Role Models & Heroes: Janus Korczak (2014)

By May 21, 2014 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models

The following essay about Janusz Korczak was written by Benjamin Bottner, 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 last component 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.

October 11, 2014

I chose Janusz Korczak to be my role model/hero because I think he is a great man. He spent his whole life working with children, especially orphans.
I’m very interested in Janusz Korczak’s life because of two reasons. #1: I was an orphan and lived in an orphanage. Janusz Korczak spent much of his life working with children in the orphanage that he ran on Krochmenela St. in Warsaw. #2: He believed in fair treatment for children. I believe in this too.

I discovered Janusz Korczak when I was in Israel last summer. I needed some English books so my mother took me to a bookstore. I bought a book called Kaytek the Wizard, written by Korczak, because the main character Kaytek is the name of one of my friends. Kaytek was a boy who, in the eyes of adults, except his grandmother, couldn’t do anything right. He was always getting himself in trouble. One day, he realized that he possessed magical powers. All Kaytek had to do was to wish something and it would come true. This is every child’s wish.

The story was great and I read Korczak’s bio on the back of the book. It said he ran an orphanage in Warsaw, Poland. The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and in 1940 they forced Korczak’s orphanage to move to the Warsaw ghetto. Korczak’s friends offered him refuge, but he insisted he stay with the children. On August 6, 1942, Janusz Korczak and the children went to their death in the Treblinka death camp. They were believed to be gassed upon arrival.

Janusz Korczak was born as Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw, Poland on July 22, 1878. He believed in children’s rights from the beginning and often noticed the children on the street. His family were secular Polish Jews. He grew up in a wealthy household. When he was around 12 his father became sick, and was admitted to a mental hospital, and died 7 years later. To help his family, he started tutoring students. Janusz Korczak first studied medicine, but was always fascinated by children, especially street children. They became his passion. He wrote about them in novels, and after practicing medicine for a couple of years, he dedicated his life to making their lives better.

When Korczak was 20, he entered a literary contest, and used the name Janusz Korczak instead of his own, Henryk Goldzmit. He is better known as his pseudonym Janusz Korczak, a name taken from a 19th century Polish novel.

After graduating medical school Korczak worked as a pediatrician at a Jewish children’s hospital in Warsaw. While working at the hospital, Korczak took a year’s leave and studied in Berlin and worked for the Orphan’s Society.

In 1912 Janusz Korczak became the director of Dom Siriyot, an orphanage he designed for Jewish orphans. He remained the director until his death. Janusz Korczak believed in the value of bettering the world – tikun olam. When he began running his orphanage he bettered the lives of those children by far. Before they had to beg and starve on the streets, but after Dr. Korczak took them in, they had a place to sleep, three meals a day, and they were away from the elements. He introduced the idea of progressive orphanages and schools and he trained teachers and stood up for children’s rights in the courts.

In 1919 he wrote his famous book “How to Love a Child.” It was like a constitution for children’s rights. His ideas were put into practice in his progressive orphanages. A progressive orphanage is an orphanage where the children’s feelings and thoughts are listened to and where staff members always show love, care and respect to orphans – forgiveness is the golden rule.

Janusz Korczak wrote two books of fiction. Besides “Kaytek the Wizard”, he wrote another great story called “King Matt the First”. The story of King Matt reflects Korczak’s desire for children to have more control over their lives. King Matt was a 12 year-old child when his father died and he inherited the throne. He ruled very wisely and very foolishly too – but he always learned from his mistakes. In his orphanage, just like in King Matt’s story, Korczak had a children’s parliament where they would make many decisions themselves. They ran their own newspaper too. I later learned that these books were the books that Korczak wrote in the orphanage.

Korczak’s orphanages (he also directed one for Christian orphans) were unique because of how they were run. For example, if an orphan broke the code of conduct there were no harsh punishments but the child was taught a lesson not to do that again. This rule applied to everyone in the orphanage including Korczak. The orphanage was like none other. It was basically a democracy. There was a parliament, and a judicial system. Korckzak and the orphans also made a set of laws that everybody had to follow in the orphanage. This made it safe for everybody who lived in the orphanages.

In those days children were to be seen, not heard. If you stepped out of line in any what way you may have been beaten. Korczak did not agree with this sort of punishment. He believed that if you talked to a child and made them feel like they were heard, then you could really teach the child what he/she did wrong. This method is called progressive education. Janusz Korczak liked this idea very much. He also believed that forcing religion on children was wrong.

Janusz Korczak stands out to me because of the values that we share. A big value that we share is courage. When my family came from Europe to America, they had to have courage. They had to leave their home, and go somewhere new, to a new culture, language, and way of life.

Janusz Korczak was very courageous. He knew that he would be killed in a gas chamber, and despite being offered the chance of safety, he went with his children to die with them. This is what I believe to be a courageous act. He showed a different kind of courage that most of us will ever know.

I think my courage is more ordinary. I have courage because I am willing to go first before anyone else. I am also not afraid to talk to people and ask for what I want and need. I had fears when I was a little kid, usually with sports and physical activities, and my mom would whisper into my ear: “You are very courageous, see what you are doing, and look what you can do.” This helped calm me down. I was about nine when I started climbing trees and poles. This was the time where I really started to lose my fears and show more courage.

Another value that both Janusz Korczak and I would agree on is community. My mother has shown her value of community by sending me to a school that emphasizes community and core values. Janusz Korczak made a community in his orphanages. The orphanages (a bit like my school) had a set of core values, and everyone knew everyone. When a new child came to the orphanage, Korczak would put another child, who was at the orphanage a year or so, in charge of the newcomer, and would help them around for the first few weeks. I have helped my school community by doing community service and working with younger students. I helped them with their academics, played with them and got them to talk about themselves and tried to be a good role model.

Janusz Korczak believed in bettering the world/tikun olam by improving the lives of orphan children. I too believe in the idea of tikun olam. I have worked in soup kitchens, visited Senior Centers, volunteered to help out after Hurricane Sandy and I donate to charities such as Heifer International for every holiday occasion. Bettering the world is an every day act that we should all do. It means showing kindness to strangers, trying to see others beyond yourself, and most importantly showing kindness and respect to those closest to you.

These are three values that I know Janusz Korczak and I share – courage, community, and bettering the world/tikun olam.

The end of Korczak’s life demonstrated how he lived his life. He was so dedicated to making life better for these children that he was willing to die with them. If you knew that you would die, would you leave the children? Anyone would probably say “No!!!”, but I think this is a hard question. It does seem heartless, but the Nazis were scary people. One flip of the wrist and you would go to the gas chamber. These children were not even yours. Humans (like any other animal) have a strong instinct to live. Why not? So my big question is this: If you were in Janusz Korczak’s shoes and you knew you might be killed, would you leave these children and go to safety, or would you stay with them and die? This is something I couldn’t stop thinking about when I was reading his biography.

I think Korczak’s choice to go to the gas chambers with the kids was an act of bravery, love, and dedication to these children. To me he is someone, who has done a huge tikun olam because his actions are so inspiring. It’s intriguing that someone could be so selfless.

Janusz Korczak bettered the world of orphaned children by taking them in from the streets, giving them a home, food, and LOVE. He believed and fought for children’s rights, emphasizing how children should be treated.

I know I’m only a kid and haven’t done that much to make my mark on the world. What Janusz Korczak’s did was big – bigger than life as my mother says. I don’t know if I will achieve such a big accomplishment in my life like his, but I think he is a good role model to follow no matter how big or small a mark we make on this world.