Educational History: Janusz Korczak 1878 to 1942

Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish-born doctor, author and seminal educator, who dedicated his life to caring for children, especially orphans. Korczak believed that children should always be listened to and respected, and this belief was reflected in his work.


Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak was born in 1878 or 1879 in Warsaw, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) into a Haskalah Jewish family.  His father Józef Goldszmit, a lawyer, was well known and respected in the town. On July 21st, 1942, barely a few weeks before his death, Korczak wrote in his memoirs:


Tomorrow I finish sixty three or sixty four years. My father for few years lingered with registering my birth certificate. Wherefore I have survived several hard moments. My mother has called it culpable negligence: As a lawyer he should not have issues with the birth certificate and not procrastinate”.


The ‘Culpable negligence’ of the Warsaw lawyer Józef Goldszmit makes it impossible to identify the exact or correct date of birth for his son to this day. We know that he was born on July 22nd, it is not known, however, whether in 1878 or a year after.


This is not because of Goldszmit‘s neglected or postponed registration of his son’s birth certificate. The parents of Józef were so integrated with Polish tradition and culture, rooted in the Polish community, that all his children were given the Christian and Polish names. He had some doubts what the name entered in the document should be: Jewish – Hirsh (after his father) or Polish-Christian – Henryk. Korczak’s parents were agnostic and did not plan to become Christians, but they both felt that they were Jewish and Polish in equal measure.


Perhaps, Józef Goldszmit delayed his son’s birth certificate also because he wondered what cultural identity his son would inherit. Finally, the name Henryk was chosen. This dual cultural identity played an important part of his life and ultimately his death. Goldszmits, along with Henryk moved frequently, they occupied luxurious, multi-room apartments in Warsaw. They were accompanied by numerous servants and nannies. The coldness between his parents affected the atmosphere in the house.


Young Henryk did not have a deep relationship with his mother or his father. When he was 12, his father went to a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with dementia. The disease deepenedand he was often hospitalised. Korczak’s father died in 1896. The illness and death of Józef impacted primarily on the financial situation of Goldszmits.


Korczak’s mother, Cecilia, began to rent rooms in their apartment, conducting extensive lodgings for Jewish students. Henryk, who had by  then studied in high school, earned money by tutoring other children. He also started publishing his essays, signing them with pseudonyms such as Hen, Ryk or simply H.R. Even more than the financial difficulties they experienced, Henryk was troubled with the fear of his father’s illness. He recalled many years later in his memoirs:


I was extremely afraid of the mental hospital to which my father was taken several times. And so I – the son of the insane man, so hereditarily burdened. A couple of decades passed and yet the thought still bothers me from time to time.


Henryk escaped from reality in literature. He loved Kraszewski and Sienkiewicz. Henryk Goldszmit made his debut in a satirical paper ‘Kolce’ with short humoresque articles about education. He wrote essays until 1904 – in total more than two hundred. Shortly after his graduation in 1898, he decided to send his work ‘Which way?’ for a literary contest and signed it Janasz Korczak, which was a reference to one of Kraszewski’s novel.


He got an award for this workbut the typesetter, made a mistake and wrote his name as Janusz Korczak, and he kept this name with all his later publications. From his youth Henryk was interested in the theories of pedagogical progressivism, through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s legacy. In the summer of 1899, Korczak was in Switzerland were he explored further the teaching approaches of Pestalozzi. He supported the establishment of John Dewey’s ‘new education’ through the works of Ovid Decrloy and Maria Montessori.


He also admired the pedagogical concepts of Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Fröbel, and Leo Tolstoy. In 1901 came his first book ‘Children of the Streets’, then five years later his second book ‘Child of the Drawing room’ which highlighted the inadequacy in education of children in rich families.  Both books established him as a well-known and wanted paediatrician. After graduating from high school, Henryk began his medical studies. Between classes he would walk around the poor neighbourhoods of Warsaw: In the Solec (Polish) and Nalewki (Jewish) areas he taught and healed poor kids.


After graduation he got a job at the Berson and Bauman’s children’s hospital. Soon, however, he was drafted into the army and sent halfway across the Russian Empire to Siberia and Manchuria to work as a doctor. At the end of March 1906 Henryk returned to Warsaw and continued his work in the same hospital until 1912. At the same time he worked with the society ‘Help for Orphans’ and he went with the kids to summer camps.


At the turn of 1907 and 1908, Korczak extended his qualifications in Berlin. He listened to the lectures and served his apprenticeship in children’s clinics, where he analysed the methods of working in specialised educational institutions. By 1910 he had lived in Paris and London. Janusz Korczak was becoming more and more certain that medicine and literature are not what he wanted to do in his life. He wrote:


I feel that the focus in me the unknown forces that score light – and the light guided me to the last breath of life. I feel that I’m close to the extraction from the depths of my soul purpose, which bring out the happiness.”


Janusz Korczak

In 1911 he gave up a good job in the hospital, not without any remorse of abandoning the children there, and spent years studying medicine. At the time the construction and management of the orphanage for Jewish children at Krochmalna street was entrusted to him. The facility was created thanks to the efforts of the society ‘Help for Orphans’. Korczak was dedicated to the realisation of the plans for the home.


The orphanage at Krochmalna was modern, designed so as to meet all the needs of children. In the basement were a kitchen, cloakroom and bathroom. On the ground floor was a huge dining room, recreation room, rooms for homework and a shop. On the first floor lived the students, who performed a function as caregivers.  On the second floor were the childrens bedrooms and in the attic was Korczak’s room.


The project also included housing for people willing to adopt orphans. In 1912, when the home was finished, Korczak and his colleague Stefania Wilczyńska introduced to the orphanage the first 85 Jewish pupils. Most of them were half-orphans or children who had some distant family. For Korczak it was important that children should maintain ties with relatives, he wanted to maintain connections with life outside the orphanage.


Life in the home, was quite different from cruel realities of the outside world.  Children worked physically, had their responsibilities, and he prepared them to take a variety of duties in the future, but Korczak was also equipping them with love, dignity, faith in themself and their abilities. To Korczak, these life abilities seemed more important than practical skills.


Former students often found it difficult because the real world was so cruel in contrast to the ideal world in which they grew up. They left the Orphanage after reaching 14 years of age. Stefania Wilczyńska often helped them to find a job.  The matter of practice to prepare children for life was a subject of dispute with Korczak. Some children remained in the orphanage a little longer working as guardians in return for board and lodging during further study. Here, Korczak responded to the criticisms during the farewell of one of the groups of pupils:


“We do not give you God because you have to find him alone in your own soul through personal effort … we do not give you Homeland because you have to find it in your own work of heart and mind. We do not give you the love of man, because there is no love without forgiveness, and forgiveness is the toil and trouble, which each must take alone. We give you one thing – a longing for a better life, for the life of truth and justice. Let this longing lead you to God, Homeland and Love”.


The educational program for Orphans developed by Janusz Korczak together with Stefania Wilczyńska; combined elements of self-creation and responsibility for themselves and others through socialisation and education work. Children in the orphanage had their parliament, court, government – and even their own newspaper; ‘The Little Review’ (1926-1939) – edited and conducted exclusively by children. After the beginning of the first World War Korczak was obligated into the Russian Imperial army. In the years 1914-1917 he was the head of the divisional hospital, mainly on the back of the Ukrainian front. Meanwhile, every evening he was making notes for another book. Following the war he returned with the finished manuscript.


The book ‘How to Love a Child: Family house’ in which Korczak described his pedagogical concepts and beliefs was published in 1919. The book had one simple message – let’s love the child, but we should love intelligently, we should apply the best knowledge not for our ambitions, but specifically for the children’s needs. In the same year another book was published ‘Educational moments’ which was based on Korczak’s workshop: forms and ways of the preschool child observation.

Janusz Korczak


The author looks into the relations that existed between children and highlights what adults usually do not see, namely: the subtle conflicts between different characters, struggles and rivalries. He reveals to us the real lives of children, and a whole range of issues of life and education. This title was followed a year later in 1920 with ‘How To Love A Child: Dormitory. Summer Camp’.


He then published part three ‘How to love a child. Orphanage’. In the years 1919-1920 during the Polish-Bolshevik War he served in the Polish Army as a doctor (in the rank of major) in militarised hospitals in Lodz, Ujazdowski Hospital and Kamionek in Warsaw. He was aware that he was close to discovering a new and totally revolutionary educational theory and insisted that the child is the great unknown and that still much remains to be discovered. In his publications repeatedly appear the words ‘do not know’, ‘may’, and ‘likely’. But he was sure that the child should be treated with the same respect and dignity as an adult.


His pedagogic creed was formulated by enumerating the rights of children, among them, the right to respect and the right to the present day and the dignify death. He believed that if some fundamental social change came, it could also kick-start a revolution in education. He was surprised at how little attention is paid to this issue:


“(…) even cleaning products must be analysed to see they will not have harmful properties. But anyone could be a father and mother. To open the soda shop one must have an official permit, license, and yet, when creating a man – nothing but to be willing”.


In 1923 Korczak published ‘King Matt the First’ his most famous fiction novel about a young child who became a king. The book was written especially for boys that wanted to be reformers. He continued the story of the boy in book ‘King Matt on a Deserted Island’. A year after Korczak created ‘Bankruptcy of Little Jack’, with elements of economics for children. In 1935 he wrote ‘Kaytek the Wizard’ about the physiological laws of dreams. Korczak also gave weekly chats on polish radio. He spoke about his approaches to education and children’s rights, which at their core included “the right to respect” and “the right to be your own person”.


They emphasise the subjectivity and autonomy of the child, its fear for being disregarded, distrusted or disliked. Korczak talked about the need for communication and cooperation with the child about accepting its development effort, knowledge and ignorance, language, creativity, success and failure. He drew attention to the need of understanding and sensitivity to the Child’s pain and hurt and finally to introduce the youngest, on an equal footing with adults, to society, to eliminate barriers that inhibit a development, access to education and culture. He argued that the most appropriate place for parenting is the family, and in its absence the company of peers.


He strove to ensure that children expressed their early beliefs, shaping the ideas, to be subject to a process of socialisation (through mutual acceptance) and preparing for adult life. Korczak tried to ensure that children have a carefree (which does not mean devoid of duties) childhood. He treated them seriously, he believed that the child should experience a situation emotionally, and draw conclusions for themselves, or suffer the consequences and effects of this separation.


He wanted to organise childrens society on the principles of justice, equal rights and responsibilities. In the early days of the World War II, Janusz Korczak wore a polish army uniform and continued this practice until the end. It was in October 1940, that Germans established a ghetto in Warsaw. Despite the best efforts, the Orphanage was relocated to the ghetto on 33 Chłodna street. Children were only allowed to take what they were wearing, so what they were dressed in was everything they had.


Korczak immediately ordered the bricking up of the windows located near the borders of the ghetto. He wanted to dissociate it from the Germans. He tried with all his might to protect the children from experiencing the nightmare of life in the war. Every day, coming out with a bag, to find food and money for the 200 children. He was determined to maintain dignity in the situation – he did not ask, did not beg, but demanded donations for the orphans.


He dreamed that one day he would be able to move out all his children beyond the walls. He was convinced that he would keep them safe despite the nightmare of the ghetto. On around the 5th or 6th of August the Germens issued a command for everyone to leave the orphanage. Korczak and Wilczyńska with about 200 children walked 4 hours to Umschlagplatz. He walked hunched over, moving heavily at the front. Even before the march some people proposed to rescue him but he explicitly said ‘no’: “How could I leave my children” – he responded. The Children with Janusz Korczak, Stefania Wilczyńska and ten other teachers got into cattle cars and drove off to Treblinka camp and were never seen again.


This article and history was written by Dominik Omiecinski