Korczak (1990)





Director:     .

Starring:     Wojciech Pszoniak (Henryk Goldszmit vel Janusz Korczak), Ewa Dalkowska (Stefania 'Stefa' Wilczynska), Teresa Budzisz-Krzyzanowska (Maryna Rogowska-Falska), Marzena Trybala (Estera), Piotr Kozlowski (Heniek), Zbigniew Zamachowski (Ichak Szulc), Jan Peszek (Max Bauer), Aleksander Bardini (Adam Czerniaków), Maria Chwalibóg (Czerniaków's wife), Andrzej Kopiczynski (Dyrektor w Polskim Radiu), Krystyna Zachwatowicz (Szloma's mother), Jerzy Zass (German wachman on the bridge), Wojciech Klata (Szloma), Michal Staszczak(Józek), Agnieszka Krukówna (Ewka).

Dr. Janusz Korczak runs a Jewish orphanage in Poland; he and his orphans are sent to Treblinka on August 6, 1942



Spoiler Warning:


"He who pretends to sacrifice himself for a person or a cause is a liar."  So says Doctor Korczak over the radio.  He says he loves children.  "I do it not for them, but for me." 

Korczak goes to see the director of the radio, who tells him that he has temporarily to suspend the doctor's broadcasts.  The political situation in Poland is difficult.  Korczak says he's not political, but rather educational.  He is pretty sure that all this is about his being Jewish.  He becomes very angry.

The director tells Korczak that next week when he's on the radio, he is to tell the audience that this is his last program.  Make up some acceptable excuse for this.  "Otherwise we'll be flooded with letters."  Because Korczak's program was so popular, they fear there might be protests against taking the show off the air.  The director says that after the program, they want to have a little get-together to express their gratitude to Korczak for his work with them.  Korczak says something and then just leaves. 

Korczak (a pseudonym for Dr. Goldszmit) watches over a lot of children playing down by a river.  A blonde girl comes by bicycle to give the doctor a letter from Maryna.  A boy named Joseph, about the age of the girl, stops her.  They know each other.  He says the doctor is busy watching his former students.  He will take the letter to the doctor.  Then he mentions that he had a date with the blonde girl, but she never showed.  She just says she couldn't make it. 

The doctor listens to some of the older of his former students.  They complain that the native Poles beat them up and smash their windows.  An example of the anti-Semitism, the Polish woman washing the children's clothing tells a woman that she does not wash Jewish shit out of the really dirty pants.  The doctor comes by and says that the woman is correct.  That isn't her job.  The parents of the child should be made to do it, but since they are not here, the doctor will clean the pants.  He takes the pants and starts washing them.  Now the Polish woman says she will wash the pants, because she doesn't want to see the doctor having to do that.  Korczak says he's a doctor, he can stomach it. 

Miss Stefa arrives in a wagon at the retreat.  She appears to be a real favorite with both the young and older children.  She brings some oranges from the Kibbutz Aron. 

Korczak asks Stefa why she returned?  She replies:  "I couldn't stay there.  I kept dreaming of the children."  She also says that everybody these days is saying that war in Europe is inevitable.  Stefa tells the doctor that they must be ready for the worst.  The doctor agrees that war is inevitable, but he does not think it will be the "worst".  The worst is when a drunk hits a child. 

Warsaw, Poland, 1939.  The bombing of Warsaw begins.  A soldier is shot down in the street.  As soon as the planes leave, in his military uniform Korczak rushes out to tend to the man.  A young student is there and he helps the doctor.  He recognizes Korczak and says he's a big admirer of the doctor.  The doctor enlists him to help him with the patient.  The student talks about some poetry he is writing dealing with the war situation here in Warsaw.  The doctor is in a big hurry but he tells the student to bring his poetry to Our Home on Krochmalna Street. A former students tells the doctor to please remove the uniform for no one else is wearing an officer's uniform.  It's just too dangerous.  The doctor replies:  "There's no one to wear it, so I have no right to take it off.  Everyone has betrayed us."

The Germans come in and establish a Jewish quarter in Warsaw as of September 13, 1940.  All Warsaw Jews and transferred Jews must relocate.  A Polish man and woman who have worked in this zone for 22 years are now forced to leave the area and not come back.  The officer calls them Polish swine and lackeys of the Jews.  A guard strikes the man with the butt of his rifle. 

Only one package per person is authorized.  The potato cart meant to feed Korczak's 200 school children for two weeks is stolen by the Germans.  Korczak goes to tell off the Gestapo and demand the wagon back.  The Gestapo fellow says why does he intervene in Jewish matters?  Korczak says he is Jewish.  The Gestapo demands to know why doesn't Korczak wear the Jewish arm band?  For this the doctor is pushed down on the street and then kicked several times. 

Jews are still coming into the Jewish ghetto.  A woman named Myrna wants to take one of the children close to Korczak to live with her and not in the ghetto.  She talks with one of the women workers and asks to take the child with her.  She says the girl Pola looks so much like her deceased daughter.  At first the worker says no, but then she changes her mind and lets Pola go.  Then Myrna tells the woman that she must convince Korczak to come with them.  "We have papers and a hideout for him."  The blonde girl from Our Home is with Myrna.  She says hello to the Jewish boy Joseph that likes her. She gives him a kiss, tells him she is no longer living at Our Home and will be working for a dressmaker.  The boy says he'll find a way to come see her.

Korczak is in a jail cell with other prisoners.  The director of the radio station where Korczak used to work is in the same cell  Korczak is in and they are now on much better terms with each other.  Korcsak says he does not hate the director for what he did.  He says war always tears away the past.  There will be a new beginning. 

The cell is opened and the jailer calls for Goldszmit.  A German military doctor accompanied by a Polish doctor speaks to Korczak and says that Korczak's health requires that he be freed.  Korczak says in Polish they he doesn't speak German.  The German doctor says he knows the doctor speaks good German.  He heard him as a younger man speak in Germany in the German language at a medical conference.  The doctor examines Korczak, who keeps saying he's in perfect health.  The doctor still writes him a note saying that Korczak be released immediately.  The German doctor approaches Goldszmit walking quickly and the Jewish doctor makes defensive preparations to ward off the expected blows.  The doctor asks him if he has been beaten?  Korczak doesn't say anything.  The German then recommends that Korczak start wearing his Jewish arm band. Korczak says he won't wear the armband. 

A Polish guard beats a young boy for smuggling potatoes.  Korczak yells at the man to stop that.  Then he asks him if he has no shame beating a mere boy so viciously? 

When the kids see the doctor they rush him with glee.  He plays a game of trains with the children leading them all around the aisles of beds. Later he talks with a staff member.  He asks about Pola and the woman says she is with Myrna.  And Myrna might be able to hide some of the other children as long as they are of a "suitable" appearance.  The doctor seems always the optimist.  "They're ruthless, but surely will spare the children."  The woman now tells Korczak that Myrna and her friends think that he should hide on the Aryan side.  Korczak says it's out of the question.  He would never even think of abandoning the staff and the children. 

The staff gets together and discusses their problems.  One woman says:  "It's terrible begging from the Judenrat (the Jewish Council)." 

Gunfire is often heard in the ghetto and this scares some of Korczak's children.  He goes over to comfort one of the children.  He puts the child in his own bed in the next room. 

Korczak visits a rich friend for a food donation.  The friend tells him that this time he can only give him two sacks of wheat.  And this will have to be the last time.  He says all his relatives have descended on him.  He opens the door to the dining room and Korrzak sees how the room is overflowing with fellow Jewish people.  Korczak asks for 3 sacks instead of two and 300 zlotys.  The rich friend agrees. 

A boy named Shlomo is taken in by Korczak because his grandmother can't feed him.  He gives the boy a medical exam.  Then he asks Joseph to take Shlomo and show him their house. 

Shlomo appears to be somewhat of a street thief.  He acts real tough against the taller and older Joseph.  He sees a candy bar hidden under a pillow and swipes it. 

Three Jewish people come to visit Korczak.  The three are on the Jewish Council.  They ask if Korczak could take in a few extra children?  Korczak refuses saying that he can't endanger the 200 children he is taking care of now.  He thinks about it for a moment, then says he will take in only the most needy children.  One of the men says that there are over 100,000 ghetto children.  And the Dzielna Street Orphanage is atrocious: the staff steals many of the provisions and a lot of children die there.  Korczak says it's unfortunate, but he cannot take care of them all.  

After the Council members leave, Korczak writes a letter saying he would be like to have a teaching post at the Dzielna Street orphanage.  Later the doctor takes the teaching position.  He says he doesn't want to talk about it since the conditions there are so deplorable. 

The Germans film the terrible conditions in the ghetto.  That includes the picking up of skeleton-like dead people just laying on the streets. 

The doctor goes to the Council and pleads with them to at least make a place where the hundreds of sick and starving children can  have at least have a dignified place to die.  He is very impassioned and very tired of seeing all the suffering. 

Joseph goes to see his girlfriend at the dressmaker's place.  He takes off his armband.  Her name is Ewa.  He gives her a kiss.  Someone calls her back into the shop.  It looks like her boss is mad at her.  She speaks to her boss and then has to tell Joseph not to come around to the shop anymore.  Her boss asked about him.  She told her that the boy is her brother, but she knows that Joseph is Jewish.  Otherwise, she will get into trouble.  Joseph leaves. 

Shlomo goes to see his mother, but finds that her dead body is being carted away.  This makes him very angry so he decides to take it out on poor Joseph.  He snatches from him his letter to Ewa and starts reading it aloud.  This infuriates Joseph and he tries to stop him.  Shlomo runs all over the place still reading the letter.  Natka, who likes Joseph, tries to stop Joseph, but he slaps her to get away from her. Finally a staff member comes out to put a stop to this.  She scolds Joseph, but a little girl explains what happened.  So the staff woman tries now to comfort Joseph, but he will have none of it.  He says to her:  "I don't want to be a Jew."

Korczak talks with Shlomo about what happened.  He tells the boy that his mother died in peace, because she knew her boy was here with the doctor.  After that, the doctor goes to talk with Joseph, who says he wants to commit suicide.  Korczak asks him, what if Natka loves Joseph?  No answer.  He refers to Joseph as a man, which pleases Joseph. 

The kids put on a play. 

Two of the staff want to get married.  They tell the doctor about this.  He is happy for them. 

A German truck arrives to pick up Jewish people.  The woman who wants to get married sees a woman friend who is being taken away.  She tries to intervene and gets thrown into the back of the truck. 

The doctor goes to the Jewish Council.  One of the men tells him to watch it for the Germans are here.  They want the head of the Council to sign the deportation order. He says Czerniakow is negotiating with them.  Evidently, it's not going too well because the Germans throw a drink into the man's face.  A little later they give him a good beating.  The Germans leave and the doctor and the other man put Czerniakow into a lounge chair.  Korczak now says that their teacher, Esterka Winogronow, has been arrested.  Czerniakow suggests that for a large bribe, the Gestapo may save the teacher. 

The prospective groom comes to see the doctor.  He tells the fellow that they must live!  Come what may. 

A street conductor throws out bread for the starving Jewish children.  A Nazi sees him, stops the streetcar, pulls the guy out, slaps him around and then shoots him twice.  The same Nazi sees the doctor without his armband.  He grabs the doctor and is about to do something to him, when a fellow intervenes.  He talks to the Nazi for awhile, while the doctor sticks around.  Later the intervener comes to talk to the doctor, who recognizes the man as Itzek Szulc.  Itzek takes the doctor to a nightclub for Jewish people.  A woman sings for the crowd.  There are powerful Jewish fellows in the nightclub.  And lots of them are rich.  They have lots of influence, relatively speaking, with the Aryans.  He wants the doctor to know these powerful people. 

Itzek gets up in the nightclub and announces that here tonight there is Dr. Korczak, the famous writer and teacher.  He needs money.  He then goes around with a plate to collect the donations.  He gets a lot of money for the doctor.  Then the head of the Jewish Gestapo asks the doctor to come over and have a drink with them.  The doctor says he can't because he has to get going.  So the Gestapo man comes over to the doctor.  He says he loves artists.  He also says that he is the one responsible for the children not being deported.  He says he knows how to speak to the Germans.  The doctor can't stand to be around the man.  Three men rush in and one of them shoots the Jewish Gestapo leader two times in the head shouting that this is in the name of the Jewish Combat Organization.

Later the three assassins grab the doctor and demand to know why was he there with those traitors?  The doctor replies:  "I need money for the orphanage."  They ask the doctor if he thinks that they shouldn't harass the Germans?  They say:  "The Judenrat wants to send us like sheep to the slaughter."  The doctor only replies that he would go see the Devil himself if it would help him save his 200 children. 

At night a Jewish man yells out to the Jews of Warsaw to not let themselves be deported! The Germans are trying to trick you!  They are preparing our death!  They have ovens! And they stoke them with Jews!  The Germans keep shooting at the man until they finally hit him.

Stefa says maybe they should disperse the children and some of them might make it okay.  Korczak says no.  "They'll be exposed to fear and pain."

Joseph and Natka are now holding hands. 

Myrna brings some things for the children, but she mostly wants to say that Korczak must hide.  But he asks Myrna what if they really are sending the deported to the East?  He can't abandon 200 children in this moment of tragedy.  She says that the mass deportations are now starting.  Korczak says he has the word of the important people that the children won't be deported.  Myrna gives up on trying to reason with Korczak and leaves. 

Three German soldiers burst into the orphanage dining room.  Stefa tells the children that they are going to go out for a little ride.  They are to put on their best clothes and take their satchels. 

The children march out carrying a Jewish flag.  Slomo learns that they are taking the orphans away.  He and Joseph run to the orphanage, but the children have already left the place.  Joseph telephones Maryna to tell her they are taking the orphan children.  The doctor and Stefa are with them  They're headed for the Umschlag.  [During the Holocaust, the Umschlagplatz (German: collection point or reloading point) in the Warsaw Ghetto was the square in Warsaw where Jews were gathered for deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard.]

The railroad cattle cars arrive.  Adults and the the orphans are loaded into the cars.  Itzek comes looking for the doctor.  The doctor quickly gets on the train.  Itzek gets up too close to the cars and he is forced into one of them.  Off the train goes.

The last car on the train breaks off from the train.  It's the one with Korczak on it.  The kids are very happy to climb off the cattle car. 

"Doctor Korczak died with his children in the gas chambers of Treblinka in August 1942."


Almost all the eye witness accounts of Jewish and Gentile heroes during the Holocaust are very sad, but also very inspiring.  Dr. Korczak worked steadfastly to save his 200 orphans who were with him in a place they called "Our Home".   Many times he risked losing his life because he would stand up for the children against the inhuman German guards and officials.  And he was a man who always said he would never leave his children and the staff to suffer their fates alone. No he was always there for his children and staff.  And he was always there to help buoy the spirits of those having to face the worst the Germans could dish out.  Actor Wojciech Pszoniak was really good as Dr. Korczak. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.




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