JIM CREES: Now you too must remember
“I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and act. It is not the duty of those around me to love me. Rather, it is my duty to be concerned about the world, about man.”
— Janusz Korczak
While news networks focus on the ongoing punishment that is primary season politics, things happen around the world which go largely unnoticed.
In a small farming community in Israel, a man named Samuel Willenberg died last week.
Willenberg was the last survivor of the Treblinka concentration camp -— one of the many camps throughout Europe established for the sole purpose of killing people.
Treblinka functioned extremely well for its purpose. More than 875,000 people died in the gas chambers at Treblinka. Only 67 people survived.
Willenberg was the last.
He knew he was the last person with a living memory of Treblinka. He feared when he died the memory of this camp and the 875,000 martyrs would die with him. It would be an end.
Willenberg was eulogized by the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who said this stunning personality was “a symbol for an entire generation of heroic Holocaust survivors.”
Willenberg survived Treblinka and carried the memory of that place and the people he saw “always with me.”
Others died — 875,000 — methodically killed with careful planning and calculated efficiency. Stunning stories need to be told and retold.
A man named Janusz Korczak died in Treblinka.
Korczak was a doctor, teacher, author and pedagogue who was world famous in his day as a revolutionary educator and a leader in the cause of child welfare and children’s rights — in Poland and around the globe. He wrote many books for children and on the education of children and even had a radio program on parenting.
A pediatrician by training, the professor and his partner, Stefania Wilczynska, ran an orphanage in Warsaw.
For 30 years, Korzcak lived in a tiny apartment in the orphanage so that when children woke at night from a nightmare he could be there for them.
Korzcak was horrified at the idea that children should be seen and not heard. He believed children needed and deserved to be loved, listened to and respected for who they were and what they had to offer. The childcare ideas he proposed are still studied around the world.
Following the Nazi occupation of Poland, Korzcak’s orphanage was forcibly moved inside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. Because of his importance and prominence, the professor was time and time again offered opportunities to leave both the Ghetto and the country for safety.
He said he would never abandon his orphans.
On Aug. 5, 1942, the Nazis emptied the orphanage and marched 200 children, with Korzcak leading them, to Warsaw’s central train station for deportation to the death camps.
Korzcak knew full well what fate awaited them, but woke the children, ages 2 to 12, and made sure they were dressed neatly with shoes polished and faces cleaned and shining. He told the children they could each take one favorite book or toy and explained they were heading for a day in the country. He told them they would finally be able to breathe fresh air away from the fetid streets of the Ghetto.
Many people witnessed the scene and recorded the events of that day in diaries and journals which still exist.
“A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the house,” wrote Mary Berg in The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand.”
The procession left the Ghetto two by two holding their most prized possessions, excited at the prospect of “going to the country.”
“Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots,” wrote Joshua Perle, in Holocaust Chronicles. “A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.”
Korzcak led them with a smile.
Again and again he was offered a way out. Even the Nazis suggested he didn’t need to continue on this journey.
“I will not leave my children,” he said without fear.
People lined the streets witnessing a procession that would become one of the most shocking examples of Nazi cruelty.
The 200 children and their guardian were loaded on trains and transported to Treblinka. Once again he was offered a way out. A German officer who recognized the professor offered to help him escape. Korczak refused saying he needed to stay with his children “so they will be calm and not panic.”
They all died the same day — within hours of arrival at Treblinka.
All of them.
The last survivor of Treblinka died last week, and with him the memory of that place and those people died as well.
Except ... now I’ve told you the story.
So you too must remember.