A Polish Hero

The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak

by Betty Jean Lifton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 404 pp., $22.50

King Matt the First

by Janusz Korczak, translated by Richard Lourie, introduction by Bruno Bettelheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 332 pp., $15.95

Matt was led through the city.

He walked down the middle of the street, still bound in golden chains. The streets were lined with soldiers, and behind them the people of the capital.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. Everyone had come out to see their king one last time. Many people had tears in their eyes. But Matt did not see those tears, though that would have made it easier for him to go to his death.

Those who loved Matt said not a word, because they were afraid to express their love and respect for him in the presence of the enemy. Besides, what could they shout? They were used to shouting ‘Long live the king!’ But how could they shout that now, when the king was going to his death?”

So run the last two pages of Poland’s best-loved book for children, King Matt the First, by Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit). It was first published in 1923. A generation of children, Polish-Catholic or Polish-Jewish, began to sob as they read of the last walk of the child who was King of Children.

On August 6, 1942, Janusz Korczak was led through the city of Warsaw. He carried a small girl on his shoulder and held another child by the hand. Behind him came the rest of his famous orphanage, some 190 children and teachers. The Warsaw Ghetto was being “liquidated”—taken by trainload after sealed trainload, day after day, to the unknown destination “in the East,” which was the gas chambers of Treblinka. On August 6, they came for the orphans. When he was told that they would not be spared deportation, Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat in the Ghetto, took his own life.

It was a hot day, and the sun was shining. The Jewish police of the Ghetto lined the streets and urged the marchers on, hustling them toward the place on the edge of the Ghetto where the SS waited with whips and dogs and boxcars with gaping doors. From the pavement, the Jewish population watched in horror. If Dr. Korczak and his children were going, then all would have to go.

The children and their teachers walked calmly, in ranks of four. It is said that they sang. One boy carried the green flag dedicated to King Matt. Korczak led the way, sometimes turning around to encourage the orphans behind him.

In the last lines of King Matt the First, the king is snatched away from death by firing squad, and his sentence is commuted to banishment on a desert island. But this did not happen to Dr. Janusz Korczak. He made certain, indeed, that it could not. Korczak had already turned down half a dozen chances to save himself and—possibly—some of the children. It seems that at the Umschlagplatz, the place of cruelty and pandemonium where between six and ten thousand people were driven daily into the trains, there were more chances: he could have …

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