“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 appealed to the Judenrat, he could (this is probably apocryphal) have saved himself but not his charges. These, too, he rejected. He had said earlier, when the sky was darkening but before the Nazis came to Poland, “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” So he went to the trains with his orphans, and nothing more is known of them. What must have happened can be learned from accounts of the Demjanjuk trial in Jerusalem, or from the reminiscences of Franz Suchomel in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah. After the war, one story went that they had all escaped and had gone to live in the woods.

The power of the image—the teacher who preferred to die rather than to abandon his children—remains overwhelming. Its iconic force is at least as great in the Christian world, with its emphasis on life sacrifice and on the “Good Shepherd,” as in the Judaic. Knowing about Korczak only the manner of his end and his Polish-Christian pseudonym, I had not really appreciated his Jewishness until I read The King of Children. Betty Jean Lifton has spent many years doing research on Korczak, and her empathy in at least partially reconstructing the subtleties and contradictions of Polish society in the first half of this century is remarkable. With her help, the reader can move beyond the icon of Korczak’s sacrifice and encounter an extraordinary man and life.

A prolific writer for children and adults, a broadcaster of genius, a pioneer of progressive educational methods, Korczak was an elusive personality. He is impossible to categorize: by rejection or just by procrastination, he declined to conform to anyone’s image. His charm and persuasiveness were legendary. He could also be impossibly difficult, even maddening for those who had to work with him. He was very much loved, but seldom—if ever—loved another person in the way that he loved his orphans and children as a species. And yet in spite of all the screens and distorting mirrors he put up around himself, one feels—at the end of Betty Jean Lifton’s book—that this is a man whom one knows very well.


There are a great many Polish milieux that no longer exist. The one into which Henryk Goldszmit was born was the world of patriotic, assimilated, enlightened Polish Jews with socially progressive ideas. The date of his birth was either 1878 or 1879: the uncertainty—as in the case of the late Artur Rubinstein—arises from the practice of fathers whose sons were born in the Russian zone of partitioned Poland: one lied in order to defer conscription into the Russian army by one more year. His grandfather had preached assimilation to his fellow Jews; his father Józef took the same view. A Polish nationalist of the “Positivist” (nonrevolutionary) school, Józef worked for the social and educational emancipation of the Jewish poor so that they could enter the mainstream of Polish life.

This was the tradition which Henryk Goldszmit/Janusz Korczak inherited, and to which on the whole he remained faithful. His attitude to Zionism was at first affectionate but skeptical. Later, in the 1930s, the surge of anti-Semitism in Europe and in Poland itself brought him to the edge of emigration. He visited Palestine twice, half-assenting to settle in the kibbutz of Ein Harod. The outbreak of war caught him in Poland. Yet I doubt if he would ever have made that final decision. The very pressures in Poland and on Poland that made Palestine seem attractive also brought out other motives in him: his surprisingly militarist Polish patriotism, his reluctance to abandon “his” orphans as the skies grew dark. How does one classify Korczak? A Polish intellectual of Jewish extraction? He was that, but the “extraction” was never complete and he would not have wished it to be. Mrs. Lifton quotes the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki on how much harder it is to be both a Pole and a Jew than to be just a Pole or just a Jew. As she says, for some Jews Korczak came to seem a renegade who wrote in Polish, while for some Poles he was always a Jew. In a similar way, socialists and communists thought Korczak was fundamentally a wet liberal reactionary, while conservatives considered him a dangerous radical with Red associations.

Anecdotes and assumptions are the only way to reconstruct the formation of Korczak’s complex personality. His consciousness shaped itself around a sense of infantile grievance, which he very rapidly transferred to others. He felt guilt at the privileges of his middle-class childhood. He felt resentment that he was not allowed to play with the rough boys in the back yard (who wouldn’t let him bury his pet canary under a cross, on the grounds that it was a “Jewish” canary). He longed for an unconfined, physically exuberant life. He was unable to deal with the emotional paradox that while the needs of the Warsaw beggars were infinite, the extent to which it was “proper” to help them was limited.

This sense of grievance, originally subjective, was transformed very early in his life into a sense of the oppression of all children, a “proletariat” (as he put it) with which he identified himself. Half-hidden nightmares in other parts of his life insured that this identification would be permanent: to the day of his death, Korczak was to see himself as the “childish” leader of a children’s revolution against adult oppression. His father Józef became mentally ill, and died when Korczak was a teen-ager. Mrs. Lifton speculates that Korczak’s enduring fear of hereditary madness and his own suppressed sexuality may both relate to this death: the son may have attributed his father’s death to syphilis. His early novel, Confessions of a Butterfly, is pervaded by an ethereal homosexuality, while his behavior to women could at times be malicious. In his first published article, written when he was eighteen, Korczak accused parents of neglecting children for the sake of their own pleasure, and asked when mothers would come to prefer books on pedagogy to cheap novels.

As a young free-lance journalist, Korczak took his pseudonym from a character in a nineteenth-century Polish novel: a “Polish” rather than a Jewish name. He was now studying medicine, and also meeting the famous underground circle whose nucleus formed the “Flying University,” the forbidden academy run under the noses of the Russians by Polish intellectuals. It was with this group that he first learned the latest ideas and studies in child psychology, and with them that he first tasted that staple of Polish higher education: the police raid and the cell. The creed of the Flying University people was a democratic socialism which refused to accept divisions of class or race, but which at the same time stood without compromise for the cause of Polish independence. As Mrs. Lifton nicely puts it, “the Poland he felt part of was the one they represented.” This tradition belonged above all to the Polish Socialist Party.


In 1905, as a young doctor, Korczak was conscripted into the Russo-Japanese war. He shunted about Manchuria on a hospital train, learning Chinese—so he alleged—from a four-year-old girl. This was only the first of four wars in which he became involved: the First World War, the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, and the Second World War were still to come. As an army doctor at the front, he saw the worst results of conflict, but his thoughts about it were typically unexpected. At one level, he hated war for what it did to children: “We are responsible to the children for the wars that have been and will be,” he wrote in 1918. In 1939, during the German siege of Warsaw, he remarked: “After this war, no one will dare to hit a child for breaking a window. Adults will pass children with their heads bent in shame.” But he was anything but a pacifist. He loved playing the old soldier, and would happily spend hours with veterans exchanging campaign tales and competing in foulness of “soldierly” language. He was deeply proud that he had played a part in the defense of his country’s independence in the 1920 campaign, and during the Nazi occupation—even in the Ghetto—went around wearing his old Polish uniform.

This brings me to King Matt the First. It is the most unrepentantly warlike children’s book I have ever read, and it’s not about remote wars with bows and arrows. It’s about barbed wire, forced marches, machine guns, aerial bombing, and every other form of modern martial excitement. (I consulted an elderly Polish Jew, who had fought in the last war, on this point. “But we all read it,” he replied, “and isn’t fighting what children like reading about…?”) Beyond that, however, King Matt is a remarkable political parable. It is not written in the arch, very English manner that ostensibly addresses children but in fact has its knowing eye fixed on adults. On the contrary, Korczak is trying to tell Polish children, brought up in an archaic and romantic tradition of ideas about liberty, that the exercise of freedom is a difficult art requiring patience, compromise, and moral decency. Poland had “risen from the tomb” only five years before, in 1918, regaining independence after a century and a quarter. Its political life was quarrelsome and turbulent, but still—for the moment—democratic.

King Matt comes to the throne as a small boy, in a kingdom constantly embroiled in wars with its neighbors. His ministers are determined to patronize and manipulate him, but Matt insists on taking part in government, in studying with a child’s lucidity real problems like war damage, foreign loans, reparations, diplomatic démarches. Much like Poland’s leader, Marshal Józef Pilsudski (whom Korczak venerated), he finds that ministerial squabbles and personal ambitions try his patience sorely. On a long state visit to Bum Drum, King of the Cannibals, Matt discovers that so-called savages can give Europe many lessons in wisdom and humanity. Returning, he is persuaded to set up a separate parliament and government for children. “You know, Matt,” says his neighbor, the Sad King, “we always did the wrong thing by making reforms for adults. Try doing it with children, maybe you’ll succeed.” But the children turn out no less unreasonable than the adults, and when they stage a coup, sending all adults to school and handing over their jobs to children, anarchy descends. Food runs short, the trains break down, the sick die in the hospitals. In the end, the enemy invades. Matt is finally captured, sentenced to death, marched through the streets…and saved.

Written with a wild verve, never dull, and often very funny, King Matt the First was soon followed by a sequel: King Matt on the Desert Island. The influence of these two best sellers on their generation was plainly enormous. Czeslaw Milosz has said that in Witold Gombrowicz’s masterpiece, the novel Ferdydurke, the interplay between adults turning into children and vice versa derives from King Matt. And I was surprised to find that the dialogue between the child king and his ministers reminded me strongly of the style of those Ethiopian courtiers recorded in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor. As for Korczak himself, the content and mood of both books came straight out of his own work with children and out of his own experience with idealistic reforms prone to fail—an experience that never checked his enthusiasm.

When he came back from the Russo-Japanese War in 1906, Korczak went on working as a doctor at a Jewish children’s hospital in Warsaw. But he was increasingly drawn into the wider problem of the wretched lives from which the sick children came and to which they were returned. He worked as a counselor in summer camps for boys, then joined the Orphans Aid Society. In 1910, he finally gave up hospital work to become the administrator of a new Jewish orphanage on Krochmalna Street. With him came Stefa Wilczynska, the dour, devoted woman who was to stand at his side for most of his subsequent life, and to board that last train with him and the children.

The Krochmalna orphanage was to be Korczak’s headquarters for the rest of his life, and for much of that time, his home. And it was here that he put into practice his own idiosyncratic and very influential ideas about “independence” for children. At summer camps, Korczak had already introduced a system of “children’s courts,” in which the boys themselves brought cases and acted as judges, while adult counselors functioned only as prosecutors and defenders. At Krochmalna, he gradually built up a much more complex pattern of “self-government.” This pattern, which, as Mrs. Lifton comments, “appears highly structured by contemporary standards,” included several elements. There was “guardianship”: the appointment of an older child to help a newcomer for the first three months. This was a lasting relationship, even after the initial period, for when the newcomer became in turn a “guardian,” his or her old “guardian” became a “grandparent,” so that vertical “family” chains were established. Then there was “citizenship rating”: the orphans at Krochmalna took part in a regular mutual assessment by ballot, scaling each other along a register which ran from “King” or “Queen” down through “comrade” to “difficult resident.” On the points scored in this assessment depended grades of privilege within the orphanage.

Korczak himself also ran a curious weekly gambling session, in which he acted as croupier while the children placed candy stakes with him on the chances that they would be able to kick their bad habits in the next seven days. Assessment here relied on an honor system: Korczak never checked up on a child’s statement. Although on a few very rare occasions children were spanked, Korczak—in contrast to orphanage practice of the day—never relied on the sanctions of beating or withholding food.

But the most imposing of these structures, and evidently the most important to Korczak himself, was the court and its written code of justice. At Krochmalna, he went much further than the summer-camp experiments. Now, the children could sue not only one another but the orphanage teachers and staff: Korczak himself was occasionally brought in front of the judges in one of those Saturday sessions which could see 150 cases “tried.” Articles 1 to 99 of the code dealt with “forgivable” offenses, but censure began at Article 100 and conviction under the dreaded Article 1000 could bring expulsion from the orphanage of a child judged by his or her peers.

Here was the semblance of a “children’s republic,” the parliament and government of King Matt. Yet it was really only a semblance. In the book, one can already see Korczak’s odd dissociation between his hope that a society of children might be more just and more generous than that of the grown-up world, and his ironic awareness that children are not capable of sustaining the fair and responsible exercise of power for long. The realities at Krochmalna added up to that same contradiction. From Betty Jean Lifton’s account, it is evident that Korczak’s will and personality absolutely dominated the community; a dominion made even more alarming by the disguise of ineffectiveness cultivated by Korczak. Visitors often mistook this small, balding figure, shabbily dressed and hanging silently in the background, for some sort of janitor. The institutions at Krochmalna looked superbly democratic. But Korczak regarded them only as a training course in self-control, social awareness, and the sense of justice, and it was his own authority that determined how those institutions would operate.

It’s hard not to feel that all this quasi-judicial responsibility, all this pressure to break solidarity with other children in the name of abstract “justice,” must at times have been a heavy burden on the orphans. Books like Eileen Simpson’s Orphans* suggest that deprived children confronted with threat join together into a tight, supportive, and uncritical solidarity, most unlike the group structure that Korczak sought to establish. He did indeed face rebellion on occasion: once right at the start, when the first group of Krochmalna orphans rejected his insistence on a tightly clocked routine and his emphasis on housecleaning, and, later, when a group of troublemakers contrived to intimidate the judges of the Saturday “court.” It is true that the survivors of the orphanage, now mostly living in Israel, have overwhelmingly loyal and loving memories of the place, as of Korczak and “Madame Stefa.” But in the 1930s, some of the Krochmalna “graduates” agreed that they had found it extremely hard to adapt to life outside. They lacked individualistic and competitive instincts, and found it difficult to bear the injustice and exploitation that others around them accepted as normal.

Korczak’s authority was not easy to see or to confront; it just permeated the place. He wandered around by day and night, telling stories, kissing the hands of little girls as if they were grand Polish ladies, shaving the heads of new arrivals, prowling the dormitories at night to amass more notes on coughing patterns and sleeping positions. He was already a famous writer, very much a figure in Warsaw’s intellectual life. After Poland’s independence in 1918, he acquired fresh fame as a teacher of what we would now call child and education psychology. At the start of one cycle of lectures he brought a small child into the room, stood him behind the fluoroscope, and showed the students his rapidly beating heart. Then he said: “Don’t ever forget this sight. Before you raise your hand to a child, before you administer any kind of punishment, remember what his frightened heart looks like. That is all for today.”

By then, the Korczak “empire” had spread beyond Krochmalna. He had never wanted to run an exclusively Jewish orphanage, but the benefactors and sponsors had left him no choice, and he had even been criticized for the “Polishness” of the atmosphere he created. After the First World War, however, the new Polish ministry of education asked him to set up another orphanage for the children of workers, which was established first at Pruszków, outside Warsaw, and then in 1928, in the northern suburb of Bielany.

Janusz Korczak put thought and energy into this new foundation, which was not so much “Catholic” as nondenominational. But the real power at Bielany was a woman Korczak had met and befriended during the First World War, when she was running an orphanage for Poles at Kiev. In Maryna Falska, the author introduces us to the representative of another of the extinct Polish cultures. From a Catholic Polish family, she had as a young woman entered the underground patriotic conspiracies of the Polish Socialist Party, and had once shared a Russian cell with Józef Pilsudski himself. Fifty-one years old in 1928, she belonged to the generation of committed Polish women who wore black as a sign of mourning for the failed insurrection of 1863. A person of harsh, merciless integrity, she remained all her life a strict atheist, refusing to attend even her husband’s funeral. She died at Bielany, probably by her own hand, a few days after the collapse of the Warsaw Rising in 1944.

By now, halfway between the world wars, Poland was drifting to the right and anti-Semitism was infecting politics. Although Bielany was under the patronage of Aleksandra Pilsudska, wife of the marshal himself, the new building was attacked in the press as a nest of communism and Freemasonry because it had no chapel. Meanwhile, Korczak was imagined to be flooding Poland with rootless cosmopolitan Reds from Krochmalna; this was less than half the truth, for he was under strong attack by a Communist group among the student teachers and some of the “graduate” orphans—and by a Zionist faction which disapproved of his “Polishness.”

All this seemed absurd to Korczak. He was not a Communist, and argued that teachers should not go on strike or play politics at the expense of children. He was, initially, put off by the exclusiveness of Zionism which seemed to wash its hands of non-Jewish humanity. He was enraged by the stupidity of anti-Semitism. But as time passed, even he became its target. Back in 1910, he had written that there were three currents in Polish society: the exclusiveness of upper-class Poles, the exclusiveness of the ancient Jewish “aristocracy” which also preferred to live apart, and a third strain—to which he belonged—that said:

We are sons of the same clay. Ages of mutual suffering and success link us on the same chain…. There have been more tears than smiles in our history, but that was neither of our faults. Let us light a common fire together.

But Jewish faith in that third current was now drying up, under the pressure of events.

The year of disaster for Korczak was 1936. The year before, Józef Pilsudski had died. A traditionalist in socialist plumage, Pilsudski had been a man of the same “third current.” He understood Polishness in the spirit of the old Commonwealth that had gone under at the time of the Partitions: a multiracial state in which a Jew was as native as a Catholic Slav. He had guided independent Poland in that spirit, but his disappearance permitted an upsurge of narrow racism. In 1936 Korczak lost his job as consultant to the juvenile court; it was said quite openly that a Jew should not hold such a post. He was also evicted from Polish Radio, after a long battle between his backers and his anti-Semitic enemies at the station: Korczak, broadcasting as “The Old Doctor,” had acquired an enormous audience for his anecdotal commentaries and reflections. Finally, in circumstances still unclear, he was removed from the board of the Bielany orphanage.

Nobody could accuse Maryna Falska of anti-Semitism. But on policy she sharply disagreed with Korczak, feeling that his court system undermined the authority of teachers and that, in general, Korczak evaded the problem of the habitual bully. From what Betty Jean Lifton has found out, it looks as if a right-wing faction on the board attacked Korczak on the grounds that it was “inappropriate” to have a Jew guiding the development of Catholic orphans, and that Falska gave in—rightly or wrongly—for tactical reasons.

It is easy to speak of “Polish anti-Semitism” in those years. But to examine the rows over Korczak is to notice how fiercely and tenaciously a section of the Polish intelligentsia defended him. These were often not so much quarrels between Poles and Jews as quarrels among Poles about Jews. The following year, the Academy of Literature ostentatiously awarded Korczak its “Golden Laurel,” and his friends at the Polish Radio were able to arrange one more series of “Old Doctor” talks. But these episodes deeply depressed and disturbed him. As Mrs. Lifton says, the Jewish world began to open to him as the Polish world began to shut him out. He had visited Palestine in 1934 for the first time, and Stefa Wilczynska left to settle there in 1938. He made several more visits. He was tempted, less perhaps by the Zionist ideal than by the sense that Palestine was a place where he could meditate in peace and safety. But the darkness settling upon Europe was at once a reason for leaving and for staying: “You do not leave a sick child in the night…!” He procrastinated. In 1939, unable to leave him in Poland alone, Stefa came back to Warsaw for what was meant to be a brief visit. In September, the Germans invaded.

In the three years left to him under Nazi occupation, Korczak summoned all his resources to fight for his children. He was now in his sixties, and sick, but through siege, occupation, and finally confinement in the Ghetto, he continued to tramp the pavements, pleading, threatening, bargaining, cajoling for food, fuel, space for the orphans to live. Consistently, he refused to wear the Star of David, a defiance that earned him beating and imprisonment, and might easily have cost him his life. When the Ghetto was established in October 1940 and the children had to march out of Krochmalna to new premises behind the wall, Korczak went in his Polish officer’s coat to berate the Gestapo for stealing a wagon of coal and potatoes. His fearlessness was terrifying to many of those around him.

The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were meant to die. Treblinka only wound up the process already begun by starvation and typhus. The orphans with Korczak and Stefa were also starving, though Korczak’s genius for begging and scrounging meant that they were dying more slowly than most other children there. He knew this, and did not know it. Sometimes it seems as if he was preparing his children for death, but at the same time his diaries consistently avoid describing what he must have seen daily on the Ghetto streets. Mostly, Korczak behaved as if there were a future. He continued to organize teachers’ courses, theatrical performances, supplies of coal for the next winter. He was very ill himself now, and in the Ghetto diary he returns to his old preoccupation with euthanasia, in the sense of the legal right to ask for one’s own death. Increasingly, he was trying to deaden his pain with cigarettes and with a great deal of vodka. But he kept going.

Time and again, before and after the immuring of the Jews in the Ghetto, people came to Korczak to offer him and at least some of the children refuge. Most of these offers came from non-Jewish or Resistance sources, through his devoted secretary and friend Igor Newerly. Korczak turned them all down. Sometimes he said that a child hidden in a dark place by strangers might grow frightened. Sometimes he objected that he could not leave some children behind; it should be all or none.

In hindsight, it must appear true that if he had taken advantage of these suggestions, some of the orphans and perhaps he himself might have survived the Occupation. By refusing, he condemned all of them to death. Perhaps this is Korczak’s supreme tragedy, but of course nobody at the outset of the Occupation or even in early 1941 could have foreseen the gas chambers. As Betty Jean Lifton writes, “at that time no one could say that the Ghetto might not be the safest place for Jewish children.”

These are painful speculations, and they replicate in miniature the crudest and most reductionist of Zionist reproaches: if people like Korczak had seen the light earlier, and had broken away from the assimilating tradition, how many might not have been saved? Put like that, the question is not worth answering. But in the setting of the Ghetto, there was a final encounter between Korczak and Newerly in a moment of awful lucidity, when illusions about the ultimate fate of the Ghetto were beginning to collapse.

The “liquidation” began on July 22, 1942. But rumors of what was to happen flew around Warsaw a few days earlier, and Maryna Falska sent Newerly, disguised as a water inspector, into the Ghetto with false papers for Korczak. Newerly explained that this was the very last chance to save even a few from death. But Korczak, “ill, wasted and stooped,” looked at him “as though I had proposed a betrayal or embezzlement.” Between them lay his whole life, thirty years of devotion and sacrifice under his oath to “uphold the child and defend his rights.” Newerly had to make his attempt to persuade Korczak. But Korczak, as his friends must have expected, had to refuse. Less than a month later, as he was clearing away the plates from breakfast, came the whistle blasts from the street and the yells of “Alle Juden raus!—All Jews outside!” Fifteen minutes later, behind the green banner of King Matt, the last march began.

This Issue

September 29, 1988