Have you ever heard of Janusz Korczak? He was a trained doctor, an educator, a writer and a champion for the cause of children, a tireless fighter for children’s rights, which is why he was known as “the King of Children”. Korczak created and fostered child-centered (Jewish and Catholic) orphanages in his native Poland.
Korczak started Poland’s first children´s weekly newspaper, edited and written by children, the paper was called “The Little Review.” Korczak (lovingly nicknamed “The Old Doctor”) was involved in children’s theatres, petitioned for the rights of children and instructed teachers on child-centered education. In 1942, the Nazi occupiers of Poland demanded that Korczak, surrenders 200 jewish orphans, ‘his children’, as he called them, for deportation – and certain death.
They offered Korczak (himself a Jew), immunity, because of his fame as an author and educator. Korczak refused to abandon his children and went to his death in the death camp Treblinka, with the children he loved.
Korzcak’s work is still as powerful and evocative now, 66 years after his death. His child-centric views have outlived him and one of his literary characters – a child – is as loved, in Europe, as are Peter Pan, Alice, Pippi Longstockings or Charlie
Korczak’s hero was a child named Matt, who suddenly becomes both an orphan and a king, after his mom and dad (the queen and the king) die. While the king’s old council is horrified that a young boy will become the king, Matt is determined to do just that. As he learns the rules and intricate etiquette involved in being a king, Matt studies, does his homework and plays outside, as any kid would. Though he starts his reign as a learner, relying on his tutors and advisers, Matt quickly becomes critical of the way his kingdom is run — he survives an invasion by cruel enemies and becomes a national hero, then he uses his fame to change the country’s constitution – especially the way children are treated. Matt’s assertiveness is not unlike Korczak’s – who petitioned the courts endlessly on behalf of mistreated, abused and wronged children.
More than anything, “King Matt the First” (and its sequel, “King Matt on the Island”) are children’s books, written in a world where intolerance, cruelty and indifference turned millions of children into victims.
In his preface to “King Matt the First”, Korczak wrote:
“When I was the little boy you see in the photograph, I wanted to do all the things that are in this book. But I forgot to, and now I’m old. I no longer have the time or the strength to go to war or travel to the land of the cannibals. I have included this photograph because it’s important what I looked like when I truly wanted to be a king, and not when I was writing about King Matt. I think it’s better to show pictures of what kings, travellers, and writers looked like before they grew up, or grew old, because otherwise it might seem that they knew everything from the start and were never young themselves. And then children will think they can’t be statesmen, travellers, and writers, which wouldn’t be true. Grownups should not read my novel, because some of the chapters are not very nice. They’ll misunderstand them and make fun of them. But if they really want to read my book, they should give it a try. After all, you can’t tell grownups not to do something – they won’t listen to you, and you can’t make them obey.”