August 5, 1942 Old Doctor

The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children. Janusz Korczak and his orphaned children were last seen boarding the train to the Treblinka extermination camp on August 5 or 6.

Janusz Korczak was a children’s author and pediatrician, a teacher and himself a lifelong learner, a student of pedagogy, the art of science of education, and how children learn.

Korczak10lat0001Born Henryk Goldszmit into the Warsaw family of Józef Goldszmit, in 1878 or ’79 (the sources vary), Korczak was the pen name by which he wrote children’s books.

Henryk was an exceptional student, of above-average intelligence. His father fell ill when the boy was only eleven or twelve and was admitted into a mental hospital, where he died, six years later. As the family’s situation worsened, the boy would tutor other students, to help with household finances.

Goldszmit was a Polish Jew, though not particularly religious, who never believed in forcing religion on children.

He wrote his first book in 1896, a satirical tome on child-rearing, called Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). He adopted the pen name Janusz Korczak two years later, writing for the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Literary Contest.

220px-Janusz_KorczakKorczak wrote for several Polish language newspapers while studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, becoming a pediatrician in 1904. Always the writer, Korczak received literary recognition in 1905 with his book Child of the Drawing Room (Dziecko salonu), while serving as medical officer during the Russo-Japanese war.

He went to Berlin to study in 1907-’08 and worked at the Orphan’s Society in 1909, where he met Stefania “Stefa” Wilczyńska, an educator who would become his associate and close collaborator.

In the years before the Great War, Korczak ran an orphanage of his own design, hiring Wilczyńska as his assistant. There he formed a kind of quasi-Republic for Jewish orphans, complete with its own small parliament, court, and newspaper. The man was born to be an educator.

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In early modern European Royalty, 15th – 18th century, a “whipping boy” was the friend and constant companion to the boy prince or King, whose job it was to get his ass kicked, for the prince’s transgressions. The Lord was not the be struck by his social inferior. It was thought that, to watch his buddy get whipped for his misdeeds would have the same instructional effect, as the beating itself.

The extent of the custom is open to debate and it may be a myth altogether, but one thing is certain.  Poland has been described as the “whipping boy of Europe”, for good reason.

JK2The Polish nation, the sixth largest in all Europe, was sectioned and partitioned for over a century, by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian imperial powers. Korczak volunteered for military service in 1914, serving as military doctor during WW1 and the series of Polish border wars between 1919-’21.

The “Second Polish Republic” emerging from all this in 1922 was roughly two-thirds Polish, the rest a kaleidoscope of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.  Relations were anything but harmonious between ethnic Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others, and most especially Poland’s Jewish minority, the largest in pre-WW2 Europe.

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Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta

Janusz Korczak returned to his life’s work in 1921 of providing for the children of this Jewish community, all the while writing no fewer than thirteen children’s books, along with another seven on pedagogy and other subjects.

In the inter-war years, Korczak put together a children’s newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the daily Polish-Jewish newspaper, Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).

Korczak had his own radio program promoting the rights of children, to whom he was known as Pan Doktor (“Mr. Doctor”) or Stary Doktor (“Old Doctor”).

The Polish government awarded “Old Doctor” the Polonia Restituta in 1933, a state order bestowed on individuals for outstanding achievements in the fields of education, science and other civic accomplishments.

Yearly visits to Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity partitioned from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and future Jewish state of Israel, led to anti-Semitic crosscurrents in the Polish press, and gradual estrangement from non-Jewish orphanages.

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The second Republic’s brief period of independence came to an end in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Korczak volunteered once again but was refused, due to his age.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Wehrmacht are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on, two weeks later.

As an independent nation-state the Sovereign Republic of Poland was dead, though Polish air crews went on to make the largest contribution to the Battle of Britain, among the United Kingdom’s thirteen non-British defenders.  Polish Resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, throughout WW2.

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Warsaw became the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe within the following year.  The Jews of Poland were herded into the city, barely existing on meager rations while awaiting the death squads of the SS.  Old Doctor and his orphans were forced into the Ghetto, in 1939.

There were nearly 200 of them on this day in 1942, when soldiers of the Gross-Aktion (Great Action) Warsaw, came for their “Resettlement to the East”.

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The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman

The extermination camp at Treblinka, awaits.

Polish-Jewish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, one of precious few survivors of the Jewish ghetto, describes the scene in his 1946 memoir, The Pianist:

“He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…”

Eyewitness Joshua Perle states that:  Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child… A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

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At the Umschlagplatz, the rail-side assembly area on the way to Treblinka, an SS officer recognized Korczak, and called him aside.  The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but the man refused, saying that he would stay with his children.  Stary Doktor was offered deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp instead, but again he refused.

The man who refused freedom to die with his orphaned children was last seen boarding the train to Treblinka on August 5 or 6, where all 200 were murdered, the following day.

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Janusz Korczak memorial stone, Treblinka

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand”. — Mary Berg, The Diary

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May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. They immediately awakened Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, a WWI-era entertainer, and a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia. He was a dwarf. Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz. Three of those grew to normal height, the other seven were dwarves.

Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other, and live for one another”.

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The dwarves were talented musicians, performing a variety show throughout the ’30s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”. They toured Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia with their normal height siblings serving as road crew, until being swept up by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19th, 1944 and, accustomed to celebrity, one began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened, knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed, and what he called “blood” (family) experiments. The “Angel of Death”was delighted, “I now have work for 20 years”.

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The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a 15-month old boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, insisting that they were close relatives. A total of 22 people.

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  They were kept alive for further use and, as bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters for them.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than torture rituals.  The three skeletons displayed of their dwarf predecessors, an ever-present reminder of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was drawn until they would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.

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On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform. Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele gave a speech, and then the audience was invited onstage to poke and prod the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where a family of twelve lived to tell the tale.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found it ruined, though they did find a stash of gold coins where they had left it, buried for safekeeping before the war.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512bafThere was no future for them in this place.  Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned. The family emigrated to Israel in May 1949, resuming their musical tour and performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never faced justice. He fled to South America after the war, and suffered a stroke while swimming in 1979.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska, “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

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June 4, 1939 Vacation Cruise to Freedom

So it was that a vacation cruise to freedom became the “voyage of the damned”. MS St. Louis returned to Europe

In 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist party came to power, some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. Fearing for their safety, some 304,000 of them emigrated in the first six years of the regime, including the physicist Albert Einstein. Jews were banned from holding professional jobs in 1936, effectively blocking them from German politics, education and industry, and relegating them to 2nd class citizenship. The SS-ordered “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass), was carried out over the night of November 9-10, 1938. Jewish owned stores and offices were smashed and vandalized, and synagogues burned.

Many of Germany’s Jews had lived there since the time of Charlemagne. By the eve of WWII, only 214,000 remained.

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Postcard depicting MS St Louis

Part of this exodus, the Hamburg-America line cruise ship MS St. Louis departed Hamburg on May 13, 1939, headed for Cuba. On board were 937 refugees, seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.

St. Louis’ Atlantic crossing was described as a “joyous affair”.  A non-Jewish German and adamant anti-Nazi, Captain Gustav Schröder made sure that it was so.

A full-time nursemaid looked after small children while their parents sat to eat, uniformed stewards serving dishes which were rationed by this time in Germany. Swimming lessons were held for children on deck. They were even permitted to throw a tablecloth over the Adolf Hitler statue in the dining room. Lothar Molton, a boy traveling with his parents, described the experience as “a vacation cruise to freedom”.

The joyous affair came to an end on May 27, when St. Louis dropped anchor in Havana Harbor. Passengers had all purchased legal visas, but most had been retroactively canceled on May 5, due to a change in Cuban immigration policy. For six days they waited amidst bureaucratic wrangling. In the end, only 29 were permitted to get off in Cuba. Four were Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals. Another 22 were Jews with valid US visas. One attempted suicide, and was brought to a Havana hospital.

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Small boats surrounded the MS St Louis in Havana Harbor to prevent refugee passengers from committing suicide when denied landing in Cuba.

St. Louis then crossed the Florida strait, arriving off the coast on June 4 and hoping for better results in the United States. It wasn’t meant to be. “Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami”, passengers sent President Franklin Roosevelt an urgent telegram, pleading to be admitted into the country. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating the United Nations, urged Roosevelt to reject the refugees, sending Coast Guard cutters to be sure that nobody jumped overboard and swam ashore. stlouistelegram

Roosevelt had his own politics to deal with. The Great Depression had left millions unemployed at the time and Americans were fearful of additional competition for scarce jobs. In Congress, the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted an additional 20,000 German-Jewish refugees over existing quotas, was being allowed to die in committee. Roosevelt was preparing to run for an unprecedented third term, and calculations of self-interest won out. He ignored the plight of the St. Louis.

Finally, a group of Canadian clergy and academics attempted to persuade Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary in Canada. The ship was, after all, only two days from Halifax. Director of Canada’s immigration branch Frederick Blair opposed the move. Blair must have been some piece of work. He had written a year earlier, that “Pressure by Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now, and I am glad to be able to add that, after 35 years of experience here, that it has never been so carefully controlled”. Blair urged King against the decision. On June 9, the Prime Minister officially declined to admit St. Louis’ refugees.

Jedes Bild ist mir begegnet © Herbert Dombrowski / Galerie Hilaneh von KoriesSo it was that a vacation cruise to freedom became the “Voyage of the Damned”. MS St. Louis returned to Europe. Captain Schröder negotiated and schemed to find safe haven for his 907 passengers.  Anything but return them to Nazi Germany.  At one point, Schröder contemplated intentionally running aground off the coast of England. In the end, they all found refuge in Europe. 288 passengers were admitted by Great Britain, and 224 by France. 214 were accepted into Belgium and another 181 by the Netherlands.

Many of the St. Louis refugees were later swept up in the Nazi invasion of Europe. Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the Holocaust Memorial Museum have exhaustively researched the fate of these individuals, finding that “Of the 620 St. Louis passengers who returned to continental Europe, we determined that eighty-seven were able to emigrate before Germany invaded western Europe on May 10, 1940. 254 passengers in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands after that date, died during the Holocaust. Most of these people were murdered in the killing centers of Auschwitz and Sobibór; the rest died in internment camps, in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis. 365 of the 620 passengers who returned to continental Europe survived the war.”

May 12, 2008 Angel of Warsaw

All told, Irena Sendler saved about 2,400 Jewish children and infants and about 100 teenagers, who went into the forests to join partisan bands fighting the Nazis. The far better known Oskar Schindler is credited with saving less than half that number.

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Dr. Stanisław & Janina Krzyżanowski

Dr. Stanislaw Krzyżanowski was a physician treating mostly the poorer Jewish families in the central Polish town of Otwock, 14 miles southeast of Warsaw.   He had once said to his only daughter Irena:  “If you see someone drowning, you must save them.” “But, what if I can’t swim?” she asked. “Nevertheless, you must try”.

Overwhelmed by the typhus epidemic of 1917, Dr. Krzyżanowski contracted the disease himself and died that February, but his example guided his daughter for the rest of her life.  Jewish community leaders showed their gratitude by offering to pay for Irena’s education, but her mother declined.

Irena (Krzyżanowski) Sendler was a nurse living outside Warsaw, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  The Nazis gathered up every Jew they could find in 1940, penning 400,000 or more up in the city. Soon, the Warsaw ghetto became the scene of suffering, disease and starvation. Knowing the Nazis feared nothing so much as Typhus, Sendler took advantage of their fears and obtained permission to begin work in the ghetto.

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“Irena in a social welfare department truck in May 1948” H/T U.K. Daily Mail

She would travel there daily, and soon started to smuggle Jewish babies out in the bottom of a medical bag.  She’d place soiled bandages around and over sedated babies, to keep guards from looking too closely. She carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck. Sometimes she’d use that or even a coffin to smuggle larger children and even teenagers out of the ghetto, other times leading them out through cellars or sewers.

Sendler traveled with a small a dog she had trained to bark at Nazi soldiers letting her in and out of the gates. They wanted nothing to do with her small, yappy dog, and the barking would cover any sounds that the babies might make.

She would make as many as three runs a day, taking out as many as 6 children. Most of them were already orphans by this time, their parents murdered by the Nazi regime.  Many times, parents gave up their children in order to save them.

Irena coded the names of these children onto two slips of paper, including false and real names.  These she buried in glass jars under a tree in the yard of a friend. She obtained false papers for each of the kids, passing them along to nunneries, monasteries and to foster parents.

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‘Angel of the Warsaw Ghetto”, Irena Sendler

Elzbieta Ficowska was smuggled out in a carpenter’s toolbox at the age of six months.  ‘When I was 17″, she said, “a friend said she’d heard I was Jewish. At that point, my Polish mum told me the truth, giving me a silver spoon engraved with my name and birth date, which my blood family had placed in the box with me.   Elzbieta later learned that her family wept on hearing she was to be baptized, but later signaled their understanding by sending a christening gown and tiny gold cross.  “I consider both my Polish mum and Irena to be a little pathological. It is a kind of insanity to overcome such fear. They were so alike, my mum and Irena – fantastic, strong women”.

Anna Mieszkowska, the author of Sendler’s Polish biography, tells a story.  ‘Irena told me not to put this story in the book. She was asked to save two children, a boy and a girl. The parents wanted them to go but the grandparents did not. Irena arrived at their address and found the whole family had committed suicide – grandparents, parents, children. She had nightmares about this for many years.’

Sendler was caught by the Gestapo in 1943, betrayed by a colleague under torture, and by a nosy landlady.  Nazi interrogators beat her savagely, but she never gave up any of those names.

Irena lasted 100 days in Pawiak prison, a place where average inmate survival was less than a month.  Finally she was returned to the Gestapo and stood against a wall for execution, too broken to care. An SS guard said “not you” and shoved her out into the street. He’d been bribed by her friends, and was himself later caught and executed. For now she was “officially” dead, which made it easier to escape detection for the remainder of the war.Sendlerowa, 1

After the war, Irena tried to reunite parents or surviving family members with the children she’d rescued. She was rarely successful.

All told, Irena Sendler saved about 2,400 Jewish children and infants and about 100 teenagers, who went into the forests to join partisan bands fighting the Nazis. The far better known Oskar Schindler is credited with saving less than half that number.

Today, Elzbieta Ficowska tries to keep her Jewish roots, but they seem foreign to her.  ‘When I enter a Catholic church, everything is mine. Sometimes I look in the mirror for traces of my real parents. I sent letters all around the world to try to find out about them.’  She has never seen so much as a photograph.

The Polish Government honored Irena Sendler with the Order of the White Eagle, its highest award. The Yad Vashem Remembrance Center in Jerusalem honored her as a “Righteous Gentile” in 1965. She received honorary citizenship in Israel in 1985, and the Polish and Israeli Governments nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

SendlerowaThe Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded on October 12 in Oslo, Norway, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold Gore Jr. “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

Irena Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008 at the age of 98. This choice of 2007 Nobel prize recipients has been controversial, since Nobel by-laws prohibit posthumous award of the prize. Many felt that Sendler had more than earned it. Some have claimed that Nobel committee rules require qualifying work to have taken place within the two years immediately preceding nomination, but I think they’re making it up. I’ve read the Nobel statutes. You can do so yourself, HERE, if you’re so inclined   I find no such requirement.  Let me know if I missed it, the whole thing seems political, to me.

Irena Sendler always said that she wasn’t a hero, she only did what any normal person would do. I find in the story of this petite Polish nurse, some of the most magnificent courage of which our species is capable.  If that does not make her a hero, I don’t know what would.