“Master’s arms are around me. He is guiding me and supporting me every moment of my life. . . . I am never alone, nor will I ever be alone, for he is with me.” Brother Bhaktananda, “Protection Prayer”
“I am responsible! If I, a doctor, will not do it, who will?” So speaks the protagonist of Stefan Zeromski’s Homeless People, explaining to a friend why he has given up personal love and happiness in order to serve the poor. At this time in history, the end of the nineteenth century, Warsaw was experiencing an overwhelming influx of peasants seeking jobs in the newly industrialized city. Of the many who came, only a small percentage would find work; the rest sank into poverty, lived on the streets, and were borne down by malnutrition and disease. Janusz Korczak, a young medical student, deeply affected by Zeromski’s impassioned novel and even more so by the misery and desperation he saw, vowed to dedicate his own life to helping the poor, especially the children orphaned and cast into poverty by forces beyond their control. Even at the age of five Korczak had longed to “remake the world”—to create a place where children could enjoy happiness and healthy growth, where they could experience life as a joyful adventure of learning. When, at the age of thirty-three, he visited a beautifully kept orphanage in England, Korczak saw with perfect clarity his own life direction. Like the fictional hero of Homeless People he would not marry, nor father children of his own. Instead he took “a vow to uphold the child and defend his rights.” Having himself been emotionally battered in schools controlled by the czarist policy of eliminating Polish language and culture, Korczak as a young doctor gave up his successful hospital practice to devote himself full-time to serving in a compassionately run Jewish orphanage.
Korczak’s first orphanage opened in October 1912—within a few years of Yogananda’s school at Ranchi. The Warsaw orphanage was to be a “children’s republic”—a self-governing family of orphans, with kindness and love as the central energy, and a spirit of fairness, justice, and service guiding daily activities. By 1914, even as war drums thundered and Poland was caught up in the twin evils of nationalistic fervor and anti-Semitism, the orphan family had so matured under Korczak’s gentle guidance that when Polish children threw stones and screamed, “Set the dogs on the Jews,” the orphans responded by going out into the streets in their hundreds, each bearing a pot of brilliant red geraniums as a gift to a Polish neighbor. The neighborhood was ablaze not with the fire of hatred but with glowing red flowers, radiating peace and good will, even in the midst of the violent emotions of war hysteria.
The country was in ruins and the cruel Polish winter descended upon the city. Korczak walked the streets seeking food, coal, and blankets for the children. Their hearts touched, though themselves struggling to survive, the members of the local coal miners’ union gave to the orphans a train-car–load of coal: enough to provide warmth for the winter, with extra left over to barter for food. Every neighbor helped, Jew and non-Jew alike—perhaps the kindness of the red geraniums was coming home. Horse-drawn wagons appeared, their drivers cheerfully laboring to unload and transport the coal. The children pushed wheelbarrows. Even the smallest carried lumps as large as their heads.
Korczak served the children on all levels—not least as souls. In the orphanage chapel he would sit with his charges, a yarmulke on his head, a prayer book on his lap, his eyes closed in silent meditation. “All children,” he wrote, “need to express their grief and talk with God.” In his 1931 play, Senate of Madmen, when a little boy asks where God is, the Sad Monk explains: When people grew desperate to find God, God did come, and when He came, He gave the people one simple message: “Love each other, My children!” The people, yearning to see God again, sought Him out wherever He was hiding—until, finally, God rose into the air and descended in a shower of pearls, each one landing in the heart of a child. Here then is the essence of Korczak’s faith: that God’s presence in this world is most purely to be found in the children, and that our service to Him lies in protecting, nurturing, and respecting them, so that He may care for the world and its people through these little ones who are closest to Him.
September 1, 1939: Germany invaded Poland. Korczak carried on with his mission: to bring hope and love to the children, to fill their lives with meaning and purpose. At a Kaddish ceremony for a beloved friend, Korczak and the orphans together swore to live as had their friend—in a spirit of love for all mankind and in devotion to work, justice, and truth.
Then came the Warsaw ghetto, and the train cars to Treblinka. As the world outside sank deeper into violence and depravity, inside the orphanage was a world of peace and kindness: “The doctor knows very well,” one friend wrote, “that the world is unjust; that’s why he has created an oasis of goodness. He wants to raise children who will be incapable of doing evil, and who will fight it with virtue.”
As the end approached, Korczak kept his focus always on the light in the darkness—helping to build playgrounds, encouraging the children’s undying passion for learning, in every way nourishing their higher natures. Refusing all offers to help him escape the ghetto, Korczak would not consider walking away from his sacred trust to be father and guardian for the orphans. The loyal orphanage staff too chose to stay with the children rather than weaken morale by seeking personal safety.
And so came the final day, August 6, 1942. All the orphanages were ordered to the loading area for trains to Treblinka. A great mass of children, shrieking hysterically, were prodded with whips and dogs to the waiting cattle cars. In the midst of this scene of terror and chaos, Korczak strode forward calmly, “unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds”: head held high, carrying one child, holding another by the hand. Behind him came the children of his orphanage, walking with quiet dignity in neat rows of four. Korczak, one witness later wrote, seemed to be quietly talking to the children, turning his head to encourage those behind. Steadily the good doctor walked “at the head of his little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic.” Korczak’s eyes were focused “straight ahead with his characteristic gaze, as if seeing something far away.” Among devout Jews in Israel, Korczak is regarded as one of the 36 Just Men whose pure souls, according to ancient Jewish tradition, make possible the salvation of the world.
Rise, O my soul, in freedom:
Nothing to fear anymore.
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing