries of the upcoming Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. The headmaster established contact with Szczepan Bońkowski, the chief educator of the institution at Chlodna 33, a few blocks to the East of the orphanage. ‘PAŃSTWOWE GIMNAZJUM MĘSKIE KUPIECKIE IM. ROESLERÓW’ (State Merchant Male Gymnasium named after Roeslers) faced the reverse challenge: to move out of the gymnasium beyond the bounds of the established area. The two principals agreed upon the exchange of the buildings with mutual respect to the entrusted property. For obvious reasons, the gymnasium had no case to contribute to the exact needs of the Children’s orphanage, notedly with the respect to the enormous efforts that had been put into the construction of Krochmalna 92 twenty-eight years earlier. Doctor Janusz Korczak faced not many alternatives in light of the delivered rejection of his appeal by the German authorities.
At the height of the chaos, while lining up the Warsaw ghetto by the Germans, doctor Korczak used to receive offers for himself on evading humiliating imprisonment (as a resident of the ghetto), yet he chooses to proceed in giving care to his children. The move was scheduled for November 29, two weeks subsequent to the close-up of the area, sealed from the outside world. Doctor Korczak got wise to the expulsion and made a play of the evacuation with a speech pronouncing the move as a new adventure, a quest for children. A column of adult personnel and children headed for East with wagons of potatoes and coal at the rear, rare supplies of the Children’s republic. Having come that far to reach Chlodna street, the cavalcade got a glimpse of the brick wall and a barrier squad of Germans, whose soldiers took the potato possession of the orphanages. A new residence was located one hundred meters distanced from the crossroad with Zelazna street and the not yet erected (January 1942) the infamous ‘The bridge of Sighs’ in front of Chlodna 23-26. Korczak’s revolt on the expropriation of the potato wagon produced no effect except his arrest and the few upcoming weeks at the Pawiak prison by reason of his refusal to wear an armband with a star of David.
Apart from the fact that the building at Chlodna 33 was not initially constructed for the needs of the children’s orphanage the same way Krochmalna 92, a new residence was in fact the best possible variant to move in. The construction of the structure facing Chlodna fell upon the years of the ‘Great War’ (First World War) to be fully finished as early as 1919, the year Poland resumed its independence. That same year the ‘Roesler Foundation’, which had been patronizing primary schools since 1911, entrusted the Chlodna 33 building to a newly established educational institution. The first residential organization was inaugurated as ‘Powstała Państwowa Szkoła Kupiecka Męska’ (State Men’s Merchant School), later (in 1923) renamed to ‘Państwowa Szkoła Handlowa Męska im. J. i M. Roeslerów’ (State School of Commerce for Men. J. and M. Roesler) and finally (in 1932) ‘PAŃSTWOWE GIMNAZJUM MĘSKIE KUPIECKIE IM. ROESLERÓW’ (State Merchant Male Gymnasium named after Roeslers).
Throughout the years prior to the Second World War, an institution at Chlodna 33 had been notable not only with its modern architectural design but also with its improved comfort for the educatees. The erection accommodated laboratories, a fully equipped library, and a medical center. The educational program of three years of studying was aimed at engraining boys with merchant formation and encouraging them to start their own businesseses once getting an adult. Just as in Korczak’s orphanage, the administration of the gymnasium used to give encouragement to inner parliament, coteries, and hobby clubs. After the move to Krochmalna 92, the gymnasium would operate until November 1942, and the final closedown by the Germans. A number of students and teachers chose the dangerous alternative and proceeded with the education in secret. The gymnasium would accommodate Nowogrodzka 58 after the war.
The days in constant need, a hard routine for the livers of the orphanage did not go away after the move to Chlodna 33. In the early weeks of June 1941, the orphans, teachers, and doctor Korczak himself witnessed, with rapt attention, the Germans troops marching across the center of wards towards the Vistula river. Some of the tanks were covered with german letters, such as ‘Stalin, wir kommen’ (Stalin, we will come). The professor, a no stranger to world history, was confident in his belief that a gamble to conquer Russia would play hell with Hitler in a way as with Napoleon one hundred thirty years before. In the next months, the news of German runaway successes in the East and the first accounts of the mass slaughter of the Jews in the USSR brought nothing more than frustration and depression to the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, drowned in the typhus epidemic at the time.
The same summer 1941 Germans unexpectedly permitted the opening of twenty schools for Jewish children in the ghetto, with six thousand pupils to come in. Korczak orphanage would leave Chlodna 33 as early as October 1941 and the building itself would survive the war to be demolished later. On August 6-7 1944 in the midst of the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans would take the Chlodna street with a massacre of two hundred civilians in the backyards of the former gymnasium. Their bodies would be burned open air on the same spot a few days later. In 1984 a stone memorial would be erected on the place of the former male gymnasium and temporary residence of Korczak orphanage from November 1940 until October 1941.
“In this place, in the building demolished in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, the State Merchant Gymnasium and Administrative Lyceum named after J. and M. Roesler stood, led by the educator of great heart and mind, Szczepan Bońkowski.”
THE LAST REFUGE: SIENNA 16
As late as October 1941, the eleventh month subsequent to the unwanted move from custom-made orphanage at Krochmalna 92, professor Korczak was now shattered with a piece of news. A month had passed since the German decree on reducing the territory of the Warsaw ghetto and the current residence at Chlodna 33 was now, once again, beyond the undisputed boundaries. A new move was to be assembled within only four days: a far more challenging (than a year before, had been presented by Korczak as an adventure) undertaking for two hundred exhausted children. The principal succeeded in finding an empty building at Sienna 16, the former pre-war residence of the ‘GMACH PRACOWNIKÓW HANDLOWYCH I PRZEMYSŁOWYCH’ (Union of Trade, Industrial and office workers). Prior to the occupation, the area had been appreciated as a prestigious district in the center of Warsaw, now within the south limits of the so-called ‘small ghetto’. A new refuge was smaller and less suitable for an orphanage than the residence of the gymnasium at Chlodna 33 and in evident contrast with Krochmalna 92. The business club at Sienna 16 had only one bathroom for two hundred children and adults, yet doctor Korczak worked out the inclusion of a small erection in the backyard for the personnel.
For all constrained conditions, abnormal malnutrition, and progressive dynamics of diseases, dedicated personnel had fixed up the orphanage with minimal living conditions. A spacious premise on the ground floor of the former club was now reshaped into a dining room and an activity room in the daytime and a bedroom area at night. The educational program was scheduled with shifts. Young educated used to render assistance within a small kitchen, lent helping hands in clean-up: for all these gaining points. They used to spend their free time playing with toys and singing in the choir. The professor had been progressively frustrated with the increasing infantile mortality in the Warsaw ghetto and scenes with children passing away on the streets used to devitalize the old doctor in his middle sixties. In Korczak’s judgment, the little residence of the ghetto had a right to die with dignity at the very least, yet there was a little dignity in dying of starvation and disease on the pavement. The Sienna 16 orphanage was neighbored with social service, aimed to assist breastfeeding mothers. Professor Korczak used to observe some care recipients and provided his colleges with studies, a passive means of making a contribution to medicine.
With the onset of May 1942, doctor Korczak, an elderly man exhausted by systematic malnutrition, and psychologically depressed, set up a notebook. All while spending nights within a shared bedroom area next to his pupils, the professor used to make notes, conventionally much more philosophical than eventful. During the same period of time, Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Warsaw Judenrat, appealed to all adults to perform one’s best efforts to make sure the survival of children during these terrible times. On that very day Judenrat gave out the installation of children’s playgrounds within the ghetto and as late as June 7, 1942, Janusz Korczak was among 500 attendees of the inauguration of the first playground next to the office of Judenrat. The first weeks of July witnessed an eruption of violence towards men and women, regarded by Germans as ‘smugglers’, in fact, the last tiny line of supply in the ghetto. It was the building at Sienna 16, that doctor Korczak and his children left towards the infamous Umschlagplatz in the northern part of the ghetto in early August with a one-way route.
The construction survived (in contrast with the majority of the erections around) the Warsaw Uprising and the battle for Warsaw and a number of public services would make use of it in the after-war years. As later as the 1950s a whole city district would be demolished to make space for an upcoming building of ‘Pałac Kultury i Nauki’ (Palace of Culture and Science), the debated symbol of the communist era in Warsaw. At the present time, one can find a number of monuments next to the former location of the Sienna 16 building, which honors Janusz Korczak. On August 5, 2012 (the seventies anniversary of the liquidation of the orphanage), a memorial plate was inaugurated within a wall of Laika Theatre.
W tym miejscu przy ul. Sienna 16, stal gmach Towarzystwa Pracowników Handlowych m. Warszawy (zbud 1912-1914) w którym ostatnia wojenna siedzibę miał DOM SIEROT JANUSZA KORCZAKA / HENRYKA GOLDSZMITA. Stad 5 sierpnia 1942 podczas akcji likwidacyjnej getta doktor Korczak, jego współpracownicy i wychowankowie zostali wypędzeni na Umschlagplatz i wywiezieni do obozu zagłady w Treblince.
At this place at ul. Sienna 16, stood a building of the Society of Commercial Workers for the City of Warsaw (built 1912-1914) in which was the last war-time residence of the DOM SIEROT by JANUSZ KORCZAK / HENRYK GOLDSZMIT. From here on August 5, 1942, during the liquidation of the ghetto, Dr. Korczak, his associates, and pupils were driven to the Umschlagplatz and deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Two hundred meters distanced from this memorial plate, another monument to Janusz Korczak in Warsaw, pays tribute to an appraised pediatrician. The architectural composition, inaugurated in 2006 (Symbolically on June 1, the International Children’s day), depicts professor Korczak with six children standing on a small hill, paved with bricks from the warsaw streets. The doctor and his orphans stand beneath two symbolic trees, which offshoots form a silhouette of a Jewish menorah.
THE LAST DAY AND DEATH OF JANUSZ KORCZAK
In the space of almost three years of occupation, the physical well-being of professor Korczak had been materially worsening and the age-related changes had become more intense in virtue of pathological malnutrition and psychological depression. An elderly doctor apprehended the approach of death, the fact he used to underline on the pages of one’s notebook. Along with that, Korczak hated the idea that his death would leave the orphans without care. On July 22, 1942, the birthday of Janusz Korczak, the head of the Warsaw Judenrat Adam Czerniakow worriedly witnessed the besiege of the so-called ‘small ghetto’ with armed units and he accepted the German ultimatum to ‘send’ all the Jews in the ghetto, regardless of sex and age, ‘to the East’. All while the residents were trying to figure out the meaning of the crimeful nazi euphemism, the first list of 6000 doomed men, women, and children were to be executed. The Germans made an ambivalent response to Czerniakow’s appeal to exclude children from the evacuation lists.
In late July 1942 doctor Korczak had to experience a round-up at the height of one of the scheduled mass actions for deportation. The elderly professor had a close shave of being bustled into a cattle box unless a Jewish policeman picked him out of the crowd and assisted him in getting out. With one’s eyes open to the grave persistence of the day-to-day deportations by the Germans, Korczak gave it try to incept an idea (with a help of his acquaintance in Judenrat) of forming a tailored enterprise with his orphans as workers. The very last day of the well-known pediatrician and literator did not slip into historical obscurity insomuch as a number of witnesses (who survived the war and someone who did not) have left recollections about the sorrowful march of doctor Korczak and his orphans towards Umschlagplatz. Along with that the date of this expulsion from Sienna 16 and the last trip to the Treblinka death camp is a matter of dispute between 5 and 6 August 1942.
On his last day professor, Korczak awoke with the dawn as per usual. In dramatic contrast to 1939, 1940, and 1941 and the former German notifications in advance, the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto was put into execution on a shocking basis for any taken area. On that day, the Germans made up their mind to ‘evacuate’ the child care center of the ‘small ghetto’. In this vein, a whistle and the German “Alle Juden Raus!” (All Jews out) were to be noticed far more beyond Sienna 16. The citizens of the ‘Children’s Republic’ were given fifteen minutes of closure time. A column of 192 children and ten adults (a few of them were themselves the former educatees of the orphanage) with doctor Korczak in the head (on his last day he wore his old army uniform), made a move across the streets of the ghetto.
A woebegone procession of the Children’s orphanage from Siena 16 cut across the so-called ‘small ghetto’ a few stones’ throw away from the ‘Bersohn and Bauman children’s hospital’ and made its way to the infamous wooden footbridge, known as the ‘Bridge of sighs’ to cross the Chlodna street, a few buildings next to their former shelter at Chlodna 33. Once found ourselves on the streets of ‘large ghetto’, a little army of Korczak took course along Karmelicka, then Dzielna (passing the Pawiak prison) and Zamenhofa, and finally, crossed two cordons at Stawki street to be pushed to the ‘Umschlagplatz’. According to different preserved recollections on witnessing the column, the total march from Sienna 16 to the destination point lasted from two to four hours. The famous Polish pianist and holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman and Irena Sendler were among those, who had come in view of the event.
192 caretakers of the Korczak’s orphanage were not the only children, who were rounded in narrow space in front of the pre-war transport depot. On that August day of 1942 up to 4000 pupils of the child care institutions were frustrated to the extent of not guessing what happens next. Doctor Korczak refused (an appeal of his acquaintance from Judenrat) to leave the Umschlagplatz in order to try to make a difference by administrative means. The elderly professor was not that man, who could abandon his children. As the deportation routine ran on, the German officer in charge of the process commanded the ‘loading’ of Korczak’s Children’s republic. One of the witnesses (Nachum Remba would be gassed to death on November 3, 1943) would recollect that children and adults calmly proceeded into the wagons of the train four abreast. None of the pupils or tutors on that trainload survived the Treblinka death camp to tell the world about the last hours of doctor Janusz Korczak, who, all but certain, did not leave his orphans until one’s last minute. The after-war years witnessed incredible stories and versions of the salvage of the professor, yet they all have been fated to be a little more than newspaper calls.
I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.