The Warsaw Ghetto
|Janusz Korczak (1878-1942)|
On 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. From mid-September Warsaw was besieged and by the end of September the city had surrendered. In November 1940 the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto, calling it the “Jüdischer Wohnbezirk” or “Jewish residential district”.
It was the most densely populated of all such ghettos created in Nazi-occupied Europe. Jews from Warsaw and beyond were rounded up and forcibly herded into it. The conditions were appalling, food and other essentials were very scarce and it was vastly over-crowded.
Amongst those forced into the Ghetto were Janusz Korczak and some 200 children and staff from the orphanage he founded in Warsaw about 30 years earlier. Korczak was a doctor, a successful author and teacher. When the Germans first invaded Warsaw he refused to recognise their authority and ignored their regulations. This led to him spending time in jail. Korczak received several offers from Polish friends who were prepared to hide him on the "Aryan" side of the city but he declined, as he would not abandon the children.
During the summer of 1942 the Nazis began “deporting” residents from the Ghetto. They were marched through the streets of Warsaw to the railway station, unaware of their final destination. In fact they were being sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. It gradually became clear to those still inside the ghetto that they were to be sent to their deaths. Towards the end of 1942 there was a lull in these deportations and it was during this time that resistance groups began to form. The decision by the Nazis, in January 1943, to continue the deportations led to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In total more than 254,000 people were taken from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, and murdered.
Janusz Korczak was amongst those sent to Treblinka. On 5th August 1942 he, 12 members of his staff and 192 children were rounded up by the Nazis and marched through the streets of Warsaw to the railway station where they were forced onto the train to Treblinka.
One eyewitness remembered Korczak “marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child... the children were dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes”. Another wrote, “He told the orphans they were going out to the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating ghetto walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood.”
|Memorial to Janusz Korckak and the children at Treblinca|
As an educationalist and an author of popular children’s books Korczak had an international reputation. It has been claimed that the Nazis gave him an opportunity to escape from the train to Treblinka but he refused, again because he would not abandon the children.
This was the tragic conclusion to a story that began some thirty years earlier when Janusz Korczak visited a children’s home in Forest Hill, South-East London.
“Janusz Korczak” was, in fact, the pen-name of Henryk Goldszmit. He was born in Warsaw in 1878 and adopted his pen-name, from a character in a Polish novel, when he began writing in his early 20s.
Korczak described his own schooling as “Strictness and boredom. Nothing was allowed. Alienation, cold and suffocation.” When he was eleven Korczak’s world was shattered. For some years his father suffered severe mental health problems and after several breakdowns was sent to a mental institution, where he died. The family was brought to the brink of poverty by this. Korczak managed to complete his medical training and went into practice as a paediatrician. However, in 1910, he decided to give up his medical practice and found an orphanage.
For him this was a difficult decision to make. He realised that although medicine could care for the body teaching could develop the mind. He wrote, "What a fever, a cough or nausea is for the physician, so a smile, a tear or a blush should be for the educator." He realised that in an orphanage he could combine both medicine and teaching both “curing the sick child and nurturing the whole child”. The orphanage would be “a just community whose young citizens would run their own parliament, court of peers, and newspaper”. Korczak believed that children had a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed, and helped, to grow into whoever they were meant to be. The "unknown person inside is the hope for the future”.
In January 1911, while he was making plans for the new orphanage, two close friends of his died. He was much saddened by their loss and seems to have suffered a period of depression. This was not helped by his memory of his father’s death and his fear that such depression was hereditary.
Visit to Forest Hill
After the cornerstone of the orphanage was laid on 14th June 1911 Korczak left for England to visit orphanages but also, it has been suggested, to shake his depression. It was during this time in London that he visited Forest Hill where he was to have an experience that appears to have given him a clearer sense of the direction his life should take.
|Horniman Gardens from the pond, looking towards the bandstand|
Korczak had clearly been told about two children’s homes in Forest Hill and decided he should see them. He wrote a detailed account of the visit, describing how he took the tram from Victoria to Forest Hill. It seems he got off at Horniman Gardens, at the tram stop by the museum. He describes, “a park – lawns, a large lawn on a hill, the bandstand at the top seems small but on Sundays an orchestra of forty musicians plays there. On the green hill children are playing ball games. Lower down is a lake. Here they are launching boats and model ships. Behind a hedge one can hear the rattle of a train and see the smoke from the steam engine. A clock strikes the hour”. He also mentions a museum that housed a mummy. Little has changed except that the small lake has been drained, the railway line to the Crystal Palace closed in 1954 and the clock no longer strikes.
Korczak then walked towards the shopping centre where “the inhabitants can buy all they need”. Continuing along Dartmouth Road he came to “a larger and grander building – communal baths – a bath for two pennies, a swimming pool for one penny – with separate pools for adults and children”. He speculates on how much it cost to build and maintain the pools adding, “the parish paid towards it all, and some lord topped it up”. In fact the parish donated the land and the Earl of Dartmouth, who may well have donated some money, opened Forest Hill Pools in 1885.
However, the biggest surprise was the orphanage next to the pools, the Girls’ Industrial Home, known as Louise House. The director greeted him politely and showed him around "with no trace of German arrogance or French formality." He saw the laundry, the sewing room and the embroidery workshop. He also visited the Boys’ Home. Every child had a garden plot and kept rabbits, doves or guinea pigs. He noted that the children all went to school for formal education. He also mentioned the report books which still survive in the Lewisham Local History & Archives Centre. On leaving Louise House Korczak signed the visitors’ book “Janusz Korczak, Warsaw”. Unfortunately the visitors’ book does not seem to have survived.
Korczak was aware that a stranger from a distant country was not the sort of visitor that the homes were used to. He commented on how he felt the staff saw him: “Warsaw? A strange guest from far away. Why is he looking at everything with such interest? What is so special about this place? The school? But there are children, so of course there must be a school. The orphanage? But there are orphans, so they must have somewhere to stay. A swimming pool? A playground? But this is necessary. Yes, it is all necessary.”
In a letter written to a friend in 1937 Korczak explained: "I remember the moment when I decided not to make a home for myself. It was in a park near London. Instead of having a son I chose the idea of serving the child and his rights”.
Korczak was clearly deeply affected by his visit to the industrial homes. It seems that on his way home he returned to Horniman Gardens to ponder over what he had seen. He felt his own life had been "disordered, lonely, and cold," and decided that as “the son of a madman” and as a Polish Jew in a country under Russian occupation he had no right to bring a child into the world. He decided that he would not take on the responsibility of marriage and a family but would instead commit himself to “serving all children and their rights".
Korczak’s own childhood had been difficult. When he was eleven his father became mentally ill and died in a psychiatric hospital and at the time it was thought that such illnesses might be inherited and this must have played on Korczak’s mind. At the time he visited Louise House Korczak was thirty-three, almost the age his father was when Korczak was born. He returned to Warsaw with a clear vision of what he should do and how the orphanage should be run. In 1912 the orphanage opened, with Korczak as director.
President Obama during a ceremony in Janusz Korczak Square
at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
Behind him is the statue of Janusz Korczak and the Children.
Korczak believed that children had their own personalities and their own paths to follow. The role of a parent or a teacher was not to impose other goals on a child, but to help them achieve their own. Children had rights and their views should be listened to. The children in his orphanage were encouraged to write their own newspaper and they were involved in discussing and agreeing the rules. "Out of a mad soul we forge a sane deed," he wrote in later years. The deed was "a vow to uphold the child and defend his rights."
Korczak's ideas influenced the development of free schools such as Dartington Hall and A S Neil’s Summerhill in the 1920s and there was even a school in Sydenham influenced by his ideas, the Kirkdale Free School at 186 Kirkdale. It opened in 1964 and closed in the 1980s. Korczak’s work on children’s rights was also used as the basis for the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which is used to this day by governments around the world.
Louise House and Shaftesbury House
The industrial homes that so impressed Janusz Korczak during his visit to Forest Hill developed from the Ragged School movement of the mid-19th century. Whereas the Ragged Schools offered a basic, free education to destitute children and sufficient training to enable them to earn an honest living, the children still lived in what were often appalling domestic conditions.
However there were some who believed that such children could only prosper if they could leave “the destitution of parents or influence of surroundings, which were very likely to lead them into a life of crime”. They should be “rescued from the perils of the street, fed, clothed, housed, educated and taught a trade”. The industrial homes, often established in pleasant locations, provided that refuge; they were intended to provide a “home” for children who had no home.
A group of local philanthropists felt that Forest Hill offered a suitable environment for such a home. Funds were raised and a small house at 17 Rojack Road, between Stanstead Road and Rockbourne Road, was acquired. The Boys’ Industrial Home opened on 3rd May 1873 for “the reception and industrial training of destitute boys”. At that time it could accommodate just six boys.
|Nos. 3 and 4 Rojack Road in about 1881|
The home was funded by donations from local people. These included F J Horniman who made an annual donation of 18 guineas (almost £1500 today), sufficient to support one child for a year. Under the terms of his will this was to continue after his death. Forest Hill’s other important tea-merchants, the Tetley family, were also generous donors together with several dozen other local people. Clearly, founding the home was the initiative of wealthy and benevolent Forest Hill and Sydenham people.
Each application for entry to the home, usually from a sponsor or parent, was considered by the Industrial Homes committee. They decided whether those who applied for admission were likely to benefit from their time in the home. They would accept only those children who were aged between 7 and 10 and whom they knew to be “destitute or the children of poverty-stricken parents” and would not consider anybody who had already become involved in serious crime. Where possible “a small weekly sum [was] expected from the parents” according to their means. During his visit to Louise House Janusz Korczak wondered why an affluent area like Forest Hill needed an orphanage but, of course, very few of the children were actually from Forest Hill.
By 1875 the house next door, 16 Rojack Road, became part of the boys’ home. At this time the boys were training to be shoemakers. Their wares were sold to help raise funds for the home, which, in 1875, raised £63 (more than £5,000 today). The boys also chopped and bundled firewood and this too was sold.
For their formal education the children attended local schools, initially Christ Church National School, Perry Vale (now called St George's Cof E) and Holy Trinity National School, Dartmouth Road but when the non-denominational board schools opened the girls attended Sydenham Hill School (now Kelvin Grove) and the boys went to Rathfern Road School.
By 1881 the need for a home for girls was becoming apparent and so it was decided to make arrangements for the reception of “a few of these little waifs, who are without doubt on the verge of moral and spiritual ruin”. No. 16 Rojack Road was adapted and on 20th July 1881 was opened as a Girls’ Home by the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the same year a further two houses, 3 and 4 Rojack Road, became boys’ homes. By this time there were 22 boys and 11 girls being cared for. By 1880 it was already clear that these houses were inadequate and that there was a need for larger and better-designed homes. A building fund was set up to achieve this.
In May 1884 a purpose built boys’ industrial home, Shaftesbury House, Perry Rise, was opened by the Lord Mayor of London in the presence of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was patron of the home.
The architect of Shaftesbury House was Thomas Aldwinckle (1845-1920). Although he built hospitals and workhouses across south-east England, including the old Lewisham Baths, Brook Hospital and the water tower on Shooters Hill, and the important Kentish Town baths, he was very much a local architect. He lived in Forest Hill for almost all his working life and his house at 62 Dacres Road, which still survives, was almost certainly designed by him.
The boys’ home closed in about 1943 and the building needlessly demolished in 2000.
On 21st October 1889 Viscount Lewisham wrote to The Times announcing the decision to build a new girls’ home and laundry and appealing for funds. On 17th June 1890 Princess Louise laid the foundation stone of the new building on a site in Dartmouth Road. This was the building visited by Janusz Korczak in 1911. It is one of four significant buildings on this part of Dartmouth Road, three of them listed Grade II. The other buildings are Holy Trinity School, Forest Hill Library and Forest Hill Pools. They were built within 25 years of each other with a shared common purpose, the health and welfare of less advantaged people in Forest Hill, Sydenham and beyond. Between them they provided opportunities for education, religious instruction, exercise, cleanliness and learning a trade. Three of the four buildings are still in use for the purpose for which they were originally intended.
The history of the site on which these buildings were erected began in 1819 when Sydenham Common (500 acres of open land in Upper Sydenham and Forest Hill) was enclosed. Since time immemorial the common had provided local people with certain rights such as free access, grazing livestock, gathering firewood, hunting and holding fairs. After the enclosure the common was divided into small plots that were fenced to keep out trespassers. These plots were awarded to those who already owned land in Lewisham. Thus, as so often happens, the wealthy benefitted at the expense of the poor.
One of the beneficiaries of the enclosure was the Parish of Lewisham, which was awarded the large field on which these four buildings were to be erected. The field, which became known as Vicar’s Field, was originally let as allotments to those who had lost their common rights. As circumstances changed, the vicar (from 1854, when the parish of St Bartholomew was created, the freeholder was the Vicar of St Bartholomew’s Church) was persuaded to make parts of this field available for purposes he deemed to be socially worthwhile. During the early 1870s Vicar’s Field was one of the sites proposed for a public recreation ground but the vicar decided such a use was not a good enough reason to deprive the poor of their allotments so an alternative site was found, now known as Mayow Park.
However, the vicar did agree to make part of the field available for a church school and in 1874 Holy Trinity National Schools opened. This was followed by the pools in 1885, Louise House in 1891 and finally the library in 1901.
|Louise House, with the library on the left, at about the time of Korczak's visit|
The foundation stone of Louise House was laid by Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lorne and daughter of Queen Victoria, on 17th June 1890. She retained an interest in the industrial home that bore her name for many years. Thomas Aldwinckle, who also designed Shaftesbury House and Forest Hill Pools, was the architect of Louise House.
The house remained a girls’ home (the word “Industrial” was carefully removed from the fascia across the front of the building in about 1930) until the mid-1930s. By 1939 it was occupied by Air Raid Precautions and after the war it became a maternity and child welfare centre. Louise House was closed and boarded-up in 2005 but is now being used as artists’ studios and its future seems secure. As a rare survivor of a purpose built industrial home that is still largely intact and also because of its significant link with Janusz Korczak English Heritage listed the building Grade II.
By an extraordinary coincidence another heroic person who died opposing the Nazis also had links with Forest Hill. In 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was elected pastor of the German Evangelical Church in Dacres Road, Sydenham and moved into a flat above the German school at 2 Manor Mount, Forest Hill. In 1935 Bonhoeffer, who strongly opposed the Nazis, decided to return to Germany where he became active in several anti-Nazi groups. Bonhoeffer was apparently connected with the assassination plot of 20th July 1944 when a group of military officers attempted to overthrow the Nazi regime by killing Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested and held in the Flossenburg concentration camp. On 9th April 1945, as American forces approached Flossenberg, Bonhoeffer and six others, who had also been involved in plots against Hitler, were executed.
The German Church in Dacres Road was bombed and had to be demolished. The new church, opened in 1959, was named in memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is also a plaque on the house in Manor Mount where he lived and a statue of him on the front of Westminster Abbey, unveiled in 1998, celebrating him as a “protestant martyr”.
Both Janusz Korczak and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are regarded as heroes and martyrs of the holocaust who chose to die for their beliefs. That both should have such significant links with Forest Hill is quite remarkable and something we should celebrate.
Annual Reports and Management Committee minutes held at the Lewisham Local History & Archives Centre
Information from Marta Ciesielska and Bozena Wojnowska of the Warsaw Historical Museum, kindly translated by Adam Kawecki