Dr. Yanush Korczak

by Alina Kentof

based on A Field of Buttercups by Joseph Hyams


This play takes place in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1940s and tells the story of Dr.Yanush Korczak, educator and leader of the Warsaw Orphanage. Given a chance to leave his children behind and seek refuge from the Nazis, Korczak made the decision to stay with his children. He was, consequently, killed, along with the children, at the concentration camp, Treblinka. Today, a sculpture of Korczak and his children stands outside of the orphanage as a reminder of his courage and devotion to the children.


The play begins with a focus on the left side of the stage. Children are sleeping restlessly on old mattresses in very dim light. Doctor Korczak is sitting on a chair at center stage.

Dr. K: How much longer can we hold on? The children, are so hungry--their faces are sunken, yellow; their bellies are swollen--eyes that do not cry. They are all eyes! They see, they witness. . . that is all they can do!

At right stage, a group of children prepare for the Saturday concert with Ms. Stepha, sitting on the floor, on their knees, in two rows.

Stepha: (Stands in front of children) OK children, we must get ready for our Saturday concert. Let's not waste time, line up and we'll try it one more time. This time, with more feeling in your voices--and I want to hear everyone! (Children stand)

Two children from group: Ms. Stepha, I cannot sing. I am so hungry.

Children: Yes. . .Yes. . .(saying it at different times)

Stepha: We all are! That is why we must sing. It will feel better if you do. Now remember, sing loud, so your voices can be heard in Heaven!

Two children from the audience come up on stage with a bundle, holding their hands. Dr. K turns to them, rises, and places his hands on their shoulders.

Child One: I'm hungry.

Child Two (Younger): Me too. My brother said you will help us.

Child One: My mother--she said I should come here. She has no food for us. She is very sick. . . .

Dr. K: Yes. (silence) Come with me, children. I want you to meet your new family. (Dr. K takes them to singing group.)

Dr. K: Children, I want you to meet two new needed members of our choir.

Stepha: It seems we are all needy these days! Come and join us. I am sure you know the song. (Children sing Ani Ma'amin.)

There is a knock, and Dr. K turns toward the noise. Choir children sit. A girl enters.

Girl: Dr. Korczak? I am afraid, there are so many dead people in the street. Some are naked, their clothes taken by others. I am so cold, but I cannot take the clothes off the dead! My mother--she is there too. . . (With anger) How long will their bodies lay there? Why are they left there?

Dr. K: (Puts hands on her shoulders) They will be buried, my child, they will be remembered. I promise you. Come, you look so tired. Let me find you a place to rest. (Girl takes Dr. K's hand and follows Dr. K to sleeping group on left of stage. Dr. K covers girl with a blanket.)

Dr. K moves to center stage.

Dr. K: The night with its nightmares! The day with its nightmares! I must not give room for despair. We must live! We must react! That is our only way to resist! The Germans will succeed when we stop reacting! They took our books, yes, our books were burned--destroyed. . . Our badge of honor became a badge of shame, our bodies--so limited, wasting away! Our children--the defenders of our future--orphans. . . . and I am their leader--their father. My poor little orphans! Perhaps I am an orphan, too? Maybe we are all the orphans of our father in Heaven. Could they have killed Him, too? Forgive me, God, I am trying to do the best that I can! Here in the ghetto on 300 calories a day, we conduct classes, concerts, choirs. The children live by an honor system. We try to lead a civilized life. Our rabbis knew. They said, In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.

Abrasha, a boy musician carrying a violin case, knocks on Dr. K's door.

Dr. K: Come in. I see you are a musician.

Abrasha comes forward, but doesn't respond.

Dr. K: What is your name?

Abrasha: Abrasha, sir.

Dr. K: Let me see your violin.

Abrasha moves back as if attacked.

Dr. K: That's all right. Will you play a tune for me?

Abrasha: (Silent with head down) The S.S. killed my mother and father.

Dr. K: I understand, Abrasha. It's hard to play without love, but your music can be your protest, your fight back! Can you understand me, Abrasha?

Abrasha: (Silent)

Dr. K: (Puts hands on Abrasha's shoulders) You can practice here whenever you want--after study hall that is--and if you want, you can give a recital before our play and choir next Saturday.

Abrasha: (Silent--then looks up) Can I play a piece I made up?

Dr. K: How wonderful! Of course! What is its name?

Abrasha: A Prayer of a Jewish Child. (begins to play a song)

Another knock on the door. This time, Dr. K rises slowly and goes to door.

Dr. K: (With a sigh.) What's is your name, my son?

Misha: Misha, sir. . . they took my father yesterday!

Dr. K: They took many fathers, my child.

Misha: Why? He did not do anything bad. He was a good man. He believed in God. Why doesn't God help him? Why did He let my mother die? Doesn't God believe in us?

Dr. K: I wish I had an answer, but I don't! Except--God didn't kill your parents- man did! God gave us free choice. Remember your studies in the Cheder? Man has a free choice. The Tree of Knowledge is here with us all of the time. We must know what to pick. We must choose carefully.

Misha: (Looks down) No, Dr. K, I don't have a choice! (To audience, extending hands) I don't even have an apple.

Dr. K: Come, boys. I will give you something to eat and put you to bed. Tomorrow, you will meet the others. (Calls on Stepha) Stepha! We have two new boys. Their names are Misha and Abrasha.

Stepha: (Smiles, extending hand) Come, let's have a glass of tea together and I even have a piece of bread for you.

They go to a table which is in back of sleeping children and sit. Stepha on one side, and the boys in back, facing audience. Stepha gives them food. On the table is a tea kettle, a few cups, plates, knife and a piece of bread.

Dr. K: (Walks to front of stage.) Such children we have! And Stepha - what would I have done without her devotion and love? I must check on the others. (Goes to bedside, coughing softly, and covers the children. Dr. K sits on chair next to the sleeping children) My feet--I don't know how much longer I will be able. . . . (falls asleep in chair) Footsteps are heard, followed by a loud knocking at the door. Stepha wakes Dr. K.

Stepha: I think I saw a squad of soldiers down below.

Dr. K: (Rises, Stepha leaves) Who is there?

German Soldier: (On side of stage) Untersturnfuehrer Schnider!

Dr. K: What can I do for you?

German: Herr Doktor, it's me, Erwin, Erwin Schnider.

Dr. K: (To audience) He says it with familiarity. Should I know him?

Dr. K opens the door or just steps up on stage.

German: We must talk. Where can we talk?

Dr. K: (Points) The children are sleeping, every space is used, there is no room except here.

German: You don't remember me? I was one of your orphans on Cedrowa Street.

Dr. K: Yes, the little German boy whose parents died in a car accident. You cried then, feeling lost, unloved, betrayed. Yes, now. . . (almost touches him, but stops) in the S.S. uniform?

German: Yes, but this is not a social call! (Pause) You must realize that you and the children--just like me--must help establish order in the new society. We, Germans, have a great plan for the future; in order to bring it about, we must all sacrifice! Nothing must interfere with our schedule! You, Herr Doktor, must be moved to the east where you will be more useful. We are going to move you, and the children.

Dr. K: No! I will not take the children to their deaths! We heard about those resettlements in the east--in Heaven! Or is it your hell?

German: (Smiles) Herr Doktor, I wish you would not listen to those awful and untrue rumors. Believe me, you are not going to die! I am sure you can appreciate our task. It is not easy for us to efficiently move such a mass of people from Point A to Point B. It requires a great deal of planning of effort. I was assured personally, that you will only be resettled. After all, you are a famous Jewish Doctor and educator. I am offering you an opportunity to save yourself and your children. It was even agreed that you and the children will not have an armed guard on your way. Each child will receive bread and marmalade. You will not be harmed! I give you my word, the word of a German officer and a gentleman!! (Clicks his heels, hand up as if taking a vow)

Dr. K: All right, we will be ready. August 7th?

German: Then it is agreed. (Extends hand to shake. Dr. K does not shake his hand.)

Dr. K: Not yet, we will shake hands after August 7th, when we are resettled. (Leaves stage area and moves to far left)

Dr. K: Ste-pha! (Stepha comes in)

Stepha: What did he want? Who is he?

Dr. K: Remember our little boy, Erwin Schnider, from Cedrowa Street?

Stepha: (Trying to remember) Oh, yes, the little skinny boy. The one that the children did not choose on either team for the soccer game. He wanted to be on a team, any team!

Dr. K: He is now! That S.S. man was our little orphan! He wants us to get ready for resettlement August 7th. That will give us enough time to prepare the children.

Stepha: Oh, dear God, what has become of our world?

Dr. K: Smile, Stepha, tell jokes; the children must not know. We must keep them happy. We must be happy for them. (Long pause. Puts hands on Stepha's shoulders.) Will you get the children together? I want to speak to them.

(German alone on stage in front of the audience, walks back and forth then stops on side, slides of Germany in the background.)

German: We, Germans, are not guilty. The problem existed long before us. If we want to create a better tomorrow, we must all cooperate. We must obey orders! Orders will bring order to the world! We cannot plant flowers before we take care of the soil and fertilize it. The fragrance of flowers comes only after the fertilization. We are the generation with that task! The coming generation will thank us and praise us! Our Führer, Hitler, (kicks heels and heils) has brought employment to an unemployed nation; honor to a self-hating people. Now I belong to a team, the greatest team. We are united! For the first time in years, we feel proud to be Germans. There is a feeling of greatness and expectation. (Pause) True, there are some unpleasant things happening. There is death, as in all wars, but we must learn to expect sacrifices! Did Dr. K understand me? I don't mean him any harm. To be a good soldier and a good German, one must obey orders. It is not up to me to judge my superiors! If each of us judged his superiors, how would we achieve our unity? (Looking at slides) I look at my comrades, their shiny uniforms and combat medals, and I feel a sense of belonging, of strength! I am not any more the frightened little boy I was. I am not an orphan. I belong to our fatherland, the winning team! Do you understand me Dr. K? (Last sentence slowly looking to other side of stage where Dr. K is sitting.)

Dr. K: (Dr. K stands alone on stage in front of the audience, slides of the Holocaust in the background.) A true Jewish spirit--volunteer! We must volunteer to go to our deaths with our children. With our old and young, we shall go--as one. What will this look like in the future? What will they say about us? Will anyone understand? Would anyone realize that our fight, our unique rebellion has come to its end? We lived like human beings, in a place without humanity! We kept our Godly image. 360,000 Jews in the streets! Typhus, hunger, death! 200 Jewish orphans ignoring reality - daring to live like free men! A time of death, death of the whole Jewish community. Our Father in heaven, you created man us out of the dust of the earth. Now, when man plays God, he makes dust of your creation! Man has free choice--I told one of them--but I have my doubts. When you love, you get involved. You interfere. Our Father in heaven, our Tattee! How can you be so uninvolved? Be just an observer, a looker, all the way to the end? What about Your choice? (Pause) Did our free choice limit yours?

The children are getting together, sitting around Dr. K in a circle facing audience. Dr. K is seated on the only chair. All eyes are on Dr. K.

Dr. K: Children, we must get ready to leave the Ghetto--German orders. We are going to be resettled--together. Before we leave, we are going to clean our home, we shall leave everything in order. Remember your studies--cleanliness is next to godliness. I want our older children to help the younger ones. Pack your belongings and wear warm clothes.

Child: Dr. K, where are we going? Am I going to see my mother?

Dr. K: We are going on a journey, my child. Think of it as a trip to the country. We will go on a train that will take us East. We will all go together, singing! We will show the Germans how Jewish children behave. The trip might be a little unpleasant. We might have to overcome some obstacles, endure some pain, but--we are going to a place where there is no pain, no hunger. We will go together, holding hands! Is that agreed?

Children: (sounding excited) Yes, yes!

Children get ready in two rows, Dr. K and Stepha each leading one row. They go through the audience through the middle aisle to the back of the room holding hands in a row.

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2005.