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Janusz Korczak Poems and Translations

It is not myself I am trying to save, but my thoughts.
—Janusz Korczak

The following poems are Esther Cameron's translations of the work of other poets about Janusz Korczak, along with some of Korczak's own words, which often have the authenticity and immediacy of poetry. To learn more about Janusz Korczak, please click his hyperlinked name.

In 1985, the Ghetto Fighters' House in Israel brought out a collection of poems about Janusz Korczak and excerpts from his writings, illustrated with children's drawings. The English translation appeared in 1989. Korczak was an innovative educator who in 1942 went with his charges to Treblinka. His heroic life has inspired poets from many nations. The poems by Wladyslaw Szlengel and Stefania Ney, below, were written in Polish in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the writers perished. Antoni Slonimski, Jerzy Ficowski, and Anna Kamienska also wrote in Polish; Zerubavel Gilead, Benjamin Tene, Anda Amir, and Aaron Zeitlin wrote in Hebrew. Jiri Kondo founded the Janusz Korczak Society in Japan. The translations, reproduced here with the kind permission of Ghetto Fighters' House, were made from the Hebrew edition by Esther Cameron, except for Jiri Kondo's haiku sequence (translator unknown). Jerzy Ficowski's "8-5-43" also formed part of this collection; see Yala Korwin's translation from the Polish on the Jerzy Ficowski page."

And now, here are Yala Korwin's poetic tributes to Janusz Korczak: a sonnet entitled "Ecce Homo" (which seems quite fitting because we want our readers to "Behold the Man"), and a poem entitled "And Still They March," after which Esther Cameron's translations appear ...

Ecce Homo
by Yala Korwin

“The lives of great men are like legends — difficult but beautiful,”                         
Hersh Goldszmit/Janusz Korczak (1878-1942)

His life was difficult, but beautiful.                             
“Old Doctor” — gifted penman, teacher, sage,
a Polish Jew with childlike soul so full
of tenderness for those of tender age,
a father to the orphans in his care.
The wings of children, still so weak, should be,
not clipped, but groomed by love to cleave the air —
his favorite maxim and his constant plea.

Then — Hitler’s war. The orphans’ lot was cast.
He went with them — a supreme sacrifice.
This noble lesson was to be his last:
All life is dear, but not at any price.
How hard to find the proper words that can
convey his life … Just this: Behold the Man.

And Still They March
by Yala Korwin

They march to the Umschlagplatz.
The doctor leads. Behind him
the tall Abrasha with the flag.
On its summer-meadow-green side
a spray of chestnut blossoms;
on the other side, brightest white,
a Star of David, blue.
Then two hundred orphans,
oblivious to shouts and insults,
march five abreast, singing,
singing joyous hiking songs.
Miss Stefa, the housemother, follows,
the youngest in her arms.

And still they march
along a path of cirrus clouds.
Their tatters smoothed, touched
with rainbow colors, glimmers
on weightless bodies changed
to shimmers of celestial light.
They march, they march ...

A Page from the Deportation Diary
by Wladyslaw Szlengel

I saw Janusz Korczak today.  He was walking
at the head of his children in line.
They were dressed in clean clothes, as if for an outing
on Shabbat, when the weather's fine.

They wore their holiday jumpers today
if they're dirtied no one will scold
as if through the woods the orphanage walked,
five by five, through the hunted crowd.

The pallid and trembling mass that moved
through streets transfixed with dread,
above them the broken windows looked out
empty as eyes of the dead.

And now and then, like a funeral bell
or a lost bird's call, rose a moan
The lords of the hour in their "rickshaws" rode,
their faces hard as stone.

Footfall and silence: the tramp of feet.
Voices of those who from fear
speak swiftly.  The church on Leszno Street
stood frozen, dumbstruck in prayer.

The children walked quietly.  No one came
to free them.  No one would buy,
for a few bills in a policeman's hand,
the orphans as they passed by.

At the square there was no intervention.
No one plucked Schmerling's sleeve and whispered,
no one thought of collecting watches
for the Latvian reeking of liquor.

Bareheaded, with fearless eyes,
Janusz Korczak walked on before.
One child held on by his pocket,
And two in his arms he bore.

Someone came running, a paper in hand.
Explained something, gestured: "You've got
a pass from Brandt, you can go home now, sir!"
Janusz Korczak had no use for that.

To the thick-headed bearer of Germany's boon
he did not attempt to explain
what it is to abandon a child in distress
such thoughts have no place in such brains.

For years he had cared for his children it seemed
he gave them a new sun each day.
He had vowed to go with them to the end,
he must not turn back halfway.

And little King Matty came to his mind
whose adventure he dreamed long ago
on the island among the savage tribes
he would have acted just so.

The children got into the boxcars, as if
they were going for a trip on Lag b'Omer,
and one little boy felt strong and brave
it was his turn to be "shomer*."                            * watchman (Hebrew/Yiddish)

And I thought to myself, as I witnessed that scene
which the eyes of Europe have missed,
that our history knows no more glorious man,
no greater moment than this.

In the midst of a war that is sordid and vile,
an abyss of corruption and shame,
in a nightmare life where men sell their souls
for a few more weeks of the same,

On a front where no medals are handed out
for the combat with things of the night,
Janusz Korczak, the orphans' protector, stood,
the one soldier, strong and upright.

His Last Walk
by Anda Amir

"Where are we going?" the children asked.
He walked ahead of them all,
looking as calm as if he were going
out for a holiday stroll.

"We're going to be free," he answered.
"See, the gates are open wide.
Don't cry — just sing!  It's a holiday,
and we're going, we're going outside!"

And the street unrolled like a carpet
as the barefoot children walked past.
Singing, "We're going, and not alone,
to the fields, the green fields at last.

"The doctor is with us, he will not leave
his children.  We're going together,
and we know he'll go with us till the end,
he is with us now and forever."

To mend the world means: to reform education.
—Janusz Korczak, "Confessions of a Butterfly"

One hundred children are one hundred human beings.
Not "someday," not "not yet," not "tomorrow" —
they are human beings now.
—Janusz Korczak, "How to Love a Child"

Korczak and the Kite Game
by Zerubavel Gilead

"My idea of playing with kites did not succeed...
Perhaps I shall succeed yet."

—from a letter of Korczak's that reached Israel the day Word War II broke out

An orange paper dragon pursues a red one
and a yellow dragon triumphs over both
no! there's not enough in that to fire the imagination
and awaken joy and intoxication of the heart.
For you must know
that without breathlessness and pounding hearts
play is not play for children.
I once grasped the hand of a child as he sailed
a toy boat on the river his pulse was like the pulse
of a malaria patient.
Perhaps he felt like Magellan or Vasco da Gama
and did not know he was really a new Columbus
discovering his own America, there on the stream-bank
in a remote village.
The light of the cigarette gleamed between his lips
and he stopped to ask:

Which way do the winds blow where you live,
in the morning, in the evening?
And does the wind usually come from the sea?
Oh, that's good, very good!  Describe to me how
a kite flies in the wind today
with the thin string quivering in a child's fist
flashing yellow and blue, deep blue,
like the one I saw once over the Gilboa
when I visited your country.
a silent paper dragon in the twilight gloom
and a red skyrocket above it
the children face to face are sending up stars
and see, they reach up
to the very heart of heaven!
When I was four or five, I too
used to send up kites, and when
the thread was cut my paper dragon flew off
and was lost in the clouds.
Tears would fill my eyes
and through the tears I would see angels' wings
hugging my kite.
And now I'm old, you know
but when I'm feeling very bitter
I close my eyes and see before me
pure-white wings in the clouds.
The cigarette stump went out.
The two of us were silent in the dark.

Seven Haiku
by Jiro Kondo

Fly, sparrows,
twitter the song of Krochmalna

Crying birds
that fell from the nest,
I will rock your cradle

A star fell,
fading into
the Warsaw night

The cold echo
of black boots
in the ghetto night

Alone with God
in the tonguing fire
of the seven flames

Cry, wind,
for the dead children
of Treblinka

Soft breeze, blow
over the summer heath of Treblinka
a requiem

A man has to know a lot and think a lot about himself,
and even after doing so he is often mistaken
and does not know everything.
—Janusz Korczak

I don't wish harm to anyone.  I can't I don't know how to.
—Janusz Korczak

What unbearable dreams!
Yesterday: the Germans.
I am in Praga without an armband, at a forbidden hour.
I wake up. Another dream.
In the train I am brought to a cell, one meter square,
in which there are already some Jews.
Tonight, again, people are dying. Bodies of children...
I wake up, covered with sweat, at the most horrible moment.
Is not death such an awakening, just when it seemed to you
that there was no way out?

I haven't been paying visits.
I've been going around collecting money, food, information, advice, instructions... is hard and humiliating work.
And I have to put a good face on it,
because people don't like sad faces...
I returned from this "expedition" completely exhausted.
—Janusz Korczak, "Ghetto Diary"

On Janusz Korczak

by Antoni Slonimski

When, like a mourner when the mourning's past,
we tear the blackout curtains down at last,
and all our light shall pour into the streets
like prisoners rushing out through opened gates,
a shout is in the tower, and church-bells ring
so mightily as if the sound would fling
itself forth from the belfry and, gone mad,
whirl with the masses turbulently glad;
when all the city vibrates with one hymn
and ghostly neon with its wintry glim
fills the black letters and revives the signs,
and neither fear nor modesty restrains
the multitudes embracing; tears of all,
aristocrats and paupers, mingled fall,
the thoroughfares a glittering parade,
to celebrate the end of war, invades,
boasting of our God-given victory
join not the crowd, cover with hand your eye!
And if a burning tear that hand should feel,
then let the other grasp the warlike steel;
grasp your own fainting heart with a stern hand,
steadfast in grief.  Look up from where you stand
and see: another throng streams in procession here,
above the streets, a cloud of blood and tears,
raining on flashing uniforms, waving flags,
these, weltering in blood and bound in rags,
and frozen without motion, seem on high
another, ghostly army in the sky.
Not of the starved, the slain are these the semblance,
nor of the prisoners that died in torments,
nor your own murdered kin: these signify
the souls of entire nations doomed to die.
Many they are, in heaven and on earth,
and if from black lips no speech issues forth,
yet as a bloody shadow they sink down
upon illumined Warsaw, London town;
the shouts are muted and the banners fade;
they come, with Janusz Korczak in the lead.
The doctor from the ghetto leads his orphans there,
holding two in his arms, they cross the square.
No saint and martyr ever walked with firmer tread,
towards the gallows steps to join the dead.
O soldier of the future overthrow!  return
to the vale of slaughter, where the fires forever burn:
the names of all those done to death here learn,
raise them from common grave into eternity:
that not the demon-king remembered be,
but all the hearts that perished by his cruelty.
And weep not over ruins, but study to tear down
the walls, the fortressed walls dividing man from man.
Not the heroic flag and victory-sign you must
exalt, but those humiliation brought to dust:
raise them aloft, and in the firmament let stream
a banner where you trace the emblem of your dream:
a heart, whose crimson speaks
of grief and shame and pain,
while you go forth to pave new roads,
to build the world again.

Janusz Korczak
by Bella Dizhur

In front of the train the engine stands,
bound for Treblinka.  A wail of dread
from a child breaks the hush. "This way!" Hard hand
of a henchman lifted to count the heads,
two hundred children, the dark, the blond,
two hundred children who have not sinned
What's in a number? Two hundred each one
has a soul of his very own!

Two hundred souls enigmas all.
Black-haired Devorah snuggles close.
She will be turned to ashes in hell.
"I don't want to go!" small arms are crossed
round his neck "I'm scared!" Two hundred such,
and all are his, and all are lost.
Why must he still see, hear, and touch?

All is prepared, they are starting soon.
On the faces a darkness begins to descend.
Round him a muted hubbub, a moan,
hundreds of small, thin, trembling hands
stretch toward him, his heart too is beating fast.
Then like an electric lamp his face
begins to shine.  A ray of its light
reaches even the Fascist.  Perplexed,
forgetful, the man for one second delays
to slam the door of the boxcar shut.

Janusz Korczak
by Aaron Zeitlin

On that day even God, they tell,
in His secret heart had turned infidel.
To what purpose he asked did I create
all the generations of the earth?
The heavenly Minister of Mirth
failed this time to dissipate
the sadness of God.  (He used to read
aloud some philosophic screed
from time to time, to entertain
the Lord with the nonsense it contained
about Him.)  He had lost his faith
even in His own existence.  For,
he said, if I'm here, how can this filth
of the Nazis be?  And round him fell
silence, darkness for evermore.

Just then at Heaven's gate arrived
a certain doctor, after him
a crowd of children.  Bright was their stride
it lit the darkness like a hymn.
And see: the horrors are past and gone
as if they never happened at all.
The children are singing the very song
they sang in the cars, at the gates of hell,
and with that song on their lips they rose
upon clouds of smoke, till now on the roads
of heaven they sing it and stride along.

It's a holiday step they keep one, two, three!
To the land of summer, forever free!
One, two, three to the land of sun,
gladly we go toward the Light of the One,
toward eternal summer one, two, three!

The doctor walked along in the lead.
His back was ever so slightly bent,
but his kind little eyes were radiant
and his bit of greying yellow beard
bobbed in the wind, keeping time as he
sang, the old man one, two, three!
We're alive be fearless, everyone,
this is the way we walk toward the sun!
And God borrowed a bit of gladness from them
and said: Indeed, I eternally Am.

A poet is someone who is very happy
and very sorrowful,
who is quick to anger
and who loves intensely,
who feels strongly,
is easily stirred up,
and who sympathizes with others' feelings.
Children are like that too.

A philosopher is someone who is very observant,
who ponders and wants to know
how things really are.
Children are like that too.

It is hard for children to say what they are feeling
or what they are thinking about,
because speech requires words.
It is still harder for them to write.
But children truly are philosophers and poets.

The land of the past which shall also be the land of the future.
A land of plains and mountains,
in which there are some mountains
that are comfortable and temperate, kind and forgiving,
but also some that are dark and threatening, dangerous and cruel.
A land of desert and sea.
A land of oranges,
but also of thorn and briar and thistle;
of cool and pleasant breezes,
but also of burning hamsin winds.
A land of skies that are clear by day
and star-strewn by nights.

In the Land of Israel there are many stones...
There one must decipher and understand
not only the heavens, the wind, the tree, the wild grass...
but also the mountain — the stone and the star — the night.
—Janusz Korczak, notes from "Eretz-Israel"

I do not yet know everything.
But the end of it will be that the Jews
will have their own state in the Land of Israel...
—Janusz Korczak, "The Way I Think"

If there is a land in which the child
is forthrightly allowed
his dreams and anxieties
his longings and perplexities —
perhaps it is the Land of Israel.
—Janusz Korczak, from a letter to Yosef Arnon, 8/10/32

In Israel we must see ... the attempt to revive the land, the language,
the human being, his destiny and his faith.
When I was borne aloft for the first time in an airplane, I felt something
more than astonishment, more than curiosity, pride or joy...
The predominant thought was this:
Of all my ancestors not one, I am the first to be given this privilege,
to fulfill the desire expressed in the prayer that is repeated every year:
"Next year in Jerusalem!"
We have come to the borders of exile,
returned after two thousand years of wandering and persecutions.
I was privileged to come here.
—Janusz Korczak, "Notes and reflections," 1937

Despite everything I believe in the future:
of humanity, of the Jews, of the Land of Israel...
It is not myself I am trying to save, but my thoughts...
I wish that tomorrow I could be sitting in my narrow little room in Jerusalem,
in front of a Bible, some textbooks, a Hebrew dictionary, paper, pencil...
so that I could say: A new leaf — final chapter.
—Janusz Korczak, from a letter to Moshe Zertal, 1937

On Janusz Korczak
by Stefania Ney

If we take now the laughter of children and flowers,
the chuckle of bird and brook,
the smile of a doctor and poet we'll make
a song about Janusz Korczak.

A song of one man in a time of darkness,
when the madness of hate ran wild
his heart was bright and his mind was clear,
and he dearly loved each child.

His children, on whom their elders poured
cursing and famine all day;
from the cradle-bed to a victim's death
they dragged their brief, weary way.

They were driven along like scurvy dogs,
blue, bloated, scarcely alive.
And Janusz Korczak died for these,
who were old at the age of five.

It was not for his mother, his brother, he died,
nor for God and the land of his birth,
but for children whom lice ate, most wretched and poor
of all that lives on the earth.

He gave them his bread and his mind and his heart,
shared their hunger, the dirt and the shame,
and he died when children were killed because rogues
have not yet become like men.

Dr. Korczak's Deception
by Anna Kamienska

You must admit, sir, that you deceived your children
Dr. Korczak, sir,
you deceived those two hundred children of yours,
and then decided you might deceive them to the end
right up to the ramp, you kept on whispering to them
in the very ear of death the blessing of your deception

But really, sir, you couldn't have done otherwise
because the truth had turned murderous
and the enlightened world, from the word "light"
was already forbidden for children
like a cinema show that's too truthful

Actually the world had turned so and so many degrees
until truth had become a lie
and the lie that was supposed to have been the truth
found shelter with you, sir, in the Jewish Orphans' Home

Probably they guessed they sensed something
something you would catch, sir,
an uneasy look in their eyes,
maybe Moniush, or Abrasha, he's so quick
little Mendel cried in his sleep
their faces shone like the faces of old men
long ago sir you learned from the children how to die

Look, Dr. Korczak, sir,
this is your writing
this is the holy book of the children
they come walking out of the new Bible
little Romcia and Rachel and Ruth
Davidek Zigmush Aron Yakubek
from that book that Bible-land
from that lie that was truth
they are always on their way
with a bundle
with the bread of famine
baked from the same bread
from the same flesh
from the same ancient blood
from the same love
from the same labor
from the same burned tables of weight and height
from the same suffering
from the same wakefulness
from the same death

And here how quiet it is here
after their crying
after their screaming
how quiet they are
this is a slaughterhouse of children
this is earth this is earth
Dr. Korczak, sir

Give me, O God, a hard life, but a rich and exalted one.
—Janusz Korczak, "Ghetto Diary"

This is something about which I have spoken and written many times,
something for which I have been struggling for the past thirty years,
from the time the orphanage was founded
I have struggled without hope of victory,
without evident results,
but I don't want to give up the struggle,
I am incapable of giving up.
I have been struggling to eliminate the distinctions in the orphanage
between refined and coarse work,
smart and stupid work,
clean and dirty work,
work for nice young ladies
and work for the simple rabble.
In the orphanage there should be no exclusively mental or manual workers.

Those who say work is dirty because it is physical are lying.
It is even worse when the hypocrite says, "No work brings shame,"
but himself chooses only the clean, white work and avoids the jobs
that are called dirty,
and yet feels obligated to side with those who do the dirty jobs.
—Janusz Korczak, "Ghetto Diary," July 27, 1942

I set a deed (a brick) for the cornerstone of the building.
I dug earth, planted a tree, drew water in a pitcher, drove in a nail,
boiled milk, sewed on a button,
washed a shirt, polished a windowpane, put a child to bed, helped a friend.
Drops of deeds;
the drops flow together into brooks —
the deed that is realized is a jewel no one can steal.
Greatness is perfection even in the most meager thing;
even in the humblest tool — hammer, needle, pail and sickle.
—Janusz Korczak, "The Harvest of Deeds"

The Old Teacher
by Moshe Bassok

"Just a little room in the city of peace,
and paper and pencil," he asked,
the old teacher.  That was his only wish,
and he called it his last.

Or no, one more thing he wished for, as shy
as one of the children he loved:
one book where the words of Hebrew meet
in a bridge of light from Aleph to Tav.

The grownups call it a dictionary,
and some children think it must be dull.
But that is a very wise book. It has heard
generations speak, and remembers it all.

He was almost ashamed to ask, being used
only to give. Perhaps he thought
of asking to be a child once more;
but, old and wise, he said nothing of that.

The teacher, the teacher, they say, is gone.
He went with all his children. Oh, yes.
Is he telling them stories? What stories are left
To tell? The old teacher, maybe, can guess.

The room in the city of peace looks sad.
On the paper's shoulder the pencil cries.
They're orphans.  They know he will never return
perhaps he is looking at them from the skies?

But you, you words come out of your book,
search all the roads, ask every hill!
Stop, Hebrew words! Stand where you are,
you're the old teacher's grave in Israel.

His Last Walk
by Benjamin Tene

The morning breezes dried his icy sweat,
and all the houses that his steps had woken
looked after him and grieved him as he went
from windows where no pane remained unbroken.

The sun that sought concealment in a cloud
looked like the yellow patch upon his breast.
His graying hair was gleaming like a crown;
round his neck two orphans' arms were laced.

The pavement seemed to groan beneath that load,
the morning seemed to stumble by his side
with face gone ashen and head held awry.

Bereft I am amid his grief and dark,
yet one thing shines: the shepherd and his flock,
that road by which he led them forth to die.

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