- Honoring the Child’s Right to Respect:Janusz Korczak as Holocaust Educator
No consideration of how children’s rights intersect with children’s literature is complete without mention of Janusz Korczak. One of the most celebrated champions of children’s rights in the twentieth century, Korczak is also remembered as one of the most tragic. He was murdered by the Nazis in Treblinka in 1942 along with nearly two hundred Jewish orphans under his care. Yet the tendency to memorialize Korczak’s sacrifice often eclipses his remarkable record as an advocate of children’s rights. This article attempts to redress that imbalance by summarizing what Korczak did for children during his life before discussing what the Nazis did to end it. For Korczak’s legacy as a pioneering force in children’s advocacy is profound. His writings, some of which I survey below, survived him and directly influenced the genesis of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Korczak is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the modern children’s rights movement, but his role in bringing a convention on the rights of the child to fruition and the nature of his views on pedagogy remain obscure to many anglophone scholars of children’s literature (Koren 244; Thomas 162; Willow 71). This essay argues that Korczak deserves to be read and debated, not just celebrated and remembered. He merits a place of honor not only in Holocaust history, but in the continuing campaign for children’s rights. Revisiting his works will compel us to reevaluate how we relate to children and their rights, especially their right to respect, even when those rights are infringed in the most obscene manner imaginable. Korczak’s legacy may also call into question some of the ways that children are taught about the Holocaust and his own history, a point to which I will return below.
Korczak’s contribution to the UNCRC is foundational. His ideas posthumously inspired the Polish delegation to the United Nations (UN) in 1979, the International Year of the Child, to call for an international [End Page 129] treaty safeguarding children’s rights, which spurred the process by which the General Assembly adopted the UNCRC ten years later.1 The text of the UNCRC broadly draws on Korczak’s work, particularly his expansive notion of children’s rights as obliging not only a responsibility to protect children from physical harm, but also to accord them civic rights of individual liberty, such as freedom of expression, privacy, thought, and assembly (Thomas 163). Korczak’s insistence on the child’s right to respect helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the UN to extend human rights, as sweepingly articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to children through the UNCRC (Koren 244–49; Willow 71). Moreover, Korczak’s concern for children’s moral dignity as well as for their personal welfare blazed a new path in children’s advocacy by fusing what David Archard has called the caretaker and liberation strains of the children’s rights movement (70–84). Contemporary children’s rights activists continue to cite Korczak’s influence on their work: Thomas Hammarberg, former European commissioner for human rights and vice chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, credits Korczak for spearheading international recognition of the child’s right to be heard, and Emily Logan, former chair of the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children, says that what sets Korczak apart from other defenders of children’s rights “is that his analysis of the world is perceived through the lens of a child” (Child’s Right 81–84, 49).
But Korczak’s advocacy for young people goes far beyond a paternalistic regard for children. The central idea animating Korczak’s thought is an axiomatic conviction that children are human beings, not creatures becoming human (Child’s Right 27; Eichsteller 384–85; Qvortrup 5). “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but the people of today,” and therefore, they are “entitled to be taken seriously,” Korczak writes in The Child’s Right to Respect (1929, Prawo dziecka do szacunku in the Polish original), a manifesto encapsulating his views on...