his home in Israel, Shlomo Nadel, 85, keeps a
portrait of Janusz Korczak, who ran the Polish
orphanage where he once lived.
TEL AVIV -- They are in their
80s now, the last living links to Janusz Korczak, the
visionary champion of children's rights who refused to
part with his young charges even as they were herded to
the gas chambers.
When they speak of him, the old
men are young again: transported to their days in his
orphanage, a place they remember as a magical republic
for children as the Nazi threat grew closer.
"It was a utopia," said Shlomo
Nadel, 85, one of the surviving orphans who managed to
flee Poland before the Jewish orphanage was forced into
Mr. Nadel and the others were
witness to life on 92 Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, the
orphanage that became a laboratory for Korczak's
democratic educational theories, boasting a court and
parliament run by the children.
"A child is a person at every
stage of his or her development and has rights, the same
rights as an adult, and needs to be treated accordingly,"
said Yitzhak Belfer, 85, who can recite by heart the
system of points and punishment meted out by the
children's court. "That's how it was with us."
Korczak's ideas for a declaration of children's rights
were posthumously adopted by the United Nations, and
dozens of Korczak associations exist worldwide. Last
year, a compilation of his advice for parents was
published under the title "Loving Every Child." Its
message: listen to children at their level, celebrate
their quirks and dreams.
with a champion for children,
before the Nazi storm.
His work at the orphanage was
interrupted in 1940 when the Nazis forced him and his
orphans into the Warsaw Ghetto.
A pediatrician, educator and
writer, he was born Henryk Goldszmit (Korczak was a pen
name) to a Jewish family in 1878. He was beloved in
Poland for his children's stories and the radio show on
which he counseled parents. Friends offered to smuggle
him out of the ghetto, but he refused to abandon the
children. When it came time to be deported to the
Treblinka death camp in 1942, he led them, each clutching
a favorite toy or game, in a silent march of protest to
the train that would carry them to their
It is Korczak's tragic end as a
Holocaust martyr that is perhaps most widely known, and
immortalized in the eponymous 1990 film by Andrzej Wajda.
But to those who knew him, it is what he passed on to
them in life that still makes him such a present
Mr. Belfer's Tel Aviv home is
filled with the paintings and sculptures he created in
homage. Korczak is always depicted with the round owlish
glasses that seem to swallow up his face.
Mr. Belfer and the others
remember Korczak as the only father figure they knew, a
man who would read to them from the books he was writing,
changing plot lines and characters according to their
input. He encouraged collecting treasures like feathers,
buttons, pebbles and shells.
Yizak Skalka, 85, also from Tel
Aviv, pulled out a copy of the postcard given to him by
Korczak in 1935 when he left for Palestine at the age of
13. "I wish you joy and many rare stamps," it
"He knew everything about us and
what we did," Mr. Skalka said.
Korczak said it was the job of
adults to help translate the world to children,
suggesting that a child be approached at times like "a
foreigner who does not speak our language and who is
ignorant of our laws and customs."
In 1989, the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child drew from his
theories, and Unesco named 1979, the International Year
of the Child, after him.
Mr. Nadel recalled how children
would often get into trouble for sliding down the main
banister of the orphanage. One day when no one was
looking, Korczak, curious to see what the attraction was
all about, hopped on the railing and slid down. He then
turned himself in to be tried in the orphanage court for
breaking one of his own house rules.
"He had light blue eyes, like
water, and blond hair," Mr. Nadel said. "We played with
his beard. When he sat down, children would rush around
him from all sides and not leave him alone."
In his apartment in the central
Israeli town of Ramle, Mr. Nadel sorted through
photographs from his time at the orphanage. Many of them
he took himself. In Israel, he earned a living as a
wedding and events photographer.
There are photos of children
lounging in a rowboat, doing calisthenics in the
courtyard and climbing up ladders perched on apple trees
at the orphanage's summer camp in rural
Mr. Nadel paused as he scanned
the faces of the children he knew so long ago. "They went
to Treblinka," he said finally. "All of them."
In the Warsaw Ghetto the doctor
continued to care for the children, begging for food and
medicine on their behalf.
Much of Mr. Belfer's artwork
recounts those scenes. Bronze sculptures portray the
doctor as a giant figure hovering over the children with
a protective arm. In a sketch the doctor is holding the
Mr. Nadel said one of his
favorite memories was from Passover in 1933 or 1934. The
festive meal would be held in the dining room. But with
more than 100 children, Korczak had to find an innovative
way to have them search for the "afikoman," the hidden
piece of matzo redeemed for a prize by the child who
His creative solution: make it a
walnut hidden in one of the matzo balls served in the
"Everyone's spoons were digging
into the matzo balls, and I saw I had something hard
inside mine," Mr. Nadel said. "Everyone rushed to
As he spoke, he reached into his
left pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He unfolded it
to reveal a dark leather pouch held together with fraying
tape. Inside were shards of that walnut.