Last autumn I was very lucky to be taken on a trip to Poland by the educational charity Learning from the Righteous to gain a better understanding of the Jewish resistance during Nazi occupation.
One of the stories that most moved me was that of Janusz Korczak. Janusz was the director of the Jewish Orphanage in Warsaw and was considered one of the world’s leading educationalists at the time (and still is). His big passion in life was promoting children’s rights, and he railed against the use of corporal punishment on children, which was quite radical at the time. Without knowing it, HOPE not hate’s Education Unit have based a lot of our teaching practices on his pedagogical approach of ‘child centred education’. However, the Holocaust took this great man away.
When the Warsaw Ghetto was created in 1940, Janusz and his orphans were forced inside, but he continued to provide them with the best life he could and tried to continue his work of providing them all with some joy. The testimonies of those who lived in his orphanage all describe Janusz as a hardworking, just and caring man who acted like a father to the 190 children.
In August 1942 the orphans were rounded up to be sent to the Treblinka death camp. Janusz had a chance to avoid getting on the train and remain in Warsaw but refused, as he did not want to leave the children in case they were scared by his absence – although he was fully aware of what was happening at Treblinka.
The story ends with Janusz walking his orphans to the trains, all dressed in their smartest clothes and holding their favourite toy; Janusz patting them on the head to let them know how proud he was of them. They boarded the train, never to be seen again.
The story of Janusz Korczak, for me, shows how the Holocaust not only destroyed millions of lives and families, but also took from humanity some extraordinary minds.