Korczak is a 1990 Polish film that chronicles the life of Janusz Korczak. Directed by one of Poland’s foremost directors. This film has garnered the critical acclaim it deserves, most notably The New York Times, the LA Times, a prominent professor at the University of Oklahoma, among many, many others. Andrzej Wajda was born in 1926, in Suwalki. His father, Jakub, was a victim of the Katyn massacre in 1940, the subject of his 2007 film of the same name. In 1942, he joined the Home Army (Armia Krajova), the Polish resistance, of which Irena Sendler was also a part. After the War, he studied painting at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, before enrolling in the Lodz Film School. The 1970s was a lucrative time for Wajda, and his 1981 film, Man of Iron, told of a wedding during the Solidarity movement. Andrzej Wajda passed away in October 2016, in Warsaw. The main cover photo for the film has become an iconic representation for Korczak, so much so, that an Italian artist recently interpreted this a large public mural.
For me, it was a breathtaking experience to see Janusz Korczak come to life!
This is a French movie poster for the Wajda film Korczak.
Filmed in black-and-white, the historic film opens with Old Doctor reassuring parents in his radio show of the same name. “Some prefer cards; others prefer women. Some swear by race horses. Me? I love children. It’s not a sacrifice in the least. I do it not for them, but for me…. Do not believe those declarations about sacrifices. They’re false and misleading.”
Early in the film, Korczak speaks about The Little Review, a newspaper he created for children and edited by children. At this point, Korczak learns that all broadcasts will need to be suspended. This event sets the tone of anti-Semitism in Poland, something Wajda seeks to explore and document. He says was a mistake to broadcast under Old Doctor, not Goldszmit, not Korczak. ”It’s not me, not a Jew, just an old doctor,” he says. Furthermore, the director of the radio station demands Korcak not tell the truth, or there will be protests. Korczak refuses, which also establishes the theme of standing up for one’s beliefs, for which Korczak himself will “ultimately pay the ultimate price.”
The next scene is Madame Stefa, Korczak’s assistant, returning from Ein Harod, a kibbutz in what was to become Israel. She says she had to; war is inevitable. Korczak says he has been through three wars. One of Korczak’s most memorable quotes here is, “War is inevitable. But is it the worst thing? I’ve seen three wars. But the worst thing I’ve seen is a drunken man beating a defenseless child.” The movie plot then moves very quickly to the September 1939, Nazi invasion of Poland – Great Synagogue on fire (the buiding actually blown up in May 1943). He’s wearing his old Polish officer’s uniform. He refuses to take it off. One year later, public announcement of the forming of the Warsaw Ghetto.
And now we’re in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.
Korczak declares himself a Jew at Gestapo headquarters in the Ghetto, demanding the return of the potatoes that had been stolen. When the Gestapo agents yell at Korczak for not an armband with the Star of David, Korcak has a ready reply: “There are human laws and there are divine laws.” Throughout the rest of the film, one notices that Korczak does not wear the mandated armband, as he did in real life. Maryna Falska, a Polish child advocate who Korczak helped found the orphanage Nasz Dom, takes Pola, one of the orphans. (Pola, as we learn later, is at an advantage, as she does not “look Jewish.”) She says she can get Korczak out of the Ghetto. And she tells Pola to take off her armband. This is part of the films struggle of Pole versus Jew.
So Korczak ends up in Warsaw’s dreaded Pawiak prison. There, Korczak reassures an inmate that he will live to see the end of the war. And at the end of the War, Poles will cease to persecute their Jewish brethren.
Released, Korczak returns to the orphanage. (It should be noted that the film skips over the first Ghetto orpahage, at Chłodna 33, and goes directly to the second location, Sienna 16.) Right away, the good doctor notices that Pola is not there. Yet, even the Nazis “are ruthless, but surely they will spare the children,” Korczak says. And even if the Nazis go after the children, “we’ll be with them.” Stefa reminds Korczak that Maryna and other friends could help him hide on the Aryan side. Replies Korczak, “To even think I would abandon you… “ Here, Stefa, wonders aloud “What will become of them?”
This memoir from one of Korczak’s orphans was published with the assistance of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
Korczak takes in a boy, Shlomo, from his dying mother. Back at the orphanage, Korczak assigns an older boy, Joseph, to show him around. Looking out a window, Shlomo sees a Nazi guard and says that if he had a gun, he would shoot him. Joseph explains that he’s only obeying orders. He may be a teacher or a gardener. Viewers who have read Korczak’s Ghetto Diary will recognize these sentiments of the doctor himself. At that point, Wajda takes both boys back in time, in a flashback to the oraignal orphanage at Krochmalna. Joseph explains to Shlomo how Korczak’s children’s court. He recounts the court having had judged the doctor once, something that actually did happen. In addition, “this” Shlomo was a real person, Shlomo Nadel, who decades later told his story, now published by the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada.
One of the most heartbreaking moments is when Shlomo sees his dead mother at the morgue. Later, as Korczak comforts him, Shlomo asks why they had to take her away. Even more heartbreaking is when we learn from Shlomo that his mother’s clothes had been stripped and taken away… that his mother had been buried naked.
Ewa, a pretty Polish blonde orphan from Nasz Dom, breaks up with Joseph. Joseph tells Stefa, “I don’t want to be a Jew anymore.” Later, he tells Korczak he wants to die. “Death is easy,” replies Korczak. “and life is terribly difficult.” That leads to Joseph to ask Korczak whether children have the right to die. It is this moment that Wajda that affirms Korczak’s famous stated belief (and often misinterpreted) of a child’s right to die. And they do so with more dignity than adults. When Joseph leaves, we hear Korczak’s thoughts of his own childhood, as he recorded them in his Ghetto Diary about the death of his pet canary. As the canary was a Jew, he would go straight to hell.
The next scene is of the children practicing for a play, The Post Office, by Rabindranath Tagore, which tells about a boy who faces death with courage. The orphans performed the piece less than two weeks before they would be led to Treblinka; yet, the scene occurs only two-thirds of the way in the film! Korczak explains to the audience – who can bear no more – that he chose the play “to familiarize the children with death.”
The film, though, ends on a hopeful, happy note, but this account is entirely fictional. For that, Andrzej Wajda was criticized severely. Individual opinions here will vary; that is for each viewer to decide.