The poem is an elegy to the final act of Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, educator, author who established and run orphanages in Warsaw for 30 years.
As the principal for children houses (orphanages), a doctor, a publisher of a children's newspaper, as well as an author and expert witness in court, Korczak fought for a better life for children.
When the Nazis created the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939 the orphanages were moved into the ghetto. Korczak lived with the children and his staff under inhumane conditions and although he was offered the chance to escape Korczak refused, choosing to stay with the children.
On August 5th 1942 the entire orphanage, including children and staff, with a thousand others from the ghetto, were marched to the railroad marshaling yard, to be transported east to the Treblinka Concentration Camp A person in the crowd witnessed the extraordinary drama and lived to describe* it: (* the quotes are taken from an article about Korczak on the website of the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota):
"Forced into tight formation, body against body, driven by guards wielding whips on all sides, the solid mass of humanity was forced to run toward the train platform. Suddenly the Commandant ordered the Secret Police to pull back . ...
"At the head of a thin line was Korczak! No, how could it be? The scene I shall never forget. In contrast to the mass of humanity being driven like animals to slaughter, there appeared a group of children marching together in formation. They were the orphanage children walking four abreast in a line behind Korczak. His eyes were lifted to heaven. Even the military personnel stood still and saluted. When the Germans saw Korczak, they asked, `Who is that man?' ... "Another survivor, who succeeded in fleeing from the railroad platform, remembered the scene as Korczak and the children were put into the cattle cars.
"These children did not cry, these innocent little beings did not even weep. Like sick sparrows they snuggled up to their teacher, their caregiver, their father and their brother Janusz Korczak, that he might protect them with his weak, emaciated body . ..."The train took them all to the death camp at Treblinka where Korczak, his staff and the children all perished in the gas chambers.
5.8.1942 IN MEMORY OF JANUSZ KORCZAK
What did the Old Doctor doin the cattle wagon
bound for Treblinka on the fifth of Augustover the few hours of the bloodstream
over the dirty river of time
I do not know
what did Charon of his own free will
the ferryman without an oar dodid he give out to the children
what remained of gasping breathand leave for himself
only frost down the spine
I do not know
did he lie to them for instance
in smallnumbing doses
groom the sweaty little headsfor the scurrying lice of fear
I do not know
yet for all that yet later yet herein Treblinka
all their terror all the tearswere against him
oh it was only nowjust so many minutes say a lifetime
whether a little or a lotI was not there I do not know
suddenly the Old Doctor sawthe children had grown
as old as he wasolder and older
that was how fast they had to go grey as as
(translated by Keith Bosley)