Janusz Korczak was a Polish Jewish educator who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto just prior to its liquidation in 1942. His story is at once tragic and courageous. Given the chance to escape the ghetto, Korczak chose to stay with his children, ultimately perishing along with them at Treblinka.
“Korczak’s Children” is also the name of a play by Jeffrey Hatcher which has been playing across the U.S. since its Minneapolis premiere in 2003 and was recently performed in Jerusalem by JEST, the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater.
The cast, directed by JEST veteran Leah Stoller, included 19 children (representing the 171 residents in the orphanage); many of the kid actors were schoolmates of our sixth grade daughter Merav.
A couple of months back, Merav’s class was invited to a special afternoon performance at Beit Shmuel, the theater just behind Hebrew Union College. I tagged along as a chaperone.
The play tells the story of Korczak and his charges in the orphanage over a period of two days. During that time, we meet the children, watch Korczak’s innovative Children’s Court in action, and see Korczak writing in his diary.
Like Anne Frank’s, Korczak’s diary was later published, after being smuggled out of the ghetto after his death and sealed up in the walls of a Catholic orphanage that Korczak previously ran in a Warsaw suburb.
Even before his diary, however, Korczak was already a well known educator throughout Poland. He wrote 24 books and published over a thousand newspaper and magazine articles on childhood education. In the mid-1930s, he hosted his own radio program. During the course of the play, Korczak was repeatedly offered a way out of the ghetto which he always refused.
The centerpiece of the Korczak’s Children was the organization by the children in the orphanage of a makeshift play-within-a-play. The children chose “The Post Office” by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
The Post Office serves as an allegory for life in the Jewish ghetto. In it, a little boy named Amal is dying; his doctor forbids him from going outside. Amal wishes only for the local postman to bring him a letter from the king.
The wicked village headman – symbolically representing the Jewish leadership of the ghetto which cooperated with the Nazis – tricks Amal and pretends to read a letter from the king saying he will come soon with his personal physician.
No one is more surprised than the headman when the king’s doctor does in fact arrive, ordering the windows open to let the night breeze in. Amal falls asleep to a vision of twinkling stars far beyond the confines of his room. He never awakens.
The next day, the Germans arrive and escort the children to the trains that will bring them to Treblinka. Korczak repeatedly assures the children that they are going to a better, safer place than the wretched ghetto that has been their home these past years.
As the play ends, Korczak tells a fantastic story of a Dr. Zi of the Planet Ro who has a magical telescope that can transform hate and evil into rays of peace and morality.
Merav and her classmates were well behaved during the play. Afterwards, as we headed out of the theater and towards our car, I asked Merav if she understood the ending.
“Yes,” Merav said. “He was taking them to a better place.”
“Do you know where that place was?” I asked.
“No,” Merav admitted. “But it was safe.”
And that's when I realized that Merav, who is an innately literal-minded child, had - like the children in the play - been captivated by Korczak’s words. She felt secure as long as they were still in his embrace, sure that no harm would come to them.
In a strange way, I envied Merav, her trusting innocence. Jewish history in the last century has not been so kind.
And then as we turned the corner towards the car, I looked up and was overwhelmed.
“Look,” I said to Merav. “Do you see that? It’s the Old City.”
The Bet Shmuel theater and Hebrew Union College are situated just off Jerusalem’s King David Street and have an unrivaled view of the Old City walls which are impressively lit up by colored spotlights at night.
“Yeah, OK,” Merav said. As in: seen that before, move on now.
But for me it was a moment of connection and clarity. This is not something you see stepping out of the theater in San Francisco, or even Broadway. I wondered if the play’s local producers had planned on this when choosing the location.
Here we were in Jerusalem. In the Jewish homeland, gazing up at the walls surrounding what was the center of biblical Israel over 3,000 years ago.
Neither Korczak nor his children ever got a chance to see the walls of Jerusalem. They never even saw their next birthdays.
But we can, anytime we want. As we commemorate Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can’t take that for granted.
Not for all those who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto and throughout Europe.
Not for Korczak and his children.
Not for us.
Not for a moment.