Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 film “Korczak” (screenplay by Agnieszka Holland) tells the story of Janusz Korczak, a renowned Polish doctor and educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. The film begins shortly before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and then quickly proceeds to the establishment of the Ghetto in September 1940; the story then ends in August 1942 when Korczak and his two hundred children were deported to the Nazi extermination camp near Treblinka, Poland.
It is a tragic film and, yes, you will probably cry (I always do), but I am sure sure that you also will be inspired by Korczak’s story. In addition to being a martyr of the Holocaust, Korczak was one of the great educators of the twentieth century, and Wajda manages to tell both of those stories in this film: the story of Korczak in the Jewish Ghetto and also the story of Korczak the educator. The film is usually available through Netflix and can be rented from Amazon. Back in the 1990s, my VHS tape of this film was a prized possession; I am very glad to see the film now so easy to find and watch online.
Born in 1878 to a family of assimilated Jews in Russian-occupied Warsaw, Janusz Korczak attended the underground “Flying University” (as did Marie Skłodowska Curie, his even more renowned contemporary who was born in Warsaw in 1867). Having trained as a pediatrician, Korczak established an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw in 1911, and he designed that home as a children’s republic in which the children administered their own governing council and served as judges in their own court of justice.
“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.”
When he relocated the orphanage into the Ghetto in 1940, Korczak continued to run the home as a children’s republic, and one of the film’s most striking scenes shows the children’s court in session, a last bastion of justice in the nightmare that was the Warsaw Ghetto. The film also shows Korczak’s extraordinary way of working with the children, resolving their quarrels, advising them in their dilemmas, helping them face their fears and always listening to them with a care and respect that is full of compassion and never condescending. After all, as Korczak says at the opening of the film, just before the outbreak of the war, “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.”
In her beautifully written screenplay, Agnieszka Holland was able to draw on Korczak’s own writings, including the diary he kept during those two years in the Ghetto, along with other eyewitness accounts, such as the diary kept by Adam Czerniaków, who was the head of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat during this time. Korczak’s colleague at the orphanage, Stefania Wilczyńska, is another historical character who is featured prominently in the film, as is Maryna Rogowska-Falska, a Polish woman who collaborated closely with Korczak before the war. In the film, Falska repeatedly begs Korczak to leave the Ghetto and go into hiding, using false papers that she has had prepared for him; each time, Korczak refuses. Falska herself died in September 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising.
At the end of the film, Wajda chooses not to show the train with Korczak and the children arriving at Treblinka. Instead, he imagines a different ending, a dream-like fantasy that has been criticized by some as “impossible” and, yes, it is clearly a fantasy ending. I will say, however, that in my opinion this “impossible” scene is exactly the right way in which to end the film. Korczak himself believed in impossible things—things like justice, freedom, human dignity and love for the children above all—and he fought for those impossible things until the end of his life. Early on in the film, Korczak vows they will “do the impossible” to protect the dignity of the children and to save them from harm even in the Ghetto, and it is that vow which inspires Wajda’s ending for the film.
To learn more about Korczak, start with Wajda’s marvelous film, and then you might also want to read Betty Jean Lifton’s biography, The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak. In addition, Korczak’s own writings will soon enter the public domain. Without any restriction on new publications and translations, many more people around the world will be able to enjoy Korczak’s numerous children’s books, along with his pedagogical treatises such as How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect. I think that would have made ‘Pan Doktor’ Korczak proud and happy; he is an author we need today as much as ever before.