Achrei Mot Janusz Korczak – something for the Shabbat after Holocaust Memorial Day

When my students “stretch my limits”, I think of Janusz Korczak (pronounced – Yanush Kor’chak).
Up until I was in my teens or so, Korczak was just a small street, not too far from my home in the Haifa neighborhood of my childhood, running between Einstein (also a street) and Horev (another street; commemorating one of mount Sinai’s names, and for some reason, we knew that).
Janusz Korczak, born Henryk Goldszmit in the late 1870’s was a Polish-Jewish children’s author, writer (Korczak was his pen name), pediatrician and even had a radio talk show, but he was first and foremost, an educator. His life story is fascinating. Perhaps what he is most famous for his work with orphans, especially the orphanage he established in Warsaw in 1911-1912 where he formed a kind-of-a-republic for children with its own small parliament, court, and a newspaper. He traveled to then Palestine a number of times, and learned from the early kibbutzim.

When the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, his orphanage was forced to move to the Ghetto, and Korczak moved in with them. While in the Ghetto, he decided the children should put on a play by Rabindranath Tagore. Some of his quotes include: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be – The unknown person inside each of them is the hope for the future… there are no bad children, but children who feel bad”…

On 5 or 6 August 1942, German soldiers came to collect the almost 200 orphans and about one dozen staff members, to transport them to Treblinka extermination camp. Korczak had been offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but turned it down repeatedly, saying that he could not abandon his children. On 5 August he again refused offers of sanctuary. He stayed with the children until the end.
On that day, the children were dressed in their best clothes, and each carried a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy. Eye witnesses describe:

Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. 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.
— Ghetto eyewitness, Joshua Perle[18]

He told the orphans they were going out in to 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…
— Władysław Szpilman, The Pianist [19]

The Holocaust is a huge thing, so big that it is impossible to comprehend or contain. No matter how many stories I’ll hear, there will always be one to top it over. During Holocaust Memorial Day, observed earlier this week, one doesn’t know where to start, how to hold the personal, national and global pain at what happened; and at the same time, how to properly appreciate, honor and admire those who survived, and those who risked their lives for others to survive. And yet, that huge thing was not made all at once. It was created from a combination of a lot of tiny little dots, sort of like an impressionist painting, where each one of these dots didn’t really matter that much – try zooming into one of these Monet paintings and you’re left with a blur. But zoom out, and you see, how each dots placement is precise in order to make the whole. At the end of the day, even the holocaust is about one open – or closed – door that makes all the difference in the world; one extra blanket, one piece of bread, one hand, one name.

So fitting, this week’s Torah reading, Acharei Mot, harshly named – ‘after the death of’… focuses on the worship of the High Priest on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Once again, it is filled with lots of tiny little dots, the what, where, who, when, and how of the day, each step critical, all designed to bring us closer to the Divine. Interestingly, Yom Kippur comes after Rosh Hashana, also known as “Yom Hazikaron”, which in modernity would be called – Memorial Day, as if to remind us that remembrance alone is not enough; after the remembrance, it’s time for doing.
When I lose one of the passwords for the —- time, I’m tempted to choose one that is something like – 123 I don’t care – all caps, 5 exclamation marks, but I can’t. I come from a tradition that thinks ‘I don’t care’ is worse than evil itself; a tradition that believes in me as a little but never insignificant dot on that huge drawing; a tradition that believes it matters, that demands that it would matter to me too. Maybe my next password should be 123Yanush.

Shabbat Shalom.

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