Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Holocaust Poetry: 5.8.1942 In Memory of Janusz Korczak by Jerzy Ficowski

Jerzy Ficowski's poem 5.8.1942 In Memory of Janusz Korczak can be found in Hilda Schiff's book Holocaust Poetry.

The poem is an elegy to the final act of Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, educator, author who established and ran 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 orphanage was inside the ghetto walls. 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.

What did the Old Doctor do
in the cattle wagon
bound for Treblinka on the fifth of August
over 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 do
did he give out to the children
what remained of gasping breath
and leave for himself
only frost down the spine

I do not know

did he lie to them for instance
in small
numbing doses
groom the sweaty little heads
for the scurrying lice of fear
I do not know

yet for all that yet later yet here
in Treblinka
all their terror all the tears
were against him

oh it was only now
just so many minutes say a lifetime
whether a little or a lot
I was not there I do not know

suddenly the Old Doctor saw
the children had grown
as old as he was
older and older
that was how fast they had to go grey as ash
Jerzy Ficowski
(translated by Keith Bosley) 

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