Remembering the Man Who Remembered Korczak

Andrzej Wajda in 2012,

Andrzej Wajda in 2012, the Year of Janusz Korczak. This photo is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most well-known film director is best known for The Promised Land and three other award-winning films, for me his 1990 film, Korczak, has the greatest meaning.  Mr. Wajda, who the New York Times called “a towering auteur of Polish cinema,” died earlier this month, so this is a good time to remember him.

French poster of the Wajda film Korczak

This French poster advertised the then new 1990 film. The irony is that a French reviewer’s negative article created damage that took a long time to undo.

Korczak, starring Wojcieh Pszoniak in the title role and Ewa Dalkowska as Stefa, documents Janusz Korczak’s efforts, twice, to re-create his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto after the German invaders forced him out of his building at 92 Krochmalna.  Although run-down shells of buildings were a poor comparison to the original home, Korczak did succeed in creating a humane refuge for the orphaned children in his care.  In the hell that was the Ghetto, Korczak continued with his extraordinary pedagogy, children’s self-government (including the Children’s Court), teaching, and mealtimes.  Korczak sets out to document the man and his heroic work during his last two years, from 1940 to 1942.  “I think I committed to Korczak all my talents and skills,” he said.  Like Schindler’s List, this movie was filmed in black and white, showing the stark contrast of good and evil.  (Steven Spielberg considers Korczak “one of the most important pictures about the Holocaust.”  Noteworthy is the fact that Wajda did not succumb to the temptation of showing the orphans at the Treblinka death camp, claiming he had no right to do so.

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.  He was 90.

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Remembering the Past – Finding a Direction for the Future

Some thoughts as Tisha B’Av passes by…

This is a time to remember.  Tisha B’Av is also the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, as it was the day of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple.  In addition, the Nazis, in their warped ideology, decided it would be a suitable day for the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.  This was the time of Korczak’s famous last march, two days after he penned his last diary entry.

Shamor v zachor – observe and remember.  It’s uniquely Jewish and it’s a mitzvah, a moral duty.  Or, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Do remember the past, but do not be held captive by it.”  Learn from the past; don’t dwell on it, but use it to take the right direction, to do good deeds.

With both themes in mind, it is good to reflect on the life of Emmanuel Ringelblum.  Like Korczak, Ringelblum had the opportunity to flee the Warsaw Ghetto but saw it was his duty to remain for a purpose.  Knowing that an event of historic importance was taking place and fearing that nobody would be around to write it, Ringelblum assembled a staff of historians and witnesses to record what they saw.  This information he used for his own journal, to be published as Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto and for an archive.  He called his project and group of witnesses “Oyneg Shabes,” normally a term denoting the joy, oneg, of celebrating Shabbat; these priceless documents telling of the suffering of hundreds of thousands he hid in milk containers buried beneath the rubble.  The Nazis eventually found and executed Ringelblum but were not successful in silencing the voice of the Warsaw Jews.  Historian Samuel Kassov tells of this tragic story in his brilliant, compelling book, Who Will Write Our History?

Both books will be reviewed in this space in greater depth.  For now, let us take the time to remember those who remembered, history guarding memory to tell history.

Emmanuel Ringelblum Warsaw Ghetto Journal

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum. First English-language hardcover edition. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

 

Kassow Warsaw Ghetto Ringelblum Oyneg Shabes archive history

Samuel D. Kassow, “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto.” New York: Vintage, 2007.

 

A Polish Expatriate Remembers His Dad, Who Saved Korczak’s Diary

Roman Wroblewski remembers his father, the man who saved Korczak’s Ghetto Diary so we could remember him.  Dr. Korczak’s last entry was August 4, 1942:

I have watered the flowers, the poor orphanage pants, the pants of the Jewish orphanage. The parched soil breathed with relief.
A guard watched me as I worked.  Does that peaceful work of mine at six o’clock in the morning annoy him or move him?
He stands looking on, his legs wide apart.

. . .

A cloudy morning.  Five thirty.
Seemingly an ordinary beginning of a day.  I say to Hanna: “Good morning!”
In response, a look of surprise.
I plead: “Smile.”
They are ill, pale, lung-sick smiles.

You drank, and plenty, gentleman officers, you relished your drinking – here’s to the blood you’ve shed – and, dancing, you jingled your medals to cheer the infamy to which you were too blind to see.

. . .

Our father who is in heaven…
This prayer was carved out of hunger and misery.
Our daily bread.
Bread.

I am watering the flowers.  My bald head in the window.  What s splendid target.
He has a rifle.  Why is he standing and looking on calmly?
He has no orders to shoot.
And, perhaps, he was a village teacher in civilian life, or a notary, a street sweeper in Leipzig, a waiter in Cologne?
Perhaps he doesn’t even know that things are – as they are?
He may have arrived only yesterday, from far away….

 

Roman Wroblewski

Ghetto Dairy - New    Warsaw Ghetto Memoirs of Janusz Korczak EPK

 

 

And the last photo of Janusz Korczak shows a very worn man, but his spirit still shone.

Last Picture

 

And to note:  On this day, in 1944, Anne Frank and her family were arrested.  Here’s the article from the Anne Frank House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Refugee Crisis: It’s About Mending, Not Building Fences

When I created this blog, it was not my intention to use it as a political mouthpiece.  Recent events in the political arena, however, have been anything but typical.  I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Even where there are walls, there should be open doorways.

Even where there are walls, there should be open doorways.

Last week, a heart-rending photo of a little boy washed up on the beach received tremendous exposure, thanks to the power of the social media.  There is no need to display the photo here; I am sure most readers know exactly which photo I am referring to.  As with all warfare, children are disproportionately affected.  Among huge numbers of refugees fleeing the despair that is Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of North Africa are more children than anyone can count, on which the UNHCR has reported.  That little Syrian boy – here is who he was.  At least that once innocent child from Syria on the beach now has a name, Aylan Kurdi.  Beyond the love of his parents, he had little else.

About those recent political happenings… The ones I am referring to are the insidious and pugnacious remarks by Donald Trump in his quest for his presidential nomination.  He and his GOP counterparts are racing to score political points, ranting about the dangers “Mexican rapists” pose (as the true ignorant bigot he his, Mr. Trump wraps up Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and other Latinos in a single stereotyped adjectives), while a genuine crisis looms across the Atlantic, one not seen since the dark days of Nazism.  Their diatribe trivializes the unfolding tragedy of the refugees, the families, and their children, of which that little Syrian boy is an example.  The whole spectacle is sickening.  What we now confront is no less than moral catastrophe.  For now, a growing number of Democrats in Congress are urging the US to do its part.

Individuals are also being called on to do their part.  After all, says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, these refugees are people who could be us and probably were our parents or grandparents.  “Love the stranger, because that stranger could be us,” extols Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks brought up the Kindertransport during an NPR interview, when Nicholas Winton organized the transfer of more than 10,000 Jewish children to England, saving their lives from the maws of the Nazi monster.

Hideous cartoons such as this are what follow when solipsistic individuals hijack important social issues to serve their own narrow ends.

Hideous cartoons such as this are what follow when solipsistic individuals hijack important social issues to serve their own narrow ends.

For political games in the US, it needs to be “Game Over.”  As Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai urged, we need to call on our leaders, our representatives.  And Charity Navigator has set up a page to help donors decide on a charity that would put funds to best use.  “Tear down that wall!”  Now is the time for people to come together for all of humanity and mend fences, not build them.

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