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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Last March:
August 6, 1942

What matters is that all of this did happen.
-Ghetto Diary

 

    Korczak was up early, as usual, on August 6. As he leaned over the windowsill to water the parched soil of "the poor Jewish orphanage plants, " he noticed that he was again being watched by the German guard posted by the wall that bisected Sienna Street. He wondered if the guard was annoyed or moved by the domestic scene, or if he was thinking that Korczak's bald head made a splendid target. The soldier had a rifle, so why did he just stand there, legs wide apart, watching calmly? He might not have orders to shoot, but that hadn't deterred any SS so far from emptying his ammunition into someone on a whim.

    Korczak began speculating about the young soldier in what was to be the last entry of his diary. "Perhaps he was a village teacher in civilian life, or a notary, a street sweeper in Leipzig, a waiter in Cologne. What would he do if I nodded to him? Waved my hand in a friendly gesture? Perhaps he doesn't even know that things are-as they are? He may have arrived only yesterday, from far away . . ."

    In another part of the compound, Misha Wroblewski and three of the older boys were getting ready to leave for the jobs Korczak had been able to arrange for them at the German railway depot on the other side of the wall. Every morning they were marched out under guard and counted, and marched back again every night. it was hard work, but it gave them a chance to barter what few possessions they had for food.

    They left the orphanage quietly without communicating with anyone. It seemed like just another day they had to get through. Promptly at seven Korczak joined Stefa, the teachers, and the children for breakfast at the wooden tables, which had been pushed together once the bedding was removed from the center of the room. Perhaps they had some potato peels or an old crust of bread, perhaps there was some carefully measured ersatz coffee in each little mug. Korczak was just getting up to clear the table when two blasts of a whistle and that dread call, "Alle Juden raus!" (" All Jews out!"), rang through the house.

    Part ofthe German strategy was not to announce anything in advance, but to take each area by surprise: the plan that morning was to evacuate most of the children's institutions in the Small Ghetto. The lower end of Sliska Street had already been blockaded by the SS, squads of Ukrainian militiamen, and the Jewish police.

    Korczak rose quickly, as did Stefa, to still the children's fears. Now, as always, they worked intuitively together, knowing what each had to do. She signaled the teachers to help the children gather their things. He walked into the courtyard to ask one of the Jewish policemen for time to allow the children to pack up, after which they would line up outside in an orderly fashion. He was given fifteen minutes.

    Korczak would have had no thought of trying to hide any children now. During the past weeks, he had seen people who had been discovered hiding in cupboards, behind false walls, under beds, flung from their windows or forced at gunpoint down to the street. There was nothing to do but lead the children and teachers straight into the unknown, and, if he was lucky, out of it. Who was to say that, if anyone had a chance of surviving out there in the East, it might not be them?

    As he encouraged the children to line up quietly in rows of four, Korczak must have hoped that no matter how terrible the situation in which they found themselves, he would be able to use his charm and powers of persuasion to wheedle some bread and potatoes and perhaps even some medicine for his young charges. He would, above all, be there to keep their spirits up -to be their guide through whatever lay ahead. He had to try to reassure the children as they lined up fearfully, clutching their little flasks ofwater, their favorite books, their diaries and toys. But what could he tell them, he whose credo it was that one should never spring surprises on a child-that "a long and dangerous journey requires preparation." What could he say without taking away their hope, and his own? Some have speculated that he told them they were going to their summer camp, Little Rose, but it seems probable that Korczak would not have lied to his children. Perhaps he suggested that the place where they were going might have pine and birch trees like the ones in their camp; and, surely, if there were trees, there would be birds and rabbits and squirrels.

    But even a man of Korczak's vivid fantasy could not have imagined what lay in wait for him and the children. No one had yet escaped from Treblinka to reveal the truth: they were not going East, but sixty miles northeast of Warsaw to immediate extermination in gas chambers. Treblinka was not even an overnight stay.

    The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children's republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz, to whom he had dedicated the story of Planet Ro, by the other.

    S tefa followed a little way back with the nine- to twelve-year-olds. There were Giena, with sad, dark eyes like her mother's; Eva Mandelblatt, whose brother had been in the orphanage before her. Halinka Pinchonson, who chose to go with Korczak rather than stay behind with her mother. There were Jakub, who wrote the poem about Moses; Leon with his polished box; Mietek with his dead brother's prayer book; and Abus, who had stayed too long on the toilet.

    There were Zygmus, Sami, Hanka, and Aronek, who had signed the petition to play in the church garden; Hella, who was always restless; big Hanna, who had asthma; and little Hanna with her pale, tubercular smile; Mendelek, who had the bad dream; and the agitated boy who had not wanted to leave his dying mother. There were Abrasha, who had played Amal, with his violin; Jerzyk, the fakir. Chaimek, the doctor; Adek, the lord mayor. , and the rest of the cast of The Post Office, all following their own Pan Doctor on their way to meet the Messiah King. One of the older boys carried the green flag of King Matt, the blue Star of David set against a field of white on one side. The older children took turns carrying the flag during the course of their two-mile walk, perhaps remembering how King Matt had held his head high that day he was forced to march through the streets of his city to what he thought was to be his execution.

    Among the teachers were many who had grown up in the orphanage: Roza Sztokman, Romcia's mother, with her blond hair parted in the middle and plaited into two thick braids like her daughter's; Roza's brother Henryk, who typed the diary, blond like her, a good athlete, popular with the girls. (He could have escaped to Russia before the fall of Warsaw, but he had stayed behind to be with their father, the old tailor.) There were Balbina Grzyb, whose husband Feliks (away at work that day) had been voted king of the orphanage as a boy; Henryk Asterblum, the accountant for thirty years; Dora Solnicka, the treasurer; Sabina Lejzerowicz, the popular sewing teacher who was also a gymnast; Roza Lipiec- Jakubowska, who grew up in the orphanage; and Natalia Poz, who worked in the office for twenty years, limping as a result of polio contracted as a child just before she came under Korczak's care.

    The sidewalks were packed with people from neighboring houses, who were required to stand in front of their homes when an Aktion was taking place. As the children followed Korczak away from the orphanage, one of the teachers started singing a marching song, and everyone joined in: "Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high." They walked past the Children's Hospital, a few blocks down on Sliska Street, where Korczak had spent seven years as a young doctor, past Panska, and Twarda, where he had gone at night to see his poor Jewish patients. The streets here were empty, but many people watched from behind closed curtains. When Jozef Balcerak, who had moved into the ghetto the year before to be with his parents, caught sight of the little procession from his window, he gasped, "My God, they've got Korczak!" The orphans marched half a mile to the All Saints Church on Grzybowska Square (where they had once asked to play in the garden), joining up with thousands of others, many of them children from institutions that had also been evacuated that morning. They continued on together through the Small Ghetto to the Chlodna Street bridge that crossed over to the Large Ghetto. Witnesses say that the youngest children stumbled on the uneven cobblestones and were shoved up the steps of the bridge; many fell or were pushed down to the other side. Below the bridge some Poles were shouting: "Goodbye, good riddance, Jews!"

    Korczak led his children down Karmelicka Street, past Nowolipki, home of the Little Review, and past the sausage shop where he used to take his reporters on Thursday nights. Michael Zylberberg and his wife Henrietta, living in the basement of a house on the corner of Nowolipki and Smocza, happened to look out as the orphans passed by. He was relieved to see that the police were not beating and shoving them as they did with other groups.

    The little procession walked past Dzielna Street, past the Pawiak prison, and up Zamenhofa toward the northernmost wall of the ghetto. The younger ones were wilting by now in the intense heat; they dragged their feet; they moaned that they wanted to rest, that they were thirsty, that they were hot, that they had to go to the bathroom. But the Jewish police, who were escorting them, kept the group moving forward. Joanna Swadosh, a nurse, saw the orphans as they were approaching their destination. She was helping her mother set up a small infirmary in the evacuated hospital next to the Umschlagplatz. It was no use asking why the Germans, so intent on killing, were bothering to open such a unit. There was no apparent logic in anything they did. She no longer dwelled on such questions, but went numbly about her routine. Not until later would she understand that the infirmary was just a cover to allay any suspicion about resettlement.

    She was unpacking a crate when someone glanced through a window and called, "Dr. Korczak is coming!" It could mean only one thing, she thought-they had Korczak. If Korczak had to go, so would they all. The Jewish police were walking on both sides, cordoning them off from the rest of the street. She saw that Korczak was carrying one child, and had another by the hand. He seemed to be talking to them quietly, occasionally turning his head to encourage the children behind. Word that Korczak's orphanage had been taken spread quickly through the ghetto. When Giena's brother, Samuel, heard the news, he rushed out of the furniture factory, two friends following in fast pursuit to prevent him from trying to join Giena. He ran first to the Judenrat office to ask Abraham Gepner if it was really true. Gepner, who had always seemed so powerful, sat slumped in his chair as he acknowledged it was.

    "Can you help me get Giena out of the Umschlagplatz?" Samuel pleaded.
    "
    It's impossible, " Gepner said, almost inaudibly.
    "
    Yesterday they took my daughter's best friend - remember, I called her my adopted daughter. I couldn't save her."

    As Samuel turned to leave, Gepner roused himself "Even if I had a way of getting Giena out of there, she might refuse to go. She may be better off with Korczak and Stefa and the other children." Samuel dashed out of the Judenrat office and headed for the Umschlagplatz, his friends still trailing after him. But as he neared the loading area, he found that Mita Street, Niska, and part of Zamenhofa were blocked off. He tried to slip through the crowd of people also desperate to save their loved ones, but his friends held on to him and managed to drag him back to the factory.

    All that night Samuel lay on his bed staring into the darkness, unable to think of anything but Giena. What was it like for her on the Umschlagplatz?
    What was she thinking?
    Was she scared? Was she crying for him? He would take part in the Ghetto Uprising the following year, and survive Maidanek and Auschwitz, but his inability to save his sister would torment him all his life.

    In spite of the pandemonium in the ghetto, one could still telephone out to the Aryan side.
    Harry Kaliszer, who had arranged the bribe for Korczak's release from Pawiak two years earlier, phoned Igor Newerly with the terrible news that he had seen everyone being led away. Newerly immediately phoned Maryna Falska, who rushed over to his apartment to join him, his wife, and their nine-year-old son in their vigil. She paced back and forth for quite a while, and then sat in silence. When the telephone finally rang, Newerly leapt for it.

    "They're at the Umschlagplatz," Harry told him. "It looks like this is it." "Call us if there's any hope," Newerly said. "We won't hear from him again," Maryna said hoarsely. Her prediction was correct.

    At the gate where the ghetto ended, fresh squadrons of SS and Ukrainians were waiting with their whips, guns, and dogs. The children were pushed and shoved through the gate, across the tram tracks on the Aryan side, and through another gate, this one opening into the large dirt field by the railway siding which was the Umschlagplatz. Thousands of people - crying, screaming, praying-were already waiting there in the broiling sun. Families huddled together, their meager belongings tied up in pillowcases or sacks; mothers clung to their children; old people sat in a daze. There was no water, no food, no place to relieve oneself, no protection from the German whips and curses.

    Nahum Remba, an official of the Judenrat, had set up a first-aid station in the Umschlagplatz through which he was able to rescue a few of those caught in the dragnets. Word that Korczak and his children were on their way had just reached him when they arrived. He seated them at the far end of the square against a low wall; beyond was the courtyard of the evacuated hospital, now filled with yet more Jews waiting to be loaded onto the trains.

    Korczak's children weren't the only ones that Remba had to worry about that day: four thousand youngsters had been gathered with their caretakers from other institutions. But Korczak's children-well, they were Korczak's. The trains carried from six to ten thousand people daily, but Remba hoped that if he could hold Korczak's entourage there until noon, he might possibly save them until the following day. in a mad world such as this, each day counted - ach hour.

    Remba took Korczak aside and urged him to go with him to the Judenrat to ask them to intervene. But Korczak wouldn't consider it; if he left the children even for a moment in this terrifying place, they might panic. He couldn't risk that. And there was always the danger that they might be taken away in his absence.

    "The loading of the railway cars began then," Remba wrote in his memoirs. "I stood next to a column of ghetto policemen who were trans- ferring the victims to the train, and watched the proceedings with a pounding heart, hoping that my plan of delay would succeed." The Germans and Ukrainians kicked and shoved people into the chlorinated cars, and still there was room left. A tall, thin young man with a violin case pleaded in perfect German with an S S officer to let him join his mother, who had been crammed into one of the cars. The officer laughed derisively and said:

    "It depends on how well you play." The young man took out the violin and played a Mendelssohn Requiem. The music floated over the crazed plaza. But the German, tired of his game, signaled the violinist to get into the car with his mother and sealed the door behind him.

    Then, to Remba's dismay, Schmerling-the sadistic chief of the ghetto police in charge of the Umschlagplatz - ordered that the orphanages be loaded. Korczak signaled his children to rise.

    There are some who say that at that moment a German officer made his way through the crowd and handed Korczak a piece of paper. An influential member of CENTOS had petitioned the Gestapo on his behalf that morning, and the story goes that Korczak was offered permission to return home-but not the children. Korczak is said to have shaken his head and waved the German away.

    Remba records in his memoir that Korczak headed the first section of children and Stefa the second. Unlike the usual chaotic mass of people shrieking hysterically as they were prodded along with whips, the orphans walked in rows of four with quiet dignity. "I shall never forget this scene as long as I live, " Remba wrote.
    "
    This was no march to the train cars, but rather a mute protest against this murderous regime . . . a procession the like of which no human eye has ever witnessed."

    As Korczak led his children calmly toward the cattle cars, the Jewish police cordoning off a path for them saluted instinctively. Remba burst into tears when the Germans asked who that man was. A wail went up from those still left on the square. Korczak walked, head held high, holding a child by each hand, his eyes staring straight ahead with his characteristic gaze, as if seeing something far away.

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