Warsaw: Children and Fidelity

Janusz Korczak Monument, Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw.

There are several places in Jewish writings—biblical, and extra-biblical—where we are reminded of our obligations to strangers, widows, and orphans. Often these reminders address our duty to provide for the physical needs of these three special groups, their food, clothing, and shelter. But there are, of course, other needs that members of these groups have. A stranger, for example, may die without a family to bury him; a widow may desire to remarry; orphans need an education. Maimonides makes an astute observation concerning the behavior one should have toward widows and orphans based on their emotional and psychological needs: “A person is obligated to show great care for orphans and widows because their spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed.”¹ Care manifests itself in many ways. In this post, I explore one of them.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018: Today Beth and I visit the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street. There are four things we want to do: look for Leimans (Beth’s mother’s family name) who may be buried here; find the grave of the historian Szymon Datner, whose first wife was a Leiman; visit the Mausoleum of three famous Yiddish writers: Peretz, Dinezon, and Ansky; and finally, see the monument dedicated to Janusz Korczak.

This is the first of two posts about the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery. In this one, I will describe our visit to the Janusz Korczak monument. 

The cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It contains over 250,000 marked graves. We pass a guard as we enter the cemetery’s front gate. There is an office on our immediate left. We stop to pay a small entry fee.  A large mounted map near the entrance identifies notable graves and their locations within the cemetery. We take the main path to the right and come quickly to the Korczak monument. 

Janusz Korczak was born in 1879 into a wealthy, assimilated, Jewish family. His birth name was Henryk Goldszmidt; Janusz Korczak was his pen name. He was a writer, educator, and social worker. In 1911, he became the head of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. He held that position until his death in 1942. He died in Treblinka. He has no grave, although there is a marker with his name on it at Treblinka. And here, in the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery, there is this moving monument to his memory.

The Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. In 1940 they relocated Korczak’s orphanage to the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1942 they began emptying the ghetto. This was done in a series of deportations between July and September 1942. The deportations were described as “resettlements” by the Nazis. Those being “resettled” were, in fact, being sent to their deaths in Treblinka. During this time, approximately 300,000 Jews were sent to Treblinka II, the extermination center, among them the children in Korczak’s orphanage.

Korczak turned down an opportunity to escape. He accompanied the children in his care to their deaths and died along with them. Władysław Szpilman, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, writes a moving description of the children’s deportation as he witnessed it in his book The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45.

One day, around 5 August, when I had taken a brief rest from work and was walking down Gęsia Street, I happened to see Janusz Korczak and his orphans leaving the ghetto. 

The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children, and now, on this last journey, he would not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. 

The little column was led by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play – and so they set off. 

When I met them in Gęsia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest infants, who were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story.²

May the memory of Janusz Korczak and his orphans be a blessing.

Base of Korczak Monument, Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw.

¹Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot, trans. Rabbi Za’ev Abramson, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger (Jerusalem: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1989), Chapter 6, Section 10 (p. 132).

²Szpilman, Wladyslaw. The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45 (pp. 95-96). Orion. Kindle Edition.

All photos © Beth Ben-Avraham, 2018

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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