Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.
Janusz Korczak, born Henryk Goldszmit on July 22, 1878, or 1879, had a remarkable and prolific life. He was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, writer, educator, and social activist. Korczak dedicated his work to the well-being and rights of children, leaving behind a significant literary legacy.
Janusz Korczak traveled to Switzerland in 1899 to study under Johann Pestelozzi, a renowned educator considered the Father of Modern Education. Pestalozzi's innovative ideas and methods greatly influenced Korczak's understanding of child development and education.
Upon returning to Poland in 1900, Korczak became a student of the secret "Flying University." This underground educational institution provided alternative education and intellectual stimulation when Polish universities were under strict control and limited access for Polish students. Korczak's involvement with Flying University further broadened his knowledge and deepened his understanding of social issues, particularly those affecting the impoverished areas of Warsaw. During this period, Korczak witnessed the living conditions of Warsaw's poor in neighborhoods such as Powiśle, Old Town, and Ochota. His experiences and observations sparked a particular interest in the welfare and fate of children, leading him to devote his career to their care and education.
Known for his work with orphans, first and foremost, Korczak was a physician. Following his grandfather's footsteps, Korczak enrolled in medical school and became a pediatrician. His medical background gave him valuable knowledge and skills to address children's physical and emotional well-being. His medical training complemented his passion for education and advocacy for children's rights. Janusz Korczak's diverse educational background, including his studies under Pestalozzi, his involvement with Flying University, and his medical training, shaped his holistic approach to child development and informed his pioneering work in pedagogy and children's rights. The level and extent of medical care provided to needy people outraged him.
After he completed his medical studies in Warsaw in 1905, he started working in a Children's Hospital in Warsaw. He was mobilized as a physician three times. Korczak was sent to the Far East and served as a military physician during the Russo-Japanese War, witnessing the devastating impact of conflict on children. He was redrafted in 1914 and served as a field hospital physician during WWI. When Polish-Soviet War(1919-1921) broke out, he became a military physician involved in the typhus epidemic eradication efforts, was infected, and survived the infection.
Korczak actively lectured and taught, particularly in courses for educators. His insights and expertise in child development and pedagogy made him a valuable resource for those working in the field of education. From 1929 to the outbreak of World War II, Korczak delivered a series of lectures titled "Children's Society." These lectures were commissioned by the Study of Social and Educational Work at the Free Polish University. Through these lectures, Korczak aimed to raise awareness and promote a deeper understanding of the needs and rights of children within society. Between 1930 and 1935, he collaborated with the State Institute of Special Pedagogy. Korczak worked closely with Maria Grzegorzewska, a pioneer in the field of special education, further contributing to advancing educational practices and support for children with special needs.
Building upon his journalism background, Korczak was approached with a proposal to host a radio program. The series of talks, titled "The Old Doctor," aired on the radio between 1934 and 1936. In this program, Korczak discussed various topics related to children, the family, and educational issues. The program garnered significant attention and generated discussions and reflections among listeners. Through his lectures, collaborations, and radio program, Korczak continued advocating for children's rights, promoting their well-being, and sharing valuable insights on child development and education.
Korczak's writings on pedagogy, including "How to Love a Child," "The Child's Right to Respect," and "Educational Moments," demonstrate his deep understanding of child social development and innovative approaches to parenting. Korczak's works for children, such as "King Matt the First," "King Matt on a Desert Island," "Bankruptcy of Little Jack," "Kajtuś the Magician," and "When I'm Small Again," have been widely translated and continue to resonate with young readers.
Korczak's passion for education extended beyond his writings. He established publications such as "Nowy Przegląd" and "Mały Przegląd," where children actively participated by writing press releases and reports. He also founded a magazine for children and young people, "Small Review," published from 1926 to 1939.
In 1912, he became the director of Dom Sierot in Warsaw, an orphanage he designed himself. He worked there with Stefania Wilczynska. The orphanage operated on principles of justice, fraternity, equal rights, and duties, providing a unique and nurturing environment for the children. In 1922 the program expanded into a summer home in Wawer. Korczak worked briefly in an orphanage in Ukraine in 1917.
In June 1918, Janusz Korczak co-founded "Our Home" (Nasz Dom) in Pruszkow with Maria Falska. This institution served as an orphanage for Polish children, providing care, education, and a nurturing environment. The collaboration between Korczak and Falska aimed to create a safe and supportive space where children could thrive.
Tragically, when the Warsaw Ghetto was established during World War II, Korczak and the children from his orphanage were forced to move into the ghetto. Despite offers of sanctuary from the Polish Underground Council to Aid Jews, known as "Żegota," Korczak refused to abandon the children and chose to remain with them. In August 1942, he and his collaborator Stefania Wilczynska and their pupils were led to the Umschlagplatz and deported to the Treblinka extermination camp, where they perished.
Janusz Korczak's legacy as a champion for children's rights, an innovative educator, and a compassionate caregiver continues to inspire people worldwide. His devotion to the well-being of children, his insightful writings, and his ultimate sacrifice is a powerful reminder of the importance of protecting and nurturing the youngest members of society. His unique blend of expertise inspires educators, child advocates, and medical professionals today. Janusz Korczak's dedication to improving the lives of children and his collaborative efforts with notable figures in education, such as Maria Falska and Maria Grzegorzewska, reflect his unwavering commitment to creating a better future for young individuals in Poland. His work continues to inspire educators and advocates worldwide.