A brief introduction to the life of Dr. Janusz Korczak

Date posted: August 29, 2017

Janusz Korczak (centre) with some of his orphans. Photo by Shlomo Nadel / Courtesy of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada

By Dr. Robert Oppenheimer


Above all Korczak believed that children should be recognized as full human beings and treated with respect. This approach was at odds with the prevailing beliefs of the time, and many of his ideas are still radical even by modern standards.

Korczak was a successful young paediatrician in Warsaw when he decided to give up his medical practice in order to focus on running a pair of orphanages for Jewish and Catholic children. This became the main focus of his work with children over the next thirty years. As movingly portrayed in the play, Korczak and his close colleague Stefa Wilczyńska, together with their staff, created an oasis of hope in the midst of suffering for the Jewish children in their care.

The titles of two of Korczak’s many books: “How to Love a Child” and “The Child’s Right to Respect” give a sense of the values he espoused. He wrote “Children are not people of tomorrow, they are people today” and he was also a key figure in the development of the international movement for children’s rights that began in the 1920s.

Korczak also developed a Children’s Court, complete with child judges, that offered all the inhabitants of the orphanage a chance to seek justice for perceived wrongs done to them. This included the right of any child to accuse an adult staff member of mistreating him or her, an almost unheard of concept at that time or even today.

Korczak and Stefa intended to help each child realize their full potential in life. This careful attention to the needs of each individual child is one of the most impressive aspects of his child-care model. There were also weekly opportunities for visits from former orphans, which over time came to include their spouses and their own children.

Besides supervising the running of the orphanages, Korczak was busy with his involvement in many other activities. These included writing books both for and about children, appearing in the city’s courts on behalf of delinquent youth, and offering regular radio shows for both parents and children as “The Old Doctor”.

Korczak also developed and ran the children’s section of a national newspaper with a staff of child writers and editors from all over Poland. In addition, Korczak lectured on children’s needs at the medical school and he ran an ongoing training program for the younger staff at the orphanages.

Many graduates of Korczak’s orphanages later joined the Kibbutz movement and some became ministers in the Polish government. During WW2, Korczak and Stefa continued to take care of the children after the Jewish orphanage was forcibly re-located to the Warsaw Ghetto. Then, in early August 1942, all 200 children were marched to the train depot and sent in cattle cars to the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, along with Korczak, Stefa and the rest of the staff. They were all murdered on arrival. This year marks the 75th anniversary of their deaths.

Dr. Oppenheimer is a retired child psychologist living in Victoria, with a longstanding interest in Janusz Korczak’s work. Robert is an active member of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada, their website at www.januszkorczak.ca is a great resource for learning more about Korczak’s life, and includes on-line access to his “Selected Works” and other publications about him.