26 September 2009

Who was Janusz Korczak?

When English Heritage decided to list Louise House in Dartmouth Road Grade 2, one of the reasons given was the “decisive impression” it made on Janusz Korczak when he visited in 1911. Korczak is little known in this country but, as local historian, Steve Grindlay has been finding out, Forest Hill should be proud to be linked with his name.

Janusz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw in 1877. He took “Janusz Korczak” as a pen-name when he began writing in his early 20s. He studied medicine, became a paediatrician, a teacher and then worked in an orphanage, where he began developing his ideas about working with children.

In the Autumn of 1911, Korczak visited London. Political unrest in Warsaw, with rising anti-Semitism, left him uncertain about his future and he hoped his visit would relieve his depression.
While in London, he came to Forest Hill to visit the two industrial homes established here in the mid-1870s and see how they cared for destitute and orphaned children. Louise House and Shaftesbury House, Perry Rise (demolished a few years ago), were founded on principles similar to those Korczak was developing of giving respect, care and support to needy children.

His visit to the industrial homes made a deep impression on Korczak. He described how the girls had a laundry and were also taught sewing and embroidery. They walked each day to the local school (Kelvin Grove). Korczak also mentions an aquarium and rabbits, guinea pigs and pigeons kept as pets “like a miniature zoo”.

Thus inspired, Korczak returned to Warsaw to develop his own orphanage along similar lines to those he saw at Louise House.

Korczak believed that children had rights and his proposals were eventually incorporated into the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

His orphanage thrived, his enlightened ideas influencing teachers across the world, until 1 September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was created, a small area of the city to which Jewish people were confined. Korczak was told that he would have to move his children and staff to premises within the ghetto. Korczak was given many opportunities to leave but each time he refused saying he would not abandon his children.

On the morning of 6 August 1942, German soldiers ordered the occupants of the orphanage to line up in the street. Korczak made sure his children were dressed in their best clothes and carried a favourite toy. The orphanage staff and 192 children were then herded through the streets of Warsaw towards the railway station with Korczak at their head. During that fateful walk, Korczak was again given the opportunity to escape and again refused. Eye-witnesses said that his only concern was to comfort, reassure and support his children. The group was forced onto a train bound for Treblinka extermination camp. That is the last that was heard of them.

To have such a courageous and principled person so strongly associated with our area is a rare privilege and something we should cherish and celebrate.

Korczak Links:

1 comment:

Joop Berding said...

Thank you for an interesting message about Janusz Korczak on your blog. It was known to me that Korczak had found inspiration in Forest Hill in 1911, since this is described in Lifton's book 'The King of Children'. But your description gives some 'colour' so to speak to this event.
Perhaps you are aware that are many Korczak-societies, all over the world, who devote themselves to the promotion and dessimination of his thoughts and works. I am myself on the board of the Korczak Society in The Netherlands, and we have contacts with people in France, Germany, Russia, Poland of course, Israel, the USA and even Japan. In the UK there is a small of group of people who are interested in Korczak and who work along his ideas. If you contact me I will give an email address.
You can find much international news on Korczak and related events on http://korczak.info. This is in English (and French).
If in the future I am in London, I'd very happy to visit the places mentioned in the blog.

One last thing: Korczak's year of birth was not 1877, but 1878 or 1879. The fact that it is uncertain is because his father forgot or neglected to communicate his son's birth to the local municipality.

Joop Berding
The Netherlands,
author On Korczak,
and Member of the Board of
the Dutch Korczak Society