Role Models & Heroes: Janus Korczak (2015)

By April 21, 2015 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models

 The following essay on Janus Korczak was written by Liana Hitts, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Liana Hitts
April 26, 2015

Though heroes and role models are often seen as being the same, they actually are quite different. A hero is a person who, in the opinion of others, has model qualities, or has performed a courageous or valiant act and is regarded as a model or ideal, such as saving someone’s life or sacrificing something that is important to you for someone else. Role models are people who you personally admire and want to be like in one or more ways. They may not necessarily be famous or looked-up to by others.

I have selected Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator, and a pediatrician, who sacrificed his own life during the Holocaust, dying with the children that he tried to protect. He is a true hero for the sacrifices that he made and a role model for the accomplishments that he achieved in his lifetime.

Janusz Korczak to me is actually both a role model and a hero. I see him as a hero because he sacrificed his life, to die with the children he took care of. That to me is very heroic. He is a role model because he sets a good example for anybody to follow because he took up the work at an orphanage even though it wasn’t necessary for him to do so. In that, he thought of others and how to help them in any ways possible.

Korczak accomplished many things throughout his lifetime. His story starts in Warsaw, 1878, born into the family of Józef Goldszmit, a respected lawyer, with a very educated family. Though he was born into an observant, Jewish family, later in his life he became agnostic, and did not really believe in the existence of God. Therefore, he did not believe in forcing religion upon kids, his orphans. His father got sick in 1890 and was sent to a mental hospital where he died six years later in April of 1896. Janusz was not born as Janusz. He was born as Henryk Goldszmit. He didn’t really change his name. Janusz Korczak was his pen name. He wrote books about his medical experiences.

From 1898 to 1904 he studied medicine at the University of Warsaw. After his graduation, he became a pediatrician and started working at a children’s hospital located in Warsaw. After the war he continued his medical practice in Warsaw.

In 1907–1908 Korczak went to study in Berlin. In 1911–1912 he became a director of Dom Sierot in Warsaw, the orphanage of his own design for Jewish children. He took Stefania Wilczyńska as his assistant, a woman he met while working for the Orphan’s Society in 1909. In his new orphanage he formed a kind of republic for children with its own small parliament, court, and a newspaper. This was important because the “republic” gave the children a sense of belonging and a place where their voices could be heard and matter. He reduced his other duties as a doctor.

In 1926 Korczak arranged for the children of the Dom Sierot to begin their own newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly attachment to the daily Polish-Jewish Newspaper Nasz Przegląd (Our Review). In these years, his secretary was the well-known, Polish novelist Igor Newerly.

During the 1930s he had his own radio program where he promoted and popularized the rights of children. Between 1934–1936 Korczak traveled every year to Palestine and visited its kibbutzim, which led to some anti-Semitic commentaries in the Polish press. Still, he refused to move to Palestine even when Stefania Wilczyńska went to live there in 1938. She returned to Poland in May, 1939, unable to fit in, and resumed her role as Headmistress.

In 1939, when World War II erupted, Korczak volunteered for duty in the Polish Army but was refused due to his age. He witnessed the army’s takeover of Warsaw. When the Germans created the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, his orphanage was forced to move from its building, Dom Sierot at Krochmalna 92 to the Ghetto. Korczak moved in with them.

On August 5th or 6th 1942, German soldiers came to collect the 192 orphans and a dozen staff members, to transport them to Treblinka, an extermination camp. Korczak had been offered sanctuary on the “Aryan Side” by soldiers but turned it down repeatedly, saying that he could not abandon his children. On August 5th he again refused offers of sanctuary, insisting that he would go with the children. The children were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy.

Korczak stayed with his children until the very end. He died on August 10th, 1942 at the age of 64 at the Treblinka extermination camp, but he was very noble and kept his head held high even as he was being killed. That is something so remarkable that many wouldn’t even want to think about if they were in his shoes.

Korczak’s story is truly inspiring. It should make people stop and think about how grateful they are to be living in today’s modern society. No one, and I mean no one, would want to be in his shoes. There are still many Holocaust survivors alive today and you can ask them about their experiences if you meet one. My grandmother is one of them.

Janusz Korczak is a hero for helping poor, powerless little orphans from the goodness of his heart, not looking for a financial reward. He is my role model because I personally want to be a doctor when I am older. According to my research, he was a fantastic doctor and I think that that is amazing. The final reason is that he marched with his head held high, even as he was walking to his death. He stayed optimistic until the very end. I admire that. These values apply to both a hero and a role model, some of them more hero-like and some more characteristic of a role model but I think that both are applicable. Janusz Korczak is the true definition of a hero and a role model for me. Knowing about him has given my life more value and for that, he is my hero.