Thank You, Oliver Sacks, for All the Good You Have Brought

I mourn the loss but celebrate the life of a very fine man.  I learned of this news from another man I greatly admire, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “Alas, we are not related,” he said humbly, in saying he was proud to share his surname.

Oliver Sacks did so much to further the understanding of intellectual disabilities and advocate for those who have them.  Like Janusz Korczak, he accepted people for who they are and dedicated his life, work, and writing to that end.  Here is a video obituary from the New York Times; the article is here.

This year, the New York Times ran two beautiful essays by Dr. Sacks himself, both of which reflect his admiration for the lives of people with intellectual disabilities – and life in general.

In addition, many Times writers interviewed Dr. Sacks.  Here are some recent pieces:

Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for all you have done!

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An Unfished Chapter in a Life: A Review of The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepard

An Unfished Chapter in a Life

Occupied Warsaw, 1940-1942.  The Ghetto.

This is the cover of the May 2015 Quercus edition from England

This is the cover of the May 2015 Quercus edition from England

At ten years of age, only the first chapters of Aron’s life had been written.  His life was a work in progress.  Yet, at his tender age, Aron had literally experienced a lifetime.  The book of Aron was still being written.  Even so, like the Book of Jeremiah, the book of Aron was filled with foreboding, for the present as well as the future.  Would there be redemption?  Could there be redemption?  One could even draw a comparison with another prophet – Job.  Like him, Aron found himself questioning, asking whether there could be justice, as he confronted one tragic obstacle after another.

He was only 10.  Yet, Aron had to help care for his family.  When his ailing mother succumbed to typhus, Aron was forced to live by his wits.  Anyone who has read about life in the Warsaw Ghetto (or seen photos) will recognize the truth of the tremendous bravery and ingenuity of children like Aron in facing extreme danger to smuggle the most basic of goods from the world beyond, the world beyond the barbed wire-topped walls of the Ghetto.   When Aron was near death, our hero was saved by another hero, Dr. Janusz Korczak.

Janusz Korczak was a real person, the pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit, born in 1879 in Warsaw.  Korczak studied in his native Poland and abroad to become a pediatrician.  However, Korczak would gain fame by founding an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw and developing an educational system very far ahead of his time, when discipline consisted of corporal punishment.  It is no coincidence that Korczak’s most enduring nonfiction works bear these titles: How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect.  Korczak did not just write these beautiful words, he lived by them.  His orphanage was a model of respect for the dignity of the child, a place where young souls were nurtured, where everyone – Korczak included – had a role in the community, washing the floors and, at the same time, participated in his innovative Children’s Court.  It was a place where penalties for breaking the rules involved restitution to the community rather than punishment, expectations of self-improvement and learning from one’s mistakes rather than threats.  After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and created the Warsaw Ghetto the following year, Korczak was forced to abandon his beautiful building on Krochmalna Street and find new quarters.  Though the patchwork of ruined buildings on Sienna Street bore no physical resemblance to the original edifice, Korczak, his assistant Madame Stefa, and the dedicated staff worked tirelessly to maintain some sense of normalcy for the children.

So, in a sense, one hero rescued another, though in this story, the definition of heroism in the context of the purgatory of the Ghetto are in flux, in conflict to the very end.  And what lives on  in both Aron and Korczak is the latter’s most enduring legacy, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  This was probably the easily overlooked redemption of the Prophets.

Gripping, first-hand accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto have come down to us, themselves miracles.  How does one write a fiction work of this terrible place and period?  Jim Shepard, through the genius of his writing, has succeeded admirably.  Shepard’s bibliography of original sources – diaries, memoirs, and Emmanuel Ringelblum’s historical archive, Shabbat Oneg (for which he ultimately paid for with his life) – and the best historic accounts is indeed impressive, enabling him to – in his ords “approach inner reality … through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford.”  Details abound: a sadistic SS guiard known as Frankenstein, the patched holes in the Ghetto, Korczak’s love of sparrows and geraniums, a theatrical production of Tagore’s The Post Office….  Indeed, those fine details all come together to cfreate the masterpiece that is The Book of Aron.

Reviewer’s note:  The copy I read was the British paperback edition, which appeared earlier than its US counterpart.  I am grateful to have been able to secure this edition.  However, this otherwise appealing paperback suffers from an editorial flaw:  the description on the back cover, aside from being somewhat obtuse, incorrectly states that the Warsaw Ghetto was established in 1939.  Warsaw was invaded in September 1939; the Ghetto was established a year later.  Aron’s age would have been 10 or 11, not 9, as stated.

Israel Defense Fund Soldiers with Special Needs Make Emotional Trip to Poland

Toda raba – thank you, Ariana, for this beautiful article.  You touched on two topics very dear to my heart: the Holocaust and people with disabilities.  Wonderful example of Tikkun Olam!  Warsaw is also the home to my hero, Janusz Korczak, who – along with his 200 orphans – perished at another death camp, Treblinka.  I offer the link to the IDF Specials in Uniform article here:
http://jewishnationalfund.blogspot.com/2015/08/special-needs-idf-soldiers-pay.html?showComment=1440547437791#c8706642835010780381IDF and Polandhttp://bit.ly/1LvItqw

A Sculptor of Children’s Souls

book review Sculptor Children's Souls biography

This wonderful book by former teacher and scholar Marcia Talmage Schneider, offers details of Janusz Korczak and his orphanage from the perspectives of several orphans and former teachers.

To the children he took in, Janusz Korczak was more than a teacher, doctor, or orphanage director.  He was, in the words of one of the young lives he touched, a “sculptor of children’s souls.”  The teachers who worked for him thought likewise.  Although all of Korczak’s children and staff during the World War II years perished with him at Treblinka, several earlier students and teachers managed to flee Poland and have survived.  Marcia Talmage Schneider undertook the arduous task to locate these survivors, most of whom were living in Israel, to obtain first-hand accounts of Pan Doctor.  By doing so, Ms. Schneider offers a valuable supplement to Betty Jean Lifton’s superb biography, The King of Children.

Although Ms. Lifton’s book is highly worthwhile, interested readers gain a good background knowledge of Janusz Korczak – who he was and what he believed – through Ms. Schneider’s fine preface and introduction.  Numerous historic photographs grace the book, enhancing the reader’s “picture” of Dr. Korczak, the orphans, and Dom Sierot, the orphanage at Krochmalna 92, Warsaw.  Locating the survivors in Israel was a labor of love, involving a great deal of research, especially the archives of Lohamei HaGetaot (The Ghetto Fighter’s House) and Kibbutz Ein Harod, shamor v’zachor, to observe and remember, to which Ms. Schneider adds ten eyewitnesses, as follows:

  • Yitzhak Belfer, one of Korczak’s orphans who went on to become a famous and highly respected artist whose drawings and bronzes highlight the life of Janusz Korczak and his love for children
  • Mira Caspi, an orphan who became a bird enthusiast, a remembrance of the great love Korczak had for the tiny sparrows he fed from the window of his attic office
  • Shevach Eden, a teacher who trained at Dom Sierot, who went on to serve as president of the Israel Korczak Society and write a book (in Hebrew) about the man who had such an impact on his life
  • Yehuda Kahane, who like Dr. Eden was an educator and active in the Israel Korczak Society and wrote a book about the Old Doctor
  • Sarah Kremer, another orphan with a son “just like Korczak”
  • Erna Friedman Lador, a teacher and counselor at the orphanage who became a respected children’s psychiatrist
  • Klara Maayan, a teacher at Dom Sierot who remembered the flowers Korczak gave, forget-me-nots
  • Schlomo Nadel, an orphan who was inspired by Korczak to undertake photography, his profession and life’s passion whose most prized possession was a walnut that Korczak and Stefa gave him
  • Dov Netzer, a retiree whose children and grandchildren would have made Korczak proud
  • Scnuel Nissenbaum, an artist who, like Belfer, devoted many of his sculptures and paintings to the memory of Dr. Korczak.

Each spoke with passion and clarity on what it was like to be an orphan or a teacher at Dom Sierot, adding a personal vision and perspective to all that made Korczak so memorable – the newspaper, the court, Stefa, mealtimes, stories, and summer camp.  The common theme, however, is how Korczak influenced and inspired each member of this diverse group, not only in their professional lives, but also in the way they chose to live and raise their children, their very moral and ethical codes.  It was there, this book makes clear, that Janusz Korczak had the greatest effect.  With Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Children’s Souls, Korczak is more than a legend; he is a very real person.