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An Appreciation of Janusz Korczak through Two Poems and One Monument - A Lesson Plan for Teachers

This unit is an interdisciplinary resource to assist educators in teaching the Holocaust. It consists of two poems, presented together with a monument dedicated to Janusz Korczak. The poems and the monument, permit a freer, more varied approach to the subject matter presented in them and enable pupils to be drawn in on different levels. This interdisciplinary aspect creates alternative routes by which different learners can employ different learning skills to deal with the materials presented. The aims of this unit are to:

  • Analyze two poems and a monument by exploring the connections between literary and artistic interpretation
  • Probe the question of Jewish bravery during the Holocaust
  • Discuss universal lessons to be learned from the Holocaust
  • Delve deeper into the study of the Holocaust through poetry
  • Raise the point of how poetry and art can describe hardship and highlight human experience.
  • After the following activities, each child will prepare a poster with a picture, poem or collage where each will express his/her understanding of the fact that Korczak, together with the children, went to their joint deaths.

Suggested Presentation in a Classroom


The suggestion to use poetry in the study of the Holocaust is based on the belief that a personal statement, as most Holocaust poetry is, will sometimes trigger initial interest in the subject at hand as well as the historical treatment of the same subject. Poems allow a personal inside view in contrast to the more distanced historian’s account. The human dimension, which is often the focus in poetry will more easily generate attention than the impersonal of the historical portrayal.

Common points of reference between the two poems and the monument can be developed for deeper study.

These two poems about Korczak afford us an additional path of appreciating human behavior in extreme circumstances.

The first poem, entitled simply with the date of Korczak's death, 5.8.1942 with the subtitle, 'In Memory of Janusz Korczak' was written by the Polish poet, Jerzy Ficowski, and it describes only the last hours of the lives of Korczak and the children of the orphanage he accompanied to their common deaths in Treblinka.

First Poem by Ficowski - 5.8.1942


In Memory of Janusz Korczak
Jerzy Ficowski (1924-2006)
(Translated by Keith Bosley)

What did the Old Doctor do
in the cattle wagon
bound for Treblinka on the fifth of August
over the few hours of the bloodstream
over the dirty river of time

I do not know

what did Charon* of his own free will
the ferryman without an oar do
did he give out to the children
what remained of gasping breath
and leave for himself
only frost down the spine

I do not know

did he lie to them for instance
in small
numbing doses
groom the sweaty little heads
for the scurrying lice of fear

I do not know

yet for all that yet later yet there
in Treblinka
all their terror all the tears
were against him
oh it was only now
just so many minutes say a lifetime
whether a little or a lot
I was not there I do not know

suddenly the Old Doctor saw
the children had grown
as old as he was
older and older
that was how fast they had to go grey as ash                        

Points for elaboration:

  • The phrase, “I do not know” repeats 4 times in the poem. Why do you think the poet did this? Can this be understood as our inability to understand what they were going through?
  • What does the poem say about Korczak in the 2nd and 4th verses? What did he give the children from himself? What is he going through as a human being?
  • How does the poet portray the problem with the dimension of time in the 5th verse?
  • How is the phrase, "death is an equalizer" portrayed in the last verse?
  • In your opinion, what is the message the poet is trying to convey in this poem?
  • Pupils could choose various phrases from the poem and explain their poetic power in describing the hard reality and the hardship Korczak was coping with, for example:
  1. gasping breath
  2. numbing doses
  3. older and older
  • In your opinion, what is the message the poet is trying to convey in this poem?

In the conclusion of the activity, Korzcak’s heroism has to be elucidated with the fact that he chose not to save himself through his connections but decided to go with his orphan wards to their joint deaths in the gas-chambers.

*The figure from Greek mythology, Charon was responsible for ferrying the dead souls across the river Styx into the netherworld.
The teacher should ensure pupil comprehension of Korczak leading orphans to their death, whereas Charon is leading the (already) dead to a final repose.

Second Poem by Szlengel - A Page from a Deportation Report

The second poem was written by Wladislaw Szlengel in the Warsaw ghetto. It describes in detail the last procession of Korczak with the 200 orphans through the ghetto streets to the point of deportation. Szlengel was very well known in the ghetto and public readings of his poems helped bolster morale in a very difficult reality for the ghetto inhabitants. He died in the ghetto during the uprising in 1943.

It is a very long poem and we present below a few verses translated into English.

1.    Today, I saw Janusz Korczak
As he and the children took their last walk.
Dressed in clean clothes
As if on a garden stroll to enjoy the Shabbat.
2.    The face of the city turned anxious
Like a torn and defenceless giant.
Empty windows searching the streets
As in eye-sockets vacant and lifeless.
3.    And the children lined up in orderly fives,
Not one pulled out from his line.
Orphans, these – with no chance
Of a bribe and reprieve.       
4.    Janusz Korczak marched forward with no hesitation
Bare-headed, eyes focused, gaze firm.
A little child clutched his one pocket
With two more held safe in his arms
5.    Someone approached at a run,
Document in hand, he proclaimed:
Sir, Herr Brandt* here has signed your release!
At which Korczak simply marched on in disdain.
6.    All his life he had spent
Creating some warmth in their world,
How now could he leave them to go
The last road in their lives all alone.

The following is a list of themes that Szlengel presents in these verses from the poem and one suggested activity is for the pupils to identify the theme in the verses, indicate the verse number and explain in his words how the theme is reflected in the verse chosen. Possible subjects are: Adult responsibility and love, Inequality of opportunity in a ghetto, The anxiety of impending doom, The ultimate heroic response.

The table below is one way of collating this exercise. The teacher could employ group work on the table thus enabling pupil discussion on the two poems and the monument appearing below.

Adult responsibility and love4,6
Inequality of opportunity in a ghetto3
The anxiety of impending doom2
The ultimate heroic response5
  • In your opinion, what is the message the poet is trying to convey in this poem?

* Karl Brandt (1904-1948), high ranking SS officer responsible for the area of Warsaw.

The Monument of Korczak at Yad Vashem

A class discussion on the different elements in the monument could be held with the pupils. Suggestions of elements to focus on are: the children's gaze, Korczak's gaze, Korczak embracing the orphans and a joined fate. In addition, the children can now compare the two poems with the monument. A table might help the pupils organize the elements more clearly and compare aspects of the monument and the poems.

For example:
Suggested connections to be made by pupils

The MonumentFicowski's poemSzlengel's poem
Korczak embracing the orphansVerse 3: the fact that he is taking care of them by cleaning their heads of liceVerse 4: the physical closeness of children clinging to an authority and protective fatherly figure


In your opinion do the poems and the monument present the same picture of Korczak on his path with the children to their joint deaths?

Now the students can proceed to prepare a poster with a picture, poem or collage where each will express his/her understanding of fact that Korczak, together with the children, went to their joint deaths.