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.