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.

Advertisements

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.