Janusz Korczak was a Polish-Jewish educator, children's author, and pediatrician. After spending many years working as director of an orphanage in Warsaw, he refused freedom and stayed with his orphans when they were sent from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp, during the Grossaktion Warsaw of 1942. He and his orphans were murdered by the Nazis in Treblinka.
There is a legend in Jewish tradition of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim, the "thirty-six righteous men," who live unrecognized in the world and to whose goodness the world owes its continued existence. The name of Dr. Korczak, the devoted educator and interpreter of the world of the child, may well be added to the handful of the good and pure of his generation.
Korczak was born in Warsaw in 1879. He studied medicine but while still on the threshold of his medical career he turned his attention to the forgotten children of the slums. In the narrow, squalid alleys of the ancient city of Warsaw the young doctor Korczak founded the House of Orphans. Modest and unassuming in his ways, Korczak renounced his ambitions for a medical career to devote his life to his foundling children. His home was a bare, sparsely furnished attic of the orphanage. He spent his days with the children, teaching, guiding, and caring for them with love and tenderness. His nights he spent writing the stories that have enchanted countless young readers the world over.
He firmly believed that the adult world must strive towards the "century of the child." At a time when the Dickensian miseries of orphanage life were the rule rather than the exception, Korczak's educational approach to the institutionalized child was revolutionary. In his educational work, in his writings, and in his public addresses through the radio, Korczak served as a tireless champion of the inalienable rights of the child. The House of Orphans was perhaps one of the first institutions in the world where foundling children were allowed to grow up in an atmosphere of respect and freedom. Korczak introduced into the orphanage the concept of self-government: a parliament of the children abiding by the laws they had made ran the affairs of the institution.
Characteristic of his belief in the rights of the child to self-expression was his introduction of a children's newspaper which appeared as a supplement to one of the largest Polish dailies. The newspaper was produced entirely by young people with the minimum of guidance from a "bald and bespectacled old man" (as Korczac described himself).
Korczak was both teacher and pupil. To the children of the House of Orphans he taught the meaning of honesty, integrity, love, and mutual respect. From his young wards Korczak learnt to understand the complex world of childhood. He interpreted this world to adults through his studies and articles on education which to this day provide valuable guidance for educators.
From 1911 to 1940 Korczak ran the orphanage in Krochmalna Street (with only a brief interruption during World War I when he served as a doctor in the Polish Army). In the fateful year of 1940 Korczak and his children were moved to the high-walled ghetto of Warsaw. During the last two years of his life Korczak struggled to give his charges not only bread to keep alive their frail bodies but the hope that a brighter life lay beyond the mountain of horror and hate surrounding them.
The story of the death of Korczak in 1942 - recalled in simple, heartening words by one of the witnesses in the Eichmann trial - has given added strength to the legend of Korczak as "one of the Just". When the order came to deport the children of the orphanage, the Germans tried to persuade Korczak to desert his charges. He refused, remaining with them until the bitter end. Passersby who had gathered in the ghetto streets could not understand the strange sight before their eyes: a procession of happy, singing children, dressed in their Sabbath clothes, led by an old but proud Jew carrying in his arms a sick child. The sound of their singing voices echoed as they boarded the train. This was the one and only time Korczak had deceived his charges: he had told them that the train would take them to sunshine and green fields.
It is indeed to men like Korczak that the children of the world owe the hope of greener fields and brighter suns in the future. The inscription on the tab of this stamp reads: "Janusz Korczak friend to children - father to orphans."
The stamp was issued in 1962, design: O. Adler.