Janusz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) on 22 July 1878, into a Jewish family that was quite well-integrated and close to the Polish culture. He was very attached to his parents and he was deeply affected by the passing of his father, a famous lawyer who died in 1896 as a consequence of a serious mental disease.
From then on, Henryk would have to support his mother, who would die, prematurely as well, of typhus in 1920. To his parents, Korczak dedicated a book: Sam na sam z Bogiem. Modlitwy tych, ktòrzy sie nie modla (Face to face with God. Prayers for those who do not pray, 1922). In another writing, the “teaching tale” Spowiedz motyla (Confession of a butterfly, 1914), he hinted at his complicated family bonds.
Korczak was a figure characteried by a huge need to donate love, while as to receiving it, as writer and essayist Francesco M. Cataluccio pointed out in a portrait of Korczak, “he cared less: a smile and the end of a cry sufficed to him”. Korczak founded an orphanage, a great family for him, comprising coworkers, assistants and many poor children who had lost their parents. Another key decision of Korczak was not to get married and not to have children, motivated by a bitter consideration: «A slave has no right to have children. I, a Polish Jew under the Zarist occupation, (in 1911) chose to serve children and their cause» (as he wrote in a letter to Mieczysław Zybertal of 30 March 1937).
In 1899, Korczak-Goldszmit started to study Medicine at the University of Warsaw, but another great interests of his was Literature: he was the author of theatrical scripts and dramas signed under the pseudonym of Janusz Korczak, who was the hero of a popular Polish novel on the life of commander Jan Sobieski. This pseudonym (that also served the purpose of concealing his Jewish identity) became then his official name.
In 1901, Korczak published his first feuilleton: Dzieci Ulicy (Street Children). In 1904 he published the novel Dziecko Salonu (The Salon's Child) that made him famous. In the meanwhile he had different study stays in Berlin, Paris and London. In 1909, he was arrested for his political ideas in favour of Polish independence and in jail he got to know the famous Polish socialist sociologist Ludwik Krzywicki. Once freed, he got in touch with the Society of Help of the Orphans, entering its executive branch, and dealing with the creation of a model Orphanage for the Jewish children. This was his chosen form of political-social commitment, which would have to make it possible for him to save many children and build a future for his country other than for his people dispersed in the diaspora.
On 7 October 1912, together with educator Stefania Wilczyńska, his highly esteemed colleague, he opened an Orphanage in 92 Krochmalna street, in the midst of the Jewish quarter(in Warsaw there were then 350,000 Jews out of 1,300 inhabitants). This was a crowded and poor neighbourhood, yet characterized by an intense cultural life. For example there was the birth house of writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), who once wrote: «My paternal house in Krochmalna street in Warsaw was a study house, a tribunal, a prayer house, a place where tales were told and also weddings and Chassidic banquets were held. (…) I heard from my father, a rabbi, and my mother, all the answers that faith in God may suggest to those who doubt or seek the truth. In our house and in many others, I understood that eternal questions were more topical than the breaking news you would read on a yiddish newspaper».
The House of the Orphan (Dom Sierot), founded by Korczak and inaugurated on 27 February 1913, was a true “society of children”, organized according to the principles of justice, brotherhood, equality of the rights and duties of pupils and educators. Corporal punishments were banished, as all violent methods, which at the time also comprised the deprivation of food. Korczak in 1923 defined such correctional methods as “criminal punishments”. In 1914 he was called back to war and left the lead of the orphanage to his colleague for some time. From 1915 and 1917, he worked in an Ukrainan institute for children near Kyev. Here it is where he concluded his main pedagogic work. If until this point he had served the Russian army, from 1919 he would have to wear the Polish uniform, against Russia. He worked in a hospital for infectious diseases in Łódz.
As Poland restored its independence, Korczak proved to be very active in terms of initiatives and publications. In 1921 he established a Centre for Summer holidays for the children of the House of Orphans in Gocławek, near Warsaw. He taught the children to deal with gardening and agriculture, theorizing the importance of work for growth. He also published many books for childhood: Król Marcius Pierwszy (King Matt I) and Król Marcius na Wyspie Bezludnej (King Matt in the Desert Island), both in 1923. But he achieved the greatest success with a text for adults and children: Kiedy Znów Będę Mały (When I am a child again), favourite book among others of the future Nobel Prize for Literature. Czesław Miłosz. It is a kind of Peter Pan (1904), albeit without the refusal of maturity.
In 1926 he created a magazine for children as an addup to the Jewish newspaper, and he started collaborating with radio, where from 1934 he would run the program “Small chats of an old doctor”.
In 1929 he published his world-famous manifesto of children's rights: Prawo dziecka do szacunku (The Child's Rights to Respect), a text which is still matchless. He started to teach Pedagogy at the Free University of Warsaw and he published a “scientific book” with very advanced content: Prawidła życia (The rules of life). In 1931 he staged at the Atheneum theatre a sensational satyrical show: Senat Szalenców (The Madmen's Senate), starring great actor Stefan Jaracz as the protagonist, whose staging the postwar communist authorities would authorize only in 1978.
Korczak, in June 1934, went to Palestine to pay visit to his old alumni and coworkers who had settled down in the kibbutz of Ein Harod. In Israel some of his pupils have survived, after being saved by them, as orphans, from criminality and life in the street. Some of them have remembered them in works written in the aftermath of war, always highlighting his dedication and deep knowledge of the needs and potentialities of children.
In 1939, at the outbreak of Second World War, despite several invitations to settle abroad, the pedagogist refused to abandon his children. In October 1940 the Germans ordered all Warsaw Jews to move to the ghetto, which would contain up to 400,000 people. Despite Korczak's opposition, also the orphans whom he cared about would be compelled to dwel in it. They were lodged in the old School of Commerce (ulica Chłodna, 33) where despite the isolation and seclusion, children were protected enough. Korczak provided them with the food from the black market and exerted all his influence to obtain from outside the funds necessary to ensure the children's survival. From 1941, the orphanage was moved to the old Club of Merchants (ulica Śliska, 9) and the children's life conditions worsened.
Now the ghetto is the antichamber of deportation. Nearly everyday, there are roundups. Now ill, Korczak tries to set up a fortune accommodation for the 600 people who cram his refuge, where, starting from May 1942, he started to weite his night diary. Miraculously saved from destruction, this diary was published for the first time in Poland in 1958, curated by writer Igor Newerly, and provides one of the most lucid and remarkable pieces of testimony from the Warsaw Ghetto. From it we learn that, upon the pedagogue's inspiration, one of the last collective gestures of his children, on 8 June, was to solemnly pledge to “cultivate the love of the human beings, justice, truth and work”. Korczak's children have been able to keep their sense of having a future until the end, “as if Evil were not there and had nothing to do with them”.
On 18 July, before the House of Orphans was shut, Korczak got his little guests to stage The courier by Indian writer Robindranath Tagore, an author forbidden by the Nazi censorship. It is the story of an ill child, closed in his room, who dies dreaming of running in the fields: «to get the children accostumed with the idea of quietly accepting death». Although he had been recognized as Polish by the authorities and authorized not to follow his children into the death camp of Treblinka, Korczak chose to leave with them. He died, perhaps of pain, during the transportation, on 5 August 1942.