Janusz Korczak – a man whose example and writings inspired the work for children’s rights

The Polish government decided that 2012 should be the year of Janusz Korczak – 70 years after his execution by the Nazis and 100 years after he started working in an orphanage in Warsaw.

There have been conferences or seminars during the year in several countries about this remarkable man and his teaching – much like the Swedish information activities in memory of Raoul Wallenberg. The final meeting is now being held in Warsaw.

Janusz Korczak may be more known thorough how his life ended. In August 1942 the Nazi troops decided that the orphanage must be closed and Korczak, his staff colleagues and the 192 children were marched to through the ghetto to the train taking them to the Treblinka and the gas chamber. Friends intevened on behalf of Korczak and he was offered an escape, but he refused to leave the children.

Focus during the Korczak year has more been on his writing. No doubt his books had an influence when the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was drafted in the nineteen-eighties.

Still, his teaching deserves more attention. Korczak was one of those thinkers who was ahead of his time. Some of his ideas are still not fully understood and they are absolutely relevant in the work for children’s rights today.

Janusz Korczak, whose original name was Henryk Goldszmit, was born in a Jewish, assimilated middle class family in Warsaw. His first years appear to have been happy, his father was a successful lawyer and there were no economic problems. This changed when Henryk was eleven and his father had a serious mental break down which ruined his family.

In spite of poverty he managed to write novels already in his early twenties and get them published. This was when he started using his pen name, Janusz Korczak. However, when concluding that “writing is only words, medicine is deeds”, he focused on his medical studies. Already at this stage he became more and more committed to the fate of destitute children.

Soon after he qualified as a doctor he was enlisted in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese war. As always, he was writing:

“War is an abomination. Especially because no one reports how many children are hungry, ill treated, and left without protection. Before a nation goes to war it should stop to think of the innocent children who will be injured, killed, or orphaned. No cause, no war is worth depriving children of their natural right to happiness. One must think first of the child before making revolutions”.

From 1904, he acted regularly as supervisor at summer camps for poor children. He focused increasingly on child psychology and pedagogy. While spending more time on teaching and giving lectures, he continued his medical practice. He was known to demand high fees from wealthy patients and treat the poor free of charge.

At the age of 34 he was asked to become director of a Jewish orphanage – a position he would keep until his last day. As a doctor he cared for their physical well-being, weighed and measured them and gave them medicine. Seeing that the deeper wounds related to broken families, poverty and other social ills, he redefined the very concept of health care. There, he would develop his talents as medical doctor, teacher but also as author and therapist to support children and promote their rights.

He saw the importance of child-friendly learning methods, arguing that ethics was more important than pure facts. He introduced a democratic spirit in the orphanage in which the children themselves had a say in the decisions – but also had to carry the burden to ensure that decisions were enforced. This “children’s republic” had a parliament and a newspaper.

Most well-known is perhaps his experiment with a system of justice. A constitution was written in the orphanage and a court established among the children to deal with alleged injustices. Also Korczak himself was charged a couple of times for mistakes. The punishments after these trials were regularly to ask for forgiveness and be excused.

With an extra-ordinary capacity to listen and relate, Korczak had entered into a life-long study of children’s reactions, emotions and behaviour. He filled his notebooks with observations, reflected upon them and formulated aphorisms addressed to parents and other adults, many of them in poetic form. He became an interpreter between the world of children and the grown-ups.

During a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland he was dismissed from the radio after several years as the popular “Old Doctor” – answering questions from listeners. His colleagues at the broadcast station wrote a letter of protest in which they described how he could “talk with children as they were adults and with adults as if the were children”.

His books for children, and not least “King Matt the First”, are indeed demanding and do not hide conflicts and sorrow – in this being similar to the later writings of Astrid Lindgren. Korczak’s messages to adults are written with a great portion of child-like clarity.

He became the first and most radical campaigner for children’s rights. When reading the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the League of Nations 1924 he was disappointed. It was not clear enough, it was begging rather than insisting. He wanted rights – not charity – and rights now, not in the far future:

“Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today.
They have a right to be taken seriously,
And to be treated with tenderness and respect.
They should be allowed to grow into
Whoever they were meant to be –
‘The unknown person’ inside each of them
is our hope for the future”.

For Korczak two rights were particularly important: the right to receive love and the right to respect. He developed these in two longer texts for parents and teachers. “How to Love a Child” was prepared on the battlefields of World War I and The Child’s Right to Respect written in the nineteen-twenties.

Korczak pleaded for equality between children and adults:

“People speak of the old with weighty respect.
They speak of the child patronizingly and condescendingly.
This is wrong, for the child too deserves respect.
He is still small, weak.
He does not know much, he cannot do much as yet.
But his future – what he will be when he grows up
commands us to respect him as we respect the old”.

Many children react against adult hypocrisy towards them. This is how Korczak formulated this feeling – while in language identifying himself with the grown-ups (using “we”) but in substance standing on the side of children:

“We do not like it when children criticize us.
They are not permitted to notice our mistakes, our absurdities.
We appear before them in the garb of perfection.
We play with children using marked cards.
We win against the low cards of childhood
with the aces of adulthood.
Cheaters that we are, we shuffle the cards
in such a way that we deal ourselves everything”.

Korczak worked in the worst of circumstances and experienced how immensely important it was that at least some adults treated the child with respect and love. Abuse caused deep scars:

“There are many terrible things in this world, but the worst is when a child is afraid of his father, mother or teacher”.

Korczak dared to use the word “love” and did so repeatedly. But he was not sentimental – not even towards children. His education was not a laissez-faire approach, he pleaded for rights with responsibilities. In the orphanage each child had a task. He argued against too much protection, children should also have the right to learn from experience, they must be able to test and even to take the risk of harming themselves.

Many of the points Korczak made are about respecting the integrity of the child. He argued that the child must have the right to have secrets – reading a diary without permission is wrong. Another right he proposed – probably surprising to some – was the child’s right to respect for own possessions and budget. Even if he or she owns almost nothing, it is important that the ownership of these few belongings is respected.

The 1979 Year of the Child was followed by the drafting of a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Korczak’s thinking played a role – I know this for certain as I took part in the process.

The final text was adopted by the General Assembly in 1989. Now 23 years have passed and it is time to take stock again – in the spirit of Janusz Korczak.

Ending discrimination of Roma

In many European countries the Roma population is still denied basic human rights and made victims of flagrant racism. The Roma remain far behind others in society in terms of educational attainment, employment, housing and health standards, and they have virtually no political representation. A number are stateless or have no identity papers When attempting to migrate they are discriminated against and are often refused entry or expelled. Their exclusion from society feeds isolationism which in turn encourages prejudice against the Roma among xenophobes. More effort is needed to break this vicious cycle.

The social marginalisation of Roma is no longer a hidden problem. A number of international organisations have developed programmes to address the issue. For example, the UN Development Programme has promoted the “Decade of the Roma Inclusion 2005-2015” in co-operation with various governments – primarily in the Balkan region. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw is giving technical assistance to implement practical programmes for inclusion and the European Commission has provided considerable funding to support such efforts.
Evaluations of the results so far have been disappointing. Some aid programmes have not been well designed and have failed to engage with the Roma themselves. It is clear that these problems run deep, and cannot be resolved in a few years.
Nor is there one simple, single solution. While anti-Gypsyism is a threat to all efforts to ensure that Roma enjoy their rights, several acute social problems are interlinked. If as a child you do not receive sufficient schooling you will be disadvantaged in the job market. If you cannot get a job you cannot improve your housing. Poor housing conditions in turn affect one’s health and also the education of one’s children. And so the vicious cycle persists across the generations.
In other words, a comprehensive programme is needed to tackle all these problems simultaneously. However, there is one aspect which must be given particular priority if the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion is to be broken, and that is good education.
Education
Many Roma children remain outside national educational systems altogether. Even amongst those who do enrol, there is a high drop-out rate, and educational achievement is generally low. One explanation for the educational problems faced by Roma children lies in the high illiteracy levels amongst their parents.
This is the core of the problem and requires more analysis based on relevant data, clearer policies and determined action. It is important in particular to recognise the value to subsequent educational achievement of preschool education. Improving support at an early age can be of great assistance in later years for children coming from a background where there is a limited tradition of studying.
Unfortunately not all preschool education is free of charge. Such schools may also not exist in Roma neighbourhoods, and transport can be expensive and cumbersome.
The improper placement of Roma children in special schools or classes for pupils with intellectual disabilities is another major problem. I have visited schools in several countries where Roma children were placed almost automatically in special classes for pupils with learning problems. This happened even when it was recognised that the child was obviously capable. This discrimination is unacceptable.
Roma segregation in education was addressed by the European Court of Human Rights which delivered a landmark ruling in the case D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic on 14 November 2007. In the D.H. case, the non-governmental European Roma Rights Centre demonstrated to the Court that Roma students in the Czech Republic were 27 times more likely to be placed in special schools than similarly situated non-Roma. The Court found that this pattern of racial segregation violated the European Convention (Article 14 on non-discrimination and Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 on the right to education).
The Court noted that the Czech Republic was not alone in this practice and that discriminatory barriers to education of Roma children were present in a number of European countries. The Court has made other rulings in this area. In June 2008 it found Greece in violation of the non-discrimination provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (Sampanis and Others). The Greek authorities had first failed to provide schooling for a number of Roma children, and the following year had placed them in special preparatory classes.
The instruction issued by the Greek Ministry of Education in August 2010 to all school institutions and local authorities that the right to education of Roma children must be enforced is more encouraging. The ministry stressed that education from the age of 5 was an imperative: lack of a permanent residence certificate could not be accepted as an excuse for failing to enrol Roma children; transportation for children living at a distance from the school should be provided; and that segregation from other pupils contravened the Greek constitution.
Quality education for Roma pupils requires material in their mother tongue. Although this is not easy, particularly considering the variations and dialects of the Romani language, efforts should be undertaken to meet this need.
Teachers may need formal training to handle diversity in the classroom. Currently, there are few Roma teachers, and their numbers should be increased. More could be done to ensure that staff who are Roma are recruited to work and teach in schools. Experiments with Roma class assistants in some schools have produced positive results.
It is also important for schools to establish closer contact with Roma parents. If education is to be promoted to Roma children, Roma parents must feel welcome in the school system. If they so wish, they should also be offered basic education themselves.
Employment
Roma adults do not get jobs – they are put in a “glass box”: this was a conclusion of a survey published by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in 2006. Discrimination in employment was found to be endemic and blatant, especially in central and South-Eastern European countries.

This study was carried out in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, but the situation has not improved in recent years and there are similar problems in several other European countries. The unemployment rate for Roma is high throughout Europe. Even when Roma have jobs, they tend to be jobs related to service provision for the Roma community itself.

The study also showed that in cases where Roma are employed, they run the risk of discrimination. One in four of Roma in employment reported that their pay and other conditions were less favourable than for non-Roma in the same job.

However, the main problem is that Roma are discriminated against when they try to enter the job market. The study showed that a great number of applicants were rejected because they could be visibly identified as Roma. Indeed, many were openly told that the reason for their not getting the job was because they were Roma.

Another conclusion of the survey was that government-run employment offices were of limited help. The study exposed prejudice and even outright racism among officials in some of these public institutions.

This finding is all the more unfortunate as economic development in recent years has worked against the Roma. Their traditional occupations are no longer in demand and many suffer from low levels of formal education. This is the type of problem for which competent and non-discriminatory public employment services are needed.

Whilst these social and socio-economic factors are real, educated Roma also meet discriminatory attitudes when seeking employment. There is no excuse for states passively accepting problems caused by prejudice.

Housing

In country after country across Europe, a large number of Roma families live in rudimentary habitats.

I have visited poor and overcrowded settlements in several countries, including Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia. Electricity, running water and sewage systems have been non-existent or inadequate, making hygiene a real problem. I have met mothers who asked how their children could be sent clean to school or could be expected to do their homework in such circumstances.

Families who live on land without permission face extreme difficulties. Roma families have been evicted by force from their homes. In most cases the decisions were taken by local authorities, and the families were not given adequate notice nor offered a real alternative. Even when such evictions have been approved by a court, it is clear that several of these actions violated both European and international human rights standards.

Several serious cases have been reported to me. One took place in Milan in April 2010 when local police “cleared” three Roma settlements, involving more than one hundred inhabitants. Those “cleared” included people who were sick, some with disabilities, pregnant women and children. Everyone was forced to leave but not offered any alternative accommodation. Their homes were then bulldozed.

In the last couple of years, I have received reports about similar police actions in Albania, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Serbia, Turkey and the United Kingdom. In several cases the destruction of homes and property was accompanied by violence and racist language.

An argument often put forward for these evictions has been the need to construct new, more modern, buildings in the same area. However, Roma families are seldom offered places in such new housing developments. Instead, the Roma remain disproportionately represented among the homeless and those living in substandard housing. Roma ghettos and shanty towns can still be found today on our continent.

City regeneration plans sometimes require that people be moved from their places of residence. Such decisions can be justified. However, the manner in which such measures are planned and implemented should be in accordance with agreed human rights standards. Those standards state that forced evictions can only be carried out in exceptional cases and in a reasonable manner; everyone affected must be able to access courts to review the legality of evictions before they are carried out; alternatives to evictions should be sought by way of genuine consultation with the people affected; and compensation and adequate resettlement must be offered when forced evictions prove inevitable.

The monitoring mechanisms of the European Social Charter have found several countries at fault in their treaty obligations regarding the housing rights of Roma. Given some of the appalling housing conditions described above, the European Court of Human Rights has judged that poor housing conditions can amount to breaches of the European Convention’s prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. The UN Committee Against Torture has taken a similar position.

In a recommendation from 2005, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe requested all member states to improve the housing conditions of Roma. The best way to stop forced evictions of Roma is to ensure that they are consulted to ensure that their right to adequate housing is respected and put into practice.

Mobilising political will

The marginalisation of Roma cannot be overcome solely with measures aiming at formal equality. The Roma must have effective equality of opportunity with others, and this requires positive measures to compensate for the treatment experienced in the past. Human rights principles recognise that such pro-active measures, when aimed at tackling discrimination or exclusion, are justified – subject only to them being in pursuit of a legitimate aim and being proportionate to the objective.

There is a shameful implementation deficit with regard to Roma rights. In spite of the many conferences and action plans, at both national and European level, progress has been extremely slow. Programmes have been allocated insufficient personnel and financial resources to be effective. When resources have been allocated, they have not been well used. Co-ordination between state agencies and local authorities has often functioned badly. Consultation with Roma and human rights organisations has often been organised as an afterthought, if at all.

Too often the Roma have been excluded from the discussion on how to improve their situation – instead “experts” (gadze) have dominated. This is not a human rights approach. Roma must participate fully in efforts to secure their rights.

There are now local, national and international Roma organisations, and they should be respected by the authorities. The Roma and Travellers Forum in the Council of Europe has faced problems but can be a crucial consultative and standard-setting body for Roma rights all over Europe.

Roma organisations are conducting important discussions about their own responsibilities – in particular how to make themselves truly representative of the community’s diversity (including Roma women, and young Roma). Activists from within the community warn against allowing Roma vulnerability to result in attitudes of victimisation and dependency. The challenge is to transform this vulnerability into an opportunity for equality.

The Swedish writer and Roma rights campaigner Katarina Taikon stressed that these problems are human rights issues:

We are not asking for privileges, only the same human rights as others enjoy. We request the same right to education, the same chance to get a job and the same right to decent housing – not as Roma but as citizens.

We request the same legal protection against assault which others would get. And we do request that generations of Roma who have grown up without housing and schooling and who have been suffering abuse and discrimination by the state and the local authorities receive recognition and compensation.