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Diary of Janusz Korczak

Korczak Diary
Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters House

Janusz Korczak was the pen name used by Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish Jewish doctor known for his children's books and his groundbreaking views on childcare.1 He directed a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw from 1912 until his death in 1942. As the featured diary entries illustrate, Korczak believed in treating children as his equals.2 The children and staff at his orphanage all shared certain rights and responsibilities. Although he was a famous doctor and writer with a popular radio show, Korczak could often be found clearing tables and cleaning dishes at the orphanage.

Korczak believed in maintaining a positive environment for children in times of crisis. Days after the German invasion of Poland began in September 1939, he wrote a public letter suggesting people share with the needy and occupy children with books and toys.3 Korczak was determined to keep his children's daily routine in place even after the orphanage was forced to relocate to the Warsaw ghetto.4 The violence of the German invasion and occupation of Poland orphaned many children, and the harsh conditions within the ghetto made it increasingly difficult for Korczak to secure food and medicine for the growing number of children in his care. 

These pages of Korczak's diary provide a glimpse into the doctor's state of mind in late July 1942 as Nazi authorities began a massive wave of deportations from the ghetto. The featured entries reflect his concerns over the children's mental health, their weight loss, and the poor quality of their food and medicine. Korczak describes how he had recently felt the need to shout at the children in order to prevent a mass panic.5 These entries reveal his struggle to maintain his own well-being even as he tried to project confidence and reassure the children. His writing is scattered, and he often mentions death.

The Jewish resistance in the ghetto and his Polish friends on the "Aryan" side of the ghetto wall offered to help Korczak escape multiple times, but he refused to leave the children under his care. Two weeks after he wrote the diary entries featured here, the SS and police came to deport the inhabitants of his orphanage. Providing aid and comfort as long as they could, Korczak and his small staff led nearly 200 children through the ghetto as they marched quietly under guard to the Umschlagplatz ("collection site"). Unwilling to leave the children to face their fate alone, the doctor and his staff chose to accompany them to Treblinka, where they were almost certainly gassed soon after arrival.6 

See, for example, Janusz Korczak, King Matt the First, translated by Richard Lourie (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986); Janusz Korczak, How to Love a Child and Other Selected Works (Elstree: Vallentine Mitchell, 2018); and A Voice for the Child: The Inspirational Words of Janusz Korczak, edited by Sandra Joseph (London: Thorsons, 1999).

For English-language versions of Korczak’s diary, see Janusz Korczak, The Warsaw Ghetto Memoirs of Janusz Korczak, translated by Edwin P. Kulawiec (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1978); or Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary (London: Yale University Press, 2003).

This newspaper (Nasz Przeglad, or Our Review) regularly ran contributions from Korczak and the children (A Letter from Korczak to the Editors of Nasz Przeglad; 4 Sept. 1939, the Janusz Korczak Collection, No. 12829, Ghetto Fighters House Archives).

Caused by the emotional breakdown of a recently orphaned child, this incident occurred the night before the orphanage staged a play for the ghetto community. This illustrates how Korczak and his staff used constructive activities like theatrical performances and concerts to calm the children’s nerves and provide positive distractions from the difficult realities of life in the ghetto. The play that Korczak selected for the children to perform—Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office—is about a young boy who is confined to his home by illness and does not fully understand the reasons keeping him from freely experiencing life in the wider world. For more on theater and music in the ghetto, see Shirli Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Rebecca Rovit, "Cultural Ghettoization and Theater during the Holocaust: Performance as a Link to Community," Holocaust and Genocide Studies 19:3 (2005): 459–86. 

For more on the life and career of Janusz Korczak, see Mark Bernheim, Father of the Orphans: The Story of Janusz Korczak (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989); Adir Cohen, The Gate of Light: Janusz Korczak: The Educator and Writer Who Overcame the Holocaust (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994); and Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).

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Night, July 18 

 

During the first week of our last stay at the Goclawek summer home, the result of the consumption of bread of unknown composition and make was a mass poisoning which affected the children and some of the staff. 

Diarrhea. The excrements boiled over in the chamber pots. Bubbles fonned upon the surface of the pitch-like matter. Bursting they exuded a sweetish-putrid odor, which not only attacked the sense of smell but invaded the throat, eyes, ears, the brain. 

Just now we have something similar, but it consists of vomiting and watery stools. 

During the night, the boys lost 80 kg among them — on the average a kilogram per head. The girls — 60 kg (somewhat less). 

The children's digestive tracts worked under heavy strain. Not much was needed to precipitate a disaster. Perhaps it was the inoculation against dysentery (five days ago) or the ground pepper added pursuant to a French recipe to the stale eggs used for Friday's pate. 

The next day, not so much as a single kilogram of the losses in weight was made up. 

Help for those vomiting, moaning with pain, was administered in near darkness — with limewater. (Unlimited dental chalk for whoever wanted it, jug after jug. In addition, a drug for those suffering from headaches.) Finally, for the staff, sparingly — morphine. An injection of caffeine for a hysterical new inmate following a collapse. 

His mother, wasting away of ulcerated intestines, was unwilling to die until the child had been placed in the Home. The boy was unwilling to go until the mother had died. He finally yielded. The mother died propitiously, now the child has pangs of conscience. In his illness, he mimics his mother: he moans (screams), complains of pain, then gasps, then feels hot, finally is dying of thirst. 

"Water!"

I pace the dormitory to and fro. Will there be an outbreak of mass hysteria? Might be! 

But the children's confidence in the leadership prevailed. They believed that as long as the doctor was calm there was no danger. 

Actually I was not so calm. But the fact that I shouted at the troublesome patient and threatened to throw him out onto the staircase was evidence that the man at the helm had everything under control. The decisive factor: he shouts, so he knows. 

The next day, that was yesterday — the play. The Post Office by Tagore. Applause, handshakes, smiles, efforts at cordial conversation. (The chairwoman looked over the house after the performance and pronounced that though we are cramped, that genius Korczak had demonstrated that he could work miracles even in a rat hole.) 

This is why others have been allotted palaces. 

[This reminded me of the pompous opening ceremony of a new kindergarten in the workers' house at Gorczewska Street with the participation of Mrs. Moscicka (Wife of the prewar President of Poland) — the other one.] 

How ridiculous they are. 

What would have happened if the actors of yesterday were to continue in their roles today? 

Jerzyk fancied himself a fakir. 

Chaimek — a real doctor. 

Adek — the lord mayor. 

(Perhaps illusions would be a good subject for the Wednesday dormitory talk. Illusions, their role in the life of mankind. . . .) 

And so to Dzielna Street. 

 

The same day. Midnight 

 

If I were to say that I have never written a single line unwillingly, that would be the truth. But it would also be true to say that I have written everything under compulsion. 

I was a child "able to play for hours on his own,” and with me “you wouldn't know there was a child in the house."

I received building blocks (bricks) when I was six. I stopped playing with them when I was fourteen. 

"Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Such a big guy. You ought to be doing something else. Reading. But blocks — what next. ..."

When I was fifteen I acquired the craze, the frenzy of reading. The world vanished, only the book existed. . . . 

I talked to people a lot: to peers and to much older grownups. In Saski Park I had some really aged friends. They "admired" me. A philosopher, they said. 

I conversed only with myself. 

For to talk and to converse are not the same. To change one's clothes and to undress are two different things. 

I undress when alone, and I converse when alone. 

A quarter of an hour ago I finished my monologue in the presence of Heniek Azrylewicz. Probably for the first time in my life I told myself positively: 

"I have an analytical, not an inventive, mind."

To analyze in order to know? 

No. 

To analyze in order to find, to get to the bottom of things? 

Not that either. 

Rather to analyze in order to ask further and further questions. 

I ask questions of men (of infants, of the aged), I question facts, events, fates. I am not so pressed for answers; I go on to other questions — not necessarily on the same subject. 

My mother used to say: 

"That boy has no ambition. It's all the same to him what he wears, whether he plays with children of his own kind or with the janitor's. He is not ashamed to play with toddlers."

I used to ask my building blocks, children, grownups, what they were. I did not break toys, it did not interest me why the doll's eyes closed when it was put down. It was not the mechanism but the essence of a thing, the thing for itself, in itself. 

Writing a diary or a life story I am obliged to talk, not to converse. 

Now back to euthanasia. The family of a suicide. Euthanasia to order. 

 An insane man, legally incapacitated, incapable of independent decision. 

A code comprising a thousand articles is needed. Life itself will dictate them. What is important is the principle: it is pennissible, desirable. 

On a beautiful remote island, serene, as in a fairy tale, in a fine hotel, boarding house, a suicide casts the die. Is living worthwhile? 

How many days or weeks are necessary to decide? A life following the patterns of contemporary magnates? Perhaps work? 

The hotel service. Duties in shifts. The work in the garden. The length of stay? 

"Where is he?"

"He has left."

To a neighboring island or to the bottom of the sea. 

Should there be a rule: 

"The death sentence will be carried out in one month, even against your will. For you have signed an agreement, a contract with an organization, a deal with temporal life. So much the worse for you if you recant too late." 

Or the death — liberation comes in sleep, in a glass of wine, while dancing, to the accompaniment of music, sudden and unexpected. 

"I want to die because I'm in love."

"I long for death because I hate."

"Take my life because I am capable of neither love nor hate."

All this exists, but in crazy confusion, festering, filthy. 

Death for profit, for a fixed payment, for convenience, to oblige. 

Most intimately connected with death are sterilization, and the prevention and interruption of pregnancy. 

"In Warsaw, you are free to have one child; in a small town, two; in a village, three; in a frontier village, four. In Siberia, ten. Take your choice." "Free to live but childless."

"Free to live but unmarried."

"Manage by yourself; pay the taxes exclusively for yourself."

"Here is a mate for you. Pick one out often, out of a hundred girls."

"You may have two males. We allow three females." Hurrah! lots of jobs, files, agencies, offices! (An iron machine does the work, provides accommodations, furniture, food, clothing. You are concerned only with organizing.) 

A new method of land cultivation or livestock breeding, or new synthetic products, or the colonization of regions today inaccessible — the equator and the North and South Pole. The total population of the earth can be increased to five billion. 

Communication has been established with a new planet. There is colonization. Mars, perhaps the moon will accept new immigrants. Perhaps there will be even more efficient means of communication with a distant neighbor. The result: ten billion men like you and me. The earth has the last word as to who, where to, how many. 

Today's war is a naive, though insincere, shoot-off. What is important is the great migration of peoples. 

Russia's program is to mix and crossbreed. Germany's is to gather together those having a similar color of skin, hair, shape of nose, dimensions of the skull or pelvis. 

Today, specialists feel the stranglehold of unemployment. There is a tragic quest for a dish of work for physicians and dentists. 

Not enough tonsils waiting to be cut, appendixes to be taken out, teeth for filling. 

"What to do? What to do?"

There is: acetonemia, pylorospasmus. There is: angina pectoris. 

What will happen if we find that tuberculosis is not only curable but cured with a single injection, intra-venal, intramuscular or subcutaneous? 

Syphilis — test 606. Consumption, 2500. What will be left for doctors and nurses to do? 

What will happen if alcohol is replaced by a whiff of gas? Machine No. 3. Price, ten zlotys.1 A fifty-year guarantee. The dose as prescribed on the label. Payable in installments. 

If sufficient daily nourishment were contained in two .t-bion pills, what about the chefs and the restaurants? 

Esperanto? One daily newspaper for all peoples and all tongues. What will the linguists do, and above all, the translators and the teachers of foreign languages? 

The radio — perfected. Even the most sensitive ear will detect no difference between live music and a “canned, conserved” melody. 

What's going to happen when even today we need disasters to provide work and goals for just one generation?

We cannot go on like this, my dear friends. Because unprecedented stagnation will set in, and foul air such as no one has ever encountered, and frustration such as no one has ever experienced. 

A theme for a short story. 

Tomorrow begins a radio contest for the master violinist of the year, playing this or that symphony or dissonance. 

The whole world is at the loudspeakers. 

An unprecedented Olympic contest. 

The fans of the violinist from the Isle of Parrots experience moments of terrible suspense. 

Comes the final night. 

Their favorite man is beaten. 

They commit suicide, unable to reconcile themselves to the fall of their idol.

There is a Che kh ov story: A ten-year-old nanny is so desperate for sleep that she strangles the screaming baby. 

Poor nanny — she did not know what else to do. I have found a way. I don’t hear the irritating coughing, I heartlessly ignore the aggressive and provoking behavior of the old tailor. 

I don't hear it. Two o'clock in the morning. Silence. I settle down to sleep — for five hours. The rest I shall make up in the daytime. 

I would like to tidy up what I have written. A tough assignment. 

 

July 21, 1942 

 

Tomorrow I shall be sixty-three or sixty-four years old. For some years, my father failed to obtain my birth certificate. I suffered a few difficult moments over that. Mother called it gross negligence: being a lawyer, father should not have delayed in the matter of the birth certificate. 

I was named after my grandfather, his name was Hersh (Flirsh). Father had every right to call me Henryk: he himself was given the name Jozef. And to the rest of his children grandfather had given Christian names, too: Maria, Magdalena, Ludwik, Jakub, Karol. 

Yet he hesitated and procrastinated. 

I ought to say a good deal about my father: I pursue in life that which he strove for and for which my grandfather tortured himself for many years. 

And my mother. Later about that. I am both mother and father. That helps me to know and understand a great deal. 

My great-grandfather was a glazier. I am glad: glass gives warmth and light. 

It is a difficult thing to be bom and to learn to live. Ahead of me is a much easier task: to die. After death, it may be difficult again, but I am not bothering about that. The last year, month or hour. 

I should like to die consciously, in possession of my faculties. I don't know what I should say to the children by way of farewell. I should want to make clear to them only this — that the road is theirs to choose, freely. 

Ten o'clock. Shots: two, several, two, one, several. Perhaps it is my own badly blacked out window. 

But I do not stop writing. 

On the contrary: it sharpens (a single shot) the thought. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters House
Accession Number Ghetto Fighters' House Archives, Catalog No. 12808, Registry No. 12808rm
Date Created
July 18, 1942 to July 21, 1942
Page(s) 75–83
Author / Creator
Janusz Korczak
Language(s)
Polish
Location
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Diary
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