August 5, 1942

AUGUST 5, 1942

        In remembrance of Janusz Korczak

What did the Old Doctor do
in the cattle wagon
going to Treblinka on the 5th of August
through the few hours of blood still circulating
through the dirty river, through time

I don’t know

what did this Charon set out to do
a boatman without an oar
did he give the children the remainder
of the breathless breath
and keep for himself
just the chill under the beast’s spine

I don’t know

did he for example lie to them
in small anesthetizing
doses
did he pick the timid lice, the fear
from their delicate and sweaty heads
 
I don’t know

but then––but next––but there––
in Treblinka
all their horror, all the tears
were lined up against him

ah, however many minutes it was there
formed the whole of life,
it could have been a few, or many––
I wasn’t there, I don’t know

and suddenly the Old Doctor saw
that the children became
old like him
older and older
as if they had to catch up to the old age of the ashes

then when he struck him
the askar, or it could have been the SS man
saw that the Doctor
became a child like the children
younger and younger
until the moment he was unborn

from that point, together with the Old Doctor
they abounded nowhere

I know

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Poem by Jerzy Ficowski (1924-2006), translated from the Polish by Jason Francisco

Photographs by Jason Francisco, Atlanta, 2018 / Zeiss Ikon Contax IIa rangefinder + Zeiss 135mm f/4 Sonnar

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About Janusz Korczak

Born Hersz Goldszmit on July 22nd, 1878 to an assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, Janusz Korczak was a writer, a pediatrician and a pedagogue.  Korczak earned his medical degree and practiced as a pediatrician at Warsaw’s Children’s Hospital, and later served as a military doctor in the Russo-Japanese War, before devoting his career to education.  In 1911 he became the director of an orphanage for approximately 100 Jewish children in Warsaw, which he and his staff operated according to radically new ideas in childhood education.  He established a "republic for children" with its own small parliament, law court and newspaper.  Later he founded a Polish children’s newspaper, and became a radio personality focusing on educational topics.  He wrote over twenty books, many of them on children's rights and children's experience in and of the adult world.  His best known works include How to Love the Child (1921), King Matt the Reformer (1928), The Child's Right to Respect (1929) and Rules for Living (1930).

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Korczak attempted to volunteer for the Polish Army, but was rejected due to his age.  In 1940, he was condemned with all of Warsaw's Jews to the walled ghetto created by the Germans, where he was forced to move his orphanage.  He received numerous offers of shelter and hiding on the “Aryan” side of the city, but stubbornly refused to abandon his children.  Despite his own frail health and the extreme hardships of the Ghetto––he was frequently forced to go door to door begging for food, clothing and medicine for the orphanage––he continued to operate the orphanage as before the war.  The children continued to take part in the running of the orphanage’s administration, as well as stage plays and concerts open to the Ghetto’s public.  In the Ghetto, Korczak wrote a diary, often considered his masterwork, published in Poland in 1958.

On August 5, 1942, after evading deportation quotas for as long as possible, and refusing opportunities to rescue himself, Korczak accompanied around 200 of his children and a dozen members of his staff through the streets of the Ghetto to the railway platforms where trains took condemned Jews to the Treblinka death camp.  With full knowledge of his fate, he boarded the train and died with his children in the gas chambers.

Jason Francisco

Janusz Korczak in front of the Orphan's House in 92 Krochmalna St, Warsaw, ca. 1938-39, photo courtesy of the Korczakianum Centre for Documentation and Research in Warsaw