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  • Voices from the Interior:Reimagining Childhood under Janusz Korczak's Care
  • Ada Bieber (bio)

"Without this house, I would never have known that there are honest people in the world, and that one can speak the truth. I wouldn't have known, there are fair laws possible in this world."

(Miss Esther's Final Performance 33)

Janusz Korczak was a famous doctor and director of his Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. He dedicated his life to the children in his care before and during the Nazi occupation, and died by the side of about 200 children in the Treblinka concentration camp in 1942. As Daniel Feldman1 notes, Korczak's writing "survived him and directly influenced the genesis of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC)" (29). Korczak is also associated with "the modern children's rights movement" (129) and the idea that children possess "rights of civic participation" (129). In his orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, Korczak redefined childhood in order to make it a democratic and a self-determined stage of life, particularly after the orphanage was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, where life was hardly bearable.2 Today we know about Korczak's work from historical documents as well as from his essays, radio programs, and books. Consequently, his story has often led to biographical narratives presenting him as an important figure in Jewish and Polish history on the basis of his writing and historical material.

However, the traditional perception of Korczak's legacy is challenged by the contemporary picture books by Iwona Chmielewka, as well as by Gabriela Cichowska (illustrator) and Adam Jaromir (author), as those picture books tell Korczak's story through the eyes of children. Despite Korczak's importance in children's literature, the children under his care [End Page 321] are less present in literature and in the collective memory. Reimagined child narrators are often avoided in books about Korczak, and "individual children are seldom named in Korczak's youth biographies," as Feldman points out (134). One of the reasons may originate in the concern about whether to produce "fiction after Auschwitz," which led to a tendency to draw on historical reports by survivors rather than reimagining lives of juvenile victims. Walter and March note that this tendency stems from the question of whether "imaginative works about the Holocaust, as opposed to factual texts such as autobiographies or histories, will somehow subvert the truth of what actually happened" (39). Although many different fictional accounts have been published, narratives keep a documentary approach, and closely stick with historical details. However, with respect to the children under Korczak's care, a clearly fact-based memory of the individual children is not easy, as many of them died in Treblinka, and as orphans, most had no family who would later remember their individual fates. There are only a few survivors among all of Korczak's children who could later report on their childhoods within Korczak's house (Zieve 6). As for the rare memories, the children may have often been overlooked as important actors within Korczak's story, and thus, reduced to silent beneficiaries in fiction and scholarship.

I want to shift perspectives by focusing on visual narratives of Korczak's children as main figures in the contemporary Polish picture book Blumka's Diary: About Life in Janusz Korczak's Orphanage (2011) and the German-Polish picture book Miss Esther's Final Performance: A Story from the Warsaw Ghetto (2013),3 which both put at center stage the children's lives under Korczak's influence. Blumka's Diary, written and illustrated by Iwona Chmilewska, is addressed to early and middle-grade readers, narrated through a child's diary. The story in Miss Esther's Final Performance: A Story from the Warsaw Ghetto by Adam Jaromir and illustrator Gabriela Cichowska may address more advanced readers by extending the normal length of a picture book into a longer narration. For both picture books, I argue that focalizing through juvenile first-person narrators highlights the interior perspectives of the children, as they might have experienced living under Korczak's care and being guided by his pedagogical beliefs. Reimagining those childhoods from children's point of view...


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pp. 321-337
Launched on MUSE
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