The Relevance of Dr. Janusz Korczak Today

Dr. Janusz Korczak is a heroic figure because of the way he lived, the way he died, and because of his enduring legacy. Through the 1920’s and 30’s, until his death in 1942, Dr. Korczak focused on the health and welfare of orphans in Poland through leading the development of the “Children’s Republic” to care for young people whose parents were not able or available to care for them. This was a radical new model of care – children and youth participated in the production of their own food, operated and wrote their own newspaper, voiced their own needs, and when there were behavioral problems the children operated their own Children’s Court.

Dr. Korczak developed an international reputation as a paediatrician, a child psychologist, a child developmentalist, and a skilled educator. He wrote wonderfully creative children’s books – King Matthew the First and Kaytek the Wizard – written as if through the eyes of the children he cared for. He hosted a regular radio program renowned for its charm, humour, and insight. Having earned fame in his own lifetime, paediatricians and others who cared for children came from across the globe to learn from him.

Initially, when Dr. Korczak introduced his Children’s Republics they cared for the vulnerable, Polish children from all backgrounds – Jewish, Catholic and others. However, after Nazi Germany occupied Warsaw, they removed the non-Jewish children from Dr. Korczak’s care and segregated his orphans into the Jewish ghetto. Conditions rapidly deteriorated, supplies were sparse, water was limited, and food for the children was not provided. During these difficult times, Dr. Korczak was offered many opportunities to escape. He repeatedly declined these offers, saying that, “one never leaves a sick child”.

Having been witness to the steady transfer of much of the Jewish population to the Treblinka death camp, Dr. Korczak was finally forced to join its ranks. On August 6, 1942, refusing to abandon the children under his care, he stoically and heroically led a procession of 200 children from his orphanage onto the train headed for Treblinka – the infamous, “March of the Children”. No one survived.

Dr. Korczak’s profound respect for the rights of children and youth and his actualization of those rights in his Children’s Republic came to inspire the formulation of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child – formally ratified by Canada in 1991. Children and youth whose lives are shaped by poverty, loss and trauma exist in all countries, including Canada, and they demand our special attention. We need to engage, support and love them, as Korczak did, so they may grow to live healthy and fulfilling lives. To address this imperative, and echoing the wisdom of Dr. Korczak, the field of Social Paediatrics has been developed in Canada to address children and youth’s social determinants of health: poverty, unstable housing and caregivers, food insecurity, inadequate education and exposure to violence.

Dr. Janusz Korczak died as an emblematic figure of unwavering support for children in dire need. More importantly, he lived to found an effective path to address complex problems for the children of Warsaw. His legacy brings together children and youth of varied religions, ethnicities, and nationalities, immigrants and native, no matter what the challenges or how difficult the circumstances, joined together in their common humanity, resilience, and promise.

We have organized this series of six presentations around specific themes related to promoting the well-being of vulnerable children and youth focusing in particular on human rights, child protection and respecting the best interests of the child, and social paediatrics; and we have invited prominent, knowledgeable and dynamic speakers. These reflect the enduring contributions of Dr. Janusz Korczak and his colleagues.

Curren Warf, MD, MSEd
Clinical Professor of Paediatrics
Head Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine
Department of Paediatrics
British Columbia Children’s Hospital/University of British Columbia