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Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: Janusz Korczak "My Ethical Hero" with Dr Eva Hoffman

Thursday, 27th January 2022

Please join us on Holocaust Memorial Day to hear internationally acclaimed, award-winning writer and academic Dr Eva Hoffman talk about her “My Ethical Hero”, Janusz Korczak who died nearly 80 years ago in Treblinka extermination camp.

Berthold Werner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Berthold Werner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Outside Poland, Janusz Korczak is best known for his truly heroic final act: incarcerated in the Warsaw ghetto with nearly 200 children from the orphanage he ran, he decided to refuse all offers of rescue he received from his Polish friends, and to accompany the children on their journey to Treblinka, and to certain death.


“But if Korczak is my ethical hero, it is for what he did during his cruelly interrupted life, as much as for the manner of his death.  Korczak (the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit) was a literary doctor, whose writings are based on close observation, and whose many works for children and adults are shot through with empathy and in insight.  Having served in the Russo-Japanese war as a military doctor, he established an orphanage for the most impoverished, abandoned Jewish children, which he ran like a microcosmic democracy.  The children had their own parliament, newspaper and court, in which they discussed transgressions against the school’s codes, and suitable penalties -- although these were often leavened by understanding of each child’s background and inner world.  And if Korczak had deep insight into that world, it is because he talked to children without condescension, and with full empathy.  He believed in the full dignity of children (“the oldest proletariat in the world,”), as well as their ability to understand, if not always to articulate, complex issues of compassion and justice.  He spoke of the need for a Declaration of Children’s Rights, long before such a document was drawn by the UN. 


“In the ghetto, he made desperate attempts to feed the children, and keep their spirit alive by continuing to educate them. In an act of wrenching poignancy, he had them perform a play by Rabindranath Tagore about a child’s death, in order to prepare them for this eventuality. His moral courage and rigorous compassion held till the very end.” 


Eva Hoffman grew up in Cracow, Poland, before emigrating in her teens to Canada and then the United States. After receiving her Ph.D. in literature from Harvard University, she worked as senior editor and literary critic at The New York Times, and has taught at various British and American universities. Her books, which have been translated widely, include Lost in Translation, Exit Into History, After Such Knowledge and Time, as well as two novels, The Secret and Illuminations.  She has written and presented programmes for BBC Radio and has lectured internationally on subjects of exile, historical memory, cross-cultural relations and other contemporary issues. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, Whiting Award for Writing, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Prix Italia for Radio.  She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and holds an honorary doctorate from Warwick University.  She is currently a Visiting Professor at UCL and lives in London.