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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International Literacy Day, 2013 – Literacy Is a Fundamental Human Right!

According to UNESCO, “Literacy is a right and a foundation for lifelong learning, better well-being and livelihoods. As such it is a driver for sustainable and inclusive development.”  The right to an education was espoused by Dr. Korczak and enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  UNESCO’s 2013 statement continues, “Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy.”

The general Web site with links is here:  http://bit.ly/14H2DH3
With another article: http://bit.ly/18Qsbmf
And an informative infographic: http://bit.ly/17SvkAY

The latter shows that the literacy rates in nations around the world.  While there has been progress, 57 million children out of school face a life of illiteracy and poverty.  This would have been a major concern to Janusz Korczak and will
continue to be in the minds of dedicated educators and child advocates everywhere.

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How I Met My Hero, Dr. Janusz Korczak

My career as a writer and an educator has taken me to many special places; however, it was working with children with special needs that has enabled me to best put my love of children into practice.   My supervisor at a school for children with emotional and cognitive needs recommended two excellent books by Larry Brentro, president of Reclaiming Youth International.  While reading these books, No Disposable Kids and Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future, I kept coming across an unfamiliar name: Janusz Korczak.  Who?  I did not even know how to pronounce the name!  My curiosity led me to the story that most people associate with Korczak, how he refused to abandon the children he cared for in the Warsaw Ghetto and the eyewitness accounts of his final march, leading his charges in a procession of quiet dignity to the Umschlagplatz, to board a train to Treblinka.  This act of spiritual resistance, a story of indescribable sadness, had me in tears.  From that moment, I became determined to find out everything I could about this wonderful man.

 

After reading his works, When I Am Little Again, The Child’s Right to Respect, The Ghetto Diary, and King Matt, along with several biographies, most notably Betty Jean Lifton’s The King of Children, I discovered a remarkable man.  More than anyone else, he embodied the love of children and the disenfranchised.  Here was a man who not only wrote about social justice, he lived it, giving a voice to those who had none – or at best were not listened to.  I learned how his teachings became the inspiration for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and that the 1979 UN Year of the Child was created in honor of the centenary of his birth. 

 

On a more personal level, I could readily identify with Korczak’s ability to relate to children on their terms, a trait that seemed to elude many people I met in the field of education and an aspect of my personality that too often became the butt of jokes among people who saw education as just another career and others who considered a grown man working with children an aberration, either unmanly or just plain weird.  In that context, Janusz Korczak became a source of comfort and inspiration, a kindred voice out there, someone with whom I desperately wanted to connect.  This intense feeling led me on a quest to research and collect whatever I could find related to Korczak.  Thanks to the ability of the Internet to search the globe, I have been able to locate and acquire every book by and about Pan Doctor, including some that are extremely rare.  Likewise, I have accumulated a collection of medals, coins, pins, and stamps that honor Korczak or are related to his life and work.  My appeals on the Internet have enabled me to meet many wonderful people from all over the world who shared my admiration for Korczak.  And so, Korczak remains my guiding star, an important source of my personal and ethical values.