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Reflections on Janusz Korczak

By Honey Kern, Teacher
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York

The mind makes pictures, images.

Some are not so easily forgotten.

I am standing in the old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. The weather is almost balmy, light fog, dampness in the air, sun behind the clouds.

We are walking through the lanes of graves, my students, the Israeli students, their teachers and our Polish guide. Our group, English speaking, has separated from the Hebrew speaking group. No matter, we will all catch up later.

The gravestones are tall; I notice how many have engraved trees depicted on them. The tree of life?

Real trees have grown up between the graves; some have pushed the stones over; broken trunks and branches have fallen on graves, on the headstones, on the only open walking space.

The sky darkens, and the wind causes the leafless trees to sway and groan in the air; suddenly the trees' sound is a moan. Back and forth they sway. It's eerie the sound of the wind in the trees.

My eye is searching for his statue. I often think of him, and I have come to see him again today. I know where he is, set back, near the edge of the cemetery wall, he and his children.

Statue of Janusz Korczak

He is holding a child in his arms as other small children cling to his hand and his coat. Standing tall as the trees around him, Jan Korczak walks with his orphans. I know I am looking at a statue, a memorial, but I am drawn to the man.

Janusz Korczak was ordered to deliver his orphans to the Umschlagplatz for deportation to Treblinka. He knew what that meant. He dressed them neatly; how proudly they walked through the Warsaw Ghetto to the trains, he leading the way, the children obedient to their teacher.

Korczak was given permission to leave his children at the trains. He would not. He had already made his decision. Instead, he boarded the train with his orphans. He would not leave them even when he could have saved himself.

This is why I think of him, remember him. I doubt if I would have had his courage. I am fascinated by his devotion and his compassion. What would I have done in his place? What made him do what he did? Can he ever know how he has affected all who have heard about him?

Here in the Jewish graveyard, we have caught up with the Hebrew-speaking Israeli students at the foot of Korczak's memorial statue. All of us are looking up at it. A tall, straight, proud man with his children around him.

( See also "I*EARN's Holocaust/Genocide Project"