Henryk did have a curious link with India. It was sheer coincidence that I had discovered it.
Henryk was an extraordinarily gifted man. A scholar and writer, he was also a doctor and human rights defender, especially an ardent childrens’ rights advocate. In truth, children represented the very core of his passion. Though he went on to write more than twenty books and a thousand articles, his very first book questioned the way most parents rear their children. He believed (as I believe), for instance, that for a father to foist his religion on his child, instead of letting him choose his faith later when he turns an adult, was nothing short of ruinous brainwashing.
He studied medicine and became a pediatrician in a children’s hospital in Warsaw. At the same time, he wrote for several Polish publications and gained a literary reputation for his adopted pen name, Janusz Korczak. For a while he served as a military doctor and studied in Germany, but eventually veered to head an orphanage for Jewish children. He invited a close friend, Stefania, to be his assistant and set about creating a new kind of institution for children.
Henryk’s orphanage, Dom Sierot, was a children’s republic, run entirely on democratic principles, where all decisions were collective, made through its parliament and court. Henryk even hired a novelist, Igor Newerly, as a secretary to help the orphans produce their newspaper, which came out as a supplement to a Warsaw newspaper.
All hell broke loose on 1 September 1939, as Hitler invaded Poland with 1000 planes and 2000 tanks. World War II had begun. Within months, the Gestapo created a small area as the Warsaw Ghetto and forced all Jews to move there. Henryk was compelled to move to a smaller building in the Ghetto with all the 200 children.
The tragic irony was that Henryk himself was a skeptic and did not believe in Judaism. He had numerous opportunities to leave Poland before the German onslaught, just as his assistant Stefania had departed for Israel. But Henryk did not want to go anywhere where he could not also take his children.
It was then that he took an astounding decision. He was abreast of European literature and the Nobel Prize probably brought Rabindranath’s name to his attention. He decided that his children would stage Rabindranath’s play, The Post Office, whose central character was an ill child, surrounded by other children, who struggles to fashion a world of his own.
In late July, in front of the Ghetto denizens, with whatever limited resources they could lay hands on, Henryk’s children staged a scintillating performance of The Post Office.
Nine days later, German transport came to take them to the Treblinka death camp.
Reports suggest that the Germans were prepared to let Henryk go or to send him to a less harsh camp. He would not hear of it. He would not part from the orphans. Witnesses saw him marching forward, with a young child’s wrist in his hand, followed by the entire phalanx of his beloved orphans, dressed in their best costumes as if for an outing in the countryside. To the horrific end, Henryk stood with his beloved children, unbowed. Janusz Korczak had written his last and best novel – with his life.
It was a bright summer day when I stood mutely in front of a statuette at Yad Vashem, of Henryk ringed by his dearly treasured children.
One hopes – as any discerning reader of The Post Office hopes – that the play gave them all a message of solace: the undimmed speck of assurance that lies in an indomitable spirit, be it even of an ailing child.