Doctor, writer, martyr: Janusz Korczak, the man who devoted his life to the care of children

Janusz Korczak (22 July 1878 – 7 August 1942) PAP

It is, perhaps, impossible to overestimate the role Janusz Korczak played in the fight for children’s rights.

Henryk Goldszmit (Janusz Korczak was the name he later adopted) was born in Warsaw on July 22nd 1878, into an agnostic Polish-Jewish family in which he considered himself ‘a man of two nationalities’ - Jewish and Polish.

After finishing medical studies at the University of Warsaw and becoming a paediatrician, following the outbreak of the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, he enrolled in the military and served as a doctor before returning to Warsaw and opening an orphanage.

There he began applying his own revolutionary ideas about childcare, including a free ‘children’s republic’ in which every child had a full set of equal human rights.

His work was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War where he again enlisted and served as a military doctor with the rank of Lieutenant.

When peace was declared he once more returned to Warsaw to resume his work caring for children and was, along with Eglantine Jebb - the founder of the Save the Children organisation - one of the key signatories of the 1924 League of Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In 1959 it was adopted by the United Nations.

In addition to running an orphanage both as a manager and physician, ‘Old Doctor’, as Korczak was affectionately called, began writing children’s stories, including Kaytek the Wizard (1933) about a schoolboy who gains magic powers; a precursor to Harry Potter.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Korczak and the children in his orphanage were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto where he continued to look after them.

In 1942, he learnt that the nearly-200 children in his care were to be sent to the Treblinka German Nazi extermination camp. But rather than accept offers of help to escape, Korczak refused saying he could not abandon his children. He was executed on August 7, 1942.

Today, Korczak is remembered not only as a man of principle and devotion who died to be with his orphans, but as a great writer and pioneer of children’s rights internationally.