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The king of children

  • 24 June 2006

Janusz Korczak was a paediatrician, writer and educator who wrote in Polish, died anonymously in 1942 along with millions of others whose bones are not even graced by a grave, and whose life and example deserve to be far better known. Had it not been for Korczak the UN would not have produced the only UN human rights treaty to be signed by every world government, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Janusz Korczak was not his real name. He was born in Warsaw in 1879 as Henryk Goldszmit, the privileged son of an assimilated Jewish doctor. His life changed dramatically after his father became mentally ill, was institutionalised and died seven years later when the boy was only 18. Henryk helped support his family while he studied medicine through tutoring and by writing. He adopted his nom de plume, Janusz Korczak, when he won a significant literary prize when he was 20 years old.

Korczak graduated in medicine in 1904, and worked with slum families and street children as well as in ­Warsaw’ ­fashionable society. He decided to ­specialise in paediatrics and worked in the Warsaw Children’s Hospital for a time. Twice—in 1905 and 1914—he was drafted into the Russian army and served as a ­doctor, witnessing the atrocities that all war visits on all children. After the Russo-Japanese war Korczak studied child psychology in Berlin, Paris and London, and he then returned to his native Poland to run the Company of Children’s Camps in Poland for destitute Warsaw children.

Korczak began to teach medical students from a deeply humanist perspective, which was somewhat at odds with the heroic, scientific experimentalism of the time. He continued to practise medicine, often charging no fee. In 1912 he decided that this was not satisfying enough, writing that ‘[a] spoon full of castor oil is no cure for poverty and parentlessness’.

Korczak then became the director of a new Jewish orphanage, and he spent the rest of his life working in and for the orphanage with no salary, and living in its attic.

Korczak also continued to write and lecture about children and became greatly admired and loved throughout Poland and in other parts of Europe. His most ­important work, How to Love a Child, is a profound yet practical book about nurturing children that he wrote while he was serving during the First World War.

Korczak’s most productive years were between the