In an uncertain and often violent world, children need extra love and protection. Recent televised images from Gaza, Syria, Nigeria and the Mexican-American border highlight the vulnerability of youngsters to forces beyond their comprehension or control.
The life of Polish physician Janusz Korczak, who perished at the Nazi death camp at Treblinka in August 1942, exemplifies devotion to the welfare of children at extreme peril.
He was born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw in 1878, although he was best known by his pen name of Janusz Korczak. His poems, essays and novels for children brought him literary fame in early adulthood. He gave up a prosperous practice of pediatrics in 1912 to found an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw.
Unlike other institutions in Europe, The Children’s Republic, the name chosen by the children it served, offered classes that prepared students either for college or vocations. Children elected their peers to lead, established rules and presided over courts. Children published a newspaper and presented plays for the community. Summer camp in nearby woodlands introduced children to outdoor pursuits.
Korczak soon was invited to establish and to direct a similar orphanage for Catholic children.
He wrote extensively on educational reform. He lobbied for the rights of children. He championed the causes of children in testimony before adult courts. A weekly radio program provided guidance on the gentle raising of children. In 1933, he received a national medal for his contributions to Polish society.
But a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the late 1930s led to Korczak’s dismissal from his position at the Catholic orphanage. His weekly broadcasts were canceled. In September 1939, Poland fell to invading German and Russian forces. Jews in Warsaw were forcibly relocated into a cramped, walled ghetto within the city in October 1940. Disease and starvation took a rising toll, but Korczak and his staff maintained an oasis of caring within the relocated orphanage.
A year later, the ghetto was constricted further, and the orphanage had to move to even smaller quarters. Korczak assumed the directorship of a second public orphanage. He rejected offers from others to smuggle him out of the ghetto. His own health slipping, he used every tactic possible to obtain food and to sustain the peaceful routine of the orphanage.
On Aug. 6, 1942 Nazi forces emptied the ghetto of children. When soldiers demanded entry into the orphanage, the door opened and Korczak led a procession of the remaining orphans and staff on a long, hot walk to the train station. He carried a young child while an older boy walking alongside him carried the green flag of the Children’s Republic. Maintaining calm at the train station, he instructed the children to remove from their coats the yellow stars required of all Jews. They threw the stars into the square before the station, reminding one guard of a field of daffodils.
The train took Korczak and his children to Treblinka, where they disappeared into history.
Janusz Korczak should be regarded as the patron saint of children in distress.
The plight of children smuggled across the Mexican-American border presents the crisis that we can most immediately influence. We must insist that our elected and appointed officials bring calm and informed minds and loving hearts to the negotiating table to work out a solution that will not hurt children.
For starters, we can direct humanitarian aid to the countries of origin of the children. We can crack down on the “coyote” smugglers who dump children over the border for high fees. We can treat smuggled children humanely while granting them expedited hearings before judicial panels.
We must do all that is possible through diplomatic channels to assure that children returned to their countries will be treated humanely. And longer term, we must support sustainable aid and assistance in family planning to impoverished countries south of our border.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.