They Called Him “Mister Doctor”

A review of:  Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak & the Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto. Story by: Irène Cohen-Janea; Illustrations by: Marizio A.C. Quarello.  Toronto: Annick Press, 2015

Mister Doctor 2015

Janusz Korczak was a pediatrician who gave up a potentially lucrative practice to found an orphanage for the children he loved.  And the children loved him; the nickname they gave their mentor was “Mister Doctor.”  In this book by the same title, his story is told from the perspective of one of the orphans—who could be any of the orphans or all the orphans.

The book opens with the last days in final period of the famous orphanage on Krochmalna Street; the Nazis invaded Warsaw on September 1, 1939, and shortly thereafter ordered the city’s Jewish population into the Warsaw Ghetto.  The journey is one fraught with darkness and fear, as shown by the somber illustrations showing barbed wire.  They walk past the house of horrors they know as the Black Palace.  (I believe the author was referring to the infamous Pawiak Prison; I doubt the children actually passed that landmark, as it was on the opposite side of the Ghetto.  However, the episode adds literary value to the narrative.)  The horrors of the trek are in marked contrast to the soft, warm hands of Doctor Korczak and illustration of his favorite fairy tale character, Puss in Boots, bounding over a barbed blockade.

Their new home was the best Korczak could find, but “the house of tears” at 33 Chlodna Street is clearly nothing like their beautiful old home; in one illustration, even the houseflies on the window sill are dead.  Though flashbacks, the narrator recalls all the Old Doctor’s innovations: the children’s court, their newspaper, the bulletin board, postcards….  In the Ghetto, everyone clings to hope by celebrating their Jewish heritage and identity.  Some children learn Hebrew.  A professor teaches the children a poem, “Brothers,” by the great local poet, I.L Peretz, which they make into a song: “Light and dark, and in between/ All the colors come together./ We are all sisters and brothers/ From one father and one mother,/ And God created all of us./  The whole world is our nation. / We are all sisters and brothers.”

The most poignant part of the life of Janusz Korczak is the final march, which has been remembered in diaries, poems, movies, and statues.  In Mister Doctor, the last walk is portrayed in a beautiful fold-out.  But the story does not end there; the Rights of the Child would be taken up by the U.N. and given global stature.  Perhaps little Henryk’s canary wasn’t buried after all.  Perhaps he flew up into the heavens.

About the Physical Book:
Mister Doctor is a picture book, but with the amount of text on each page, it is more suitable for older children to read on their own.  The illustrations are beautifully executed and complement the narrative perfectly.  The book is a little pricey, but the quality of materials is exceptional; it is issued in a library binding.  Clearly, this is a book to be kept and treasured.  It is curious that Mister Doctor is also available as an e-book.  I fear an electronic medium would not do justice to the work of art this book is.  The title is noteworthy, as it is the same as the first Polish biography, the one written by Hanna Olczak, who knew Korczak and Madame Stefa personally.  A two page biography of Janusz Korczak puts the narrative in perspective; that, along with a short bibliography, will help students doing a book report—or a report on Mister Doctor himself, to pass his legend on.

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