On the Road with FMC

Idealism and Virture

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When I was a child, my mother read the biography and selected works of a Polish pediatrician, pedagogue, writer, and orphanage director named Janusz Korczak. Korczak's real name was Henryk Goldszmidt, but writing under a Jewish name in Poland during the early decades of the 20th Century wouldn't have afforded him the national prominence as a novelist, playwright, and later a radio personality that he achieved. While Korczak is most famous for his martyr's end in Nazi-occupied Poland, where he bravely led a procession of 200 orphans as they all marched to their deaths, it was his life and teachings that make the most lasting impression.

What my mother took from Korczak was his unshakable respect for children as adults' equals, coupled with a deep and purposeful affirmation of children's rights. In following this philosophy, my mother taught me the tenets that now guide my life's work. And it was in a recent perusal of her bookshelf that I came upon the works that she had read all those years back, in so doing finding a hero, Korczak, to guide my effort to make children the first priority of adults.

Korczak's goal in 20th-century Poland, like many reading this today, was predicated on the simple notion that making the world of adults better requires ensuring the well-being of children. Driven by that straightforward ideal, Korczak employed a vast array of tactics (fiction, articles, radio, plays, and the creation of newspapers) and thus touched an entire generation not only in Poland but also throughout Europe.

In his seminal work of fiction, King Matt the First, Korczak paints a not-so-fantastical world in which a young boy assumes the throne of an unknown kingdom. The boy king creates a children's parliament and a vibrant children's newspaper. But the ideas espoused in King Matt did not live only in the pages of a wildly popular novel. In Korczak's celebrated orphanage and other institutions he inspired, children had their own parliament, and through a children-run court system--a premonition of the modern-day juvenile restorative justice movement--children governed themselves.

In the space between the two world wars, Korczak founded the Little Review, a children-run newspaper where children from across Poland submitted articles, not unlike adults do through outlets like the Huffington Post today. He kept his orphanages open to family members, a precursor to today's reunification efforts. And he used radio in the dark days before the Nazi occupation to share his ruminations about children and life to an enthralled Polish audience of Jews and non-Jews alike.

As we step forward into a world roiling with uncertainty, it should serve as a light for us that in darker days one man could achieve so much-- that idealism and virtue could triumph in shining flashes. For those of us who are engaged in this virtuous struggle on behalf of children, it is a bulwark to our resolve to know we have a hero, and in those dark moments when we need one, a martyr.

To find out more, call me directly at 510-334-8636.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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