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Where the concentration camp at Treblinka used to stand, a garden now contains 17,000 memorial stones to represent the villages, towns, and countries of the million men, women, and children slaughtered there. Only one stone bears a person's name: it reads JANUSZ KORCZAK (HENRYK GOLDSZMIT) AND THE CHILDREN.
A Polish Jew, Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) was a medical doctor, radio celebrity, and author who sacrificed himself to protect 200 children in a Jewish orphanage he founded amidst the chaos of the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto. Korczak maintained the orphanage as a refuge until he and his orphans were suddenly expelled from it and led to certain death at Treblinka.
Korczak is a famous figure in Poland, one of the heroes of World War II. His historical importance lies in his selfless example as a protector of children under the most dire circumstances; he always declined offers allowing him to use his celebrity for salvation, including invitations to be smuggled out of Poland, or at least interred in the concentration camp at Terezín which was (falsely) thought to be a haven from the death camps.
He was an enigmatic figure with a dark streak that makes him a powerful character for the operatic stage. He was born Henryk Goldszmidt (“Janusz Korczak” was the pseudonym under which he published and the name he preferred), and at the time of his birth, his father had already begun to show signs of the madness that would eventually lead to death by suicide in an asylum. Korczak always feared that he had inherited his father’s mental disease and periodically fell into suicidal despair himself.
It is curious to consider why Korczak, early on in the midst of a thriving medical practice and burgeoning literary career, gave up the kind of wealth and ease both might have afforded him to spend the rest of his life tending to the needs of orphaned children. He used his influence to gain necessary supplies for his orphanage: food, money, and medicine. Unwilling to let the Nazi occupiers define him, he refused to wear the yellow Star of David required for all Jews, an offense for which he was jailed by the Gestapo. As the war progressed and his grim fate became increasingly evident, his response was to prepare himself and the children for a dignified processional out of the gates of the orphanage, past a stunned citizenry and muted cadre of SS officers.
After the New York City Opera's showcase of this work, The New York Times wrote of Korczak's Orphans: