Parenting Advice from a Polish Holocaust Hero Years before Dr. Spock and other child-rearing gurus, a renowned pediatrician in Poland pioneered the field by advocating that parents simply trust their instincts. He was executed by the Nazis, along with the orphans he cared for in a Warsaw ghetto.

Parenting Advice from a Polish Holocaust Hero

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

You may have heard the story of the death of Janusz Korczak. He was a pediatrician in Poland and a man so dedicated to children that he stayed with orphans from the Warsaw ghetto as they were sent to their deaths by the Nazis.

But less well known is the story of Janusz Korczak's life and his life's work. Years before Dr. Spock and other child-rearing gurus, Janusz Korczak was urging parents not to worry too much who their children would become, but to value them now.

Ms. SANDRA JOSEPH (Child Psychotherapist): Children are not the people of tomorrow. But they are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. The unknown person inside each of them is our hope for the future.

ELLIOTT: That's child psychotherapist Sandra Joseph, reading Janusz Korczak. She's put together a collection of Korczak's observations in a new book called "Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents." Sandra Joseph described for me what she found when she first read Korczak in English.

Ms. JOSEPH: When I had his works "How To Love A Child" and "Respect for the Child" translated, I was absolutely amazed at the simple wisdom and inspiration of Korczak's work, and I felt that his words had to ring out today.

ELLIOTT: Now, let's remind our listeners about Janusz Korczak's life. He was a Polish Jew, born in Warsaw in 1878. His given name was Henryk Goldszmit. And he was both a prolific writer and a sought-after pediatrician.

Ms. JOSEPH: He was one of Poland's most famous writers, not only for his books on child care and parenting, but his children's books are as are "Peter Pan" and "Alice in Wonderland" and have been translated into over 20 languages.

ELLIOTT: Now, he was also not only a writer, but he was a very sought-after pediatrician as well.

Ms. JOSEPH: Yes. He was a prominent doctor specializing in pediatrics. Medical students from all over Europe came to listen to his lectures. The rich and the famous of Warsaw society sought his services. However, he gave up both these distinguish careers where he could have acquired fame and fortune to become the director of two orphanages, one for Catholic children and one for Jewish children.

ELLIOTT: Is this when he starts to observe children and were his philosophy of how to raise children starts to crystallize?

Ms. JOSEPH: No. I think it crystallized when he was working when he was a medical student. He would spend much of his time with the slum families, the street children, and he - this is about why he gave up his career as a doctor, because he felt children needed love, care and respect. And this is why he decided to open his orphanages, which actually he himself designed.

He asked the children, what would you want in your home? And he listened to their advice. For example, the stairwells were too high for young children. So he put in two stairwells, one for the younger children and one for the older children. He also promoted progressive educational techniques. He had courts within the orphanages, and the judges were children.

ELLIOTT: Now, he was so dedicated to this orphanage that he stayed with these children even though he had opportunities to get out of the ghetto during the war in Poland.

Ms. JOSEPH: Oh, yes. When the Nazi - Germans invaded Poland, a year later the Nazis ordered the Jewish orphanage to relocate in the Warsaw Ghetto, along with the rest of Warsaw's Jews. Korczak - and I think this important, that Korczak was loved by the Polish people, and his devoted friends and admirers outside the ghetto made countless attempts to save him. But his reply was always the same. You wouldn't leave your own child in sickness or danger, would you? So how can I possibly leave 200 children now?

ELLIOTT: And he ends up staying with them until...

Ms. JOSEPH: August the 6th, 1942, when during the Nazi liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto Janusz Korczak led his 200 children through the streets of Warsaw onto the train that would take them to Treblinka. Korczak, who had brought up thousands of children, refused to desert his Jewish orphans, so that even as they died, they would maintain their trust in him and their faith in human goodness.

ELLIOTT: You know, he seemed to have this fundamental belief that children deserved happiness. Even in this horrible place where he was living, he tried to make their lives happy.

Ms. JOSEPH: He believed in listening to children and respecting their opinion, that one could learn most from children themselves on matters concerning children.

ELLIOTT: Let's hear some of his advice that you have collected in your book.

Ms. JOSEPH: Yes. I would love to.

ELLIOTT: That first chapter is called "No Book Is a Substitute."

Ms. JOSEPH: No book.

ELLIOTT: And it seems as if he's assuring parents that they are indeed equipped for the job of child rearing, that they don't need to turn to other people's expert advice to figure out what to do.

Ms. JOSEPH: Right. I'd like to read it because he says everything in far better words than I could ever say it.

I want everyone to understand that no book and no doctor is a substitute for one's own sensitive contemplation and careful observation. Books with their ready-made formulas have (unintelligible) our vision and slackened the mind. Living by other people's experiences, research and opinions, we've lost our self-confidence and we've failed to observe things for ourselves.

And I think this is so true because we've forgotten how to trust our gut feeling when it comes to our own children.

ELLIOTT: Now, when he wrote this observation, what was he reacting to? Were there books and experts out there advocating a certain way of raising children at the time?

Ms. JOSEPH: Well, obviously, in those days it was children should be seen and not heard. Children had no rights, don't forget, whatsoever. They weren't given any respect. They were working at the age of 12, 13. There were children on the streets. There was no welfare system. And Janusz Korczak realized the importance because children are our future.

ELLIOTT: Sandra Joseph, how do you use Janusz Korczak's teachings in your work as a child psychotherapist?

Ms. JOSEPH: I think - and I've dealt with a lot of street children, I've dealt with a lot of abused children - if you can be a witness for a child and say I believe in you, I know you can do it, I trust you, this makes one hell of a difference. And I've interviewed - I've gone to Poland and to Israel to interview some of Korczak's children who are now in their 80s, wanting to find out if there was another side to him, a shadow side, and in every case their faces light up when describing Korczak. He always had time for them. He had a great sense of humor, but the most important thing is that he believed in them.

ELLIOTT: Sandra Joseph is the editor of "Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents," the words of Janusz Korczak. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JOSEPH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: To read more of Janusz Korczak's advice to parents, visit npr.org.

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