For PEN Atlas this week, Antonia Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a Polish hero, Janusz Korczak, the children’s author who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto

“Who would you like to be when you grow up?” Janusz Korczak asked a class of boys. “A wizard,” one of them replied. The others started laughing, and the boy felt embarrassed, so then he said: “I’m sure I’ll be a judge like my father, but you asked who we’d like to be.” That was in 1929, and four years later Kaytek the Wizard was published, the story of a wayward boy who develops extraordinary magical powers.

Janusz Korczak is a household name in Poland, but this remarkable man really deserves to be far better known to the wider world, as a writer and as a pioneer of children’s rights. To celebrate Korczak’s life, the Polish parliament passed a resolution to make 2012 the Year of Janusz Korczak.

Janusz Korczak was the pen name of Dr. Henryk Goldszmit (1878–1942), a paediatrician and child psychologist who famously ran a central Warsaw orphanage for Jewish children, using his own innovative principles. He not only wrote books for children, but also about children, in particular how they should be treated by adults.

As an educator, he was one of the first defenders of children’s rights. Writer and academic Eva Hoffman describes him as her hero, saying that Korczak’s “educational beliefs were informed less by theory than by large-minded humanism. He believed in the full dignity of children… and their need for love and respect.”

On gaining his medical diploma in 1905, Korczak worked at the Berson and Bauman Children’s Hospital in Warsaw, an institution that provided free health care for Jewish children. After serving as an army doctor in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, he became in 1909 the head of a new city-centre orphanage. As Eva Hoffman puts it, “he ran it like a microcosmic democracy.” The children not only helped with domestic chores on work shifts for which they were paid, but had their own parliament and court. If anyone broke the internal legal code – including Korczak and the few other staff members too – their case was “tried” and a suitable penalty applied, though forgiveness, fairness, and leniency were the defining features of this justice. The orphanage also had its own newspaper. So the orphans learned not just practical skills for life and how to be responsible citizens, but ethical values, such as love, sympathy, respect, and how to act for the common good.

Korczak managed to exercise these principles in difficult circumstances within the atmosphere of prejudice against Jews that prevailed in inter-war Poland. Society was divided, with Jews at best treated as second-class citizens, and at worst abused, making it doubly hard for the orphans to find their way in life. Raising money for the orphans and for deprived children to go on summer holidays in the countryside required a constant effort to which Korczak was entirely devoted throughout his life.

Perhaps the most enduring fact about Korczak is that when the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939 and forced all the Jews to live in ghettos, he never abandoned the two hundred children in his care. The diary he wrote in the final months of his life, when the orphanage had been moved into the Warsaw ghetto, is poignant proof of his total dedication to them. Despite extreme conditions in the overcrowded ghetto, where starvation and typhoid were a constant threat and people were dying in the streets, Korczak continued to organize every possible sort of intellectual and spiritual provision for the children, such as concerts, plays, talks, and discussions of philosophy.

An eye-witness account by the pianist Władysław Szpilman describes the tragic final procession of Korczak and the orphans across the ghetto to the Umschlagplatz, from where the transports left for the death camps: “He told the orphans they should be happy, because they were going to the countryside…. When I ran into them on Gęsia Street they were walking along, singing in chorus, beaming… and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest, also smiling, in his arms, and telling them something amusing.” True to his convictions to the end, he died with the children in the gas chamber at Treblinka concentration camp. It happened in early August 1942.

Korczak left behind a large written legacy including books on education – the most famous of which is How to Love a Child (1918) – stories, plays, essays, letters, and of course novels and stories for children. The best known is King Matt the First (1922), the story of an orphaned prince who inherits his father’s throne at a very young age. Despite the efforts of his ministers and other adults to prevent him from being more than just a figurehead or to save his country from war, Matt goes through recognizable stages of development, rebelling against the adults to gain his independence, learning how to be an adult himself, and forging an identity through relationships with others and some difficult experiences.

Kaytek the Wizard (1933), recently published in English by Penlight Press in the US, aimed to be the answer to every child’s dream of freeing him or herself from the endless control of adults, and then shaping the world to his or her own designs. From the very start Korczak based the book on suggestions made by children with lively imaginations about how they would behave if they had magical powers. For instance, he had come across educational methods at a school for “morally neglected” delinquent boys, where the students were asked what they would do if they were invisible. “If I was invisible I’d play tricks on policemen,” said one boy, “I’d take his gun and kick him.” “I’d go to the cinema for free,” said another. But a different boy said: “If I was invisible I’d help everyone… I wouldn’t play tricks or make people sad.”

Their replies are recognizable in the behaviour of Kaytek, who sometimes uses his magic powers to do people favours, and sometimes to cause wilful mischief. Like them, Kaytek is a troubled boy, a little rascal who can’t conform and please the grown-ups, however hard he tries.

“Every child should be able to find a book that is close to his heart,” said Korczak. But he also believed that literature should give guidance. Just as King Matt finds out that being king involves huge responsibility and that his decisions can backfire on him, so Kaytek discovers that his powers have limits and that misusing his magic spells can do harm and cause sorrow.

Although this is the first translation of Kaytek the Wizard into English, a number of Korczak’s books have appeared in English and other languages. Kaytekhas previously been published in German, Spanish, Hebrew, and most recently French. If 2012 is to be the Year of Janusz Korczak, with luck it will also be the year in which he becomes more widely known in the English-speaking world.

About the Author

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature. Her published translations include fiction by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists, including The Last Supper by Paweł Huelle, for which she won the Found in Translation Award 2008. Her most recent translations include Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life by Artur Domosławski (Verso, September 2012), and A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Bitter Lemon, September 2012), a crime novel.  She also translates reportage, poetry, and books for children. Her published translations for children include Little Chopin by Michał Rusinek, and the novel Kaytek the Wizard by Janusz Korczak. She loves translating children’s books as it gives her a perfect excuse to read lots of them. 

Additional Information

Kaytek the Wizard will be launched in London on Friday 16th November, 6.30pm at the Polish Embassy. Books will be sold by The New Leaf Bookshop, an independent bookshop in Pinner, North West London. You can find out more information at this link.

To find out more about the Year of Janusz Korczak please see this link. Children can click this link to visit their own version of the site.

A play about Korczak’s life runs at the Unicorn Theatre until the 11th November.

The photographs for this article were provided by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and will be appearing as part of an exhibition at European House in January.