Remembering Janusz Korczak, Anew

by Sandee Brawarsky Kaytek the Wizard

At the recent Jerusalem Book Fair, with many publishers from all over the world showcasing their new titles, it was Janusz Korczak who caught my attention.

Born in 1878, Korczak was a distinguished Polish-Jewish writer, educator and pediatrician. In 1923, he established an orphanage in Warsaw, which became well-known for his progressive ideas about child development and moral education. When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, his orphanage was moved to the ghetto, and when the Nazis later ordered that the orphanage be evacuated, Korczak chose deportation along with his children rather than saving himself. I’ve seen remarkable documentary footage of Korczak, with great dignity and kindness, marching the 200 children to the train that would take all of them to their deaths in Treblinka. Korczak was killed in August 1942.

Like Anne Frank, he left behind a diary, along with outstanding books for and about children, plays, essays and works on innovative education. His novel “King Matt the First” is a classic, telling of a boy king who tried to bring about reform.

Two of Korczak’s books are newly available, in illustrated editions, one in English and one in Hebrew.
Originally published in 1933, “Kaytek the Wizard” (Penlight Publications) is available in English for the first time. Designed to entertain and educate, this is the story of a mischievous schoolboy who discovers that he has great magical skills, but ultimately learns that with these powers come responsibility. Antonia Lloyd-James, the translator, points out in an afterword that Korczak wrote this in consultation with the orphanage children. The book is great reading for children and their parents, with illustrations by Avi Katz.

Korczak believed that young people should know the life stories of great people, especially those whose passions and hard work led them to important discoveries and accomplishments. Just published, “One Stubborn Boy: The Story of Louis Pasteur” (Zeltner Books), translated from Polish by Uri Orlev is a Hebrew edition of a biography published in 1938, beautifully produced with illustrations by Inbal Leitner. Korczak meant this book to be the first in a series that would encourage children to pursue their dreams.

A biographer of Korczak, Zerubawel Gilead, writes that the educator told him that he wrote “The Stubborn Boy” at a time “when cruelty and spiritual slavery weaken us, when the Nazi madness is rising around us. I wrote it so the children growing up today knew that there are also other men in the world, men who have sacrificed and keep sacrificing their lives not to destroy other men, but to enrich and ennoble the human being.”

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.

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