Friday, May 12, 2017
Our celebration of the memorial of St. Damian de Veuster (Damian the Leper) on May 10th is a reminder of what steadfast love looks like. Fr. Damian, a Belgian priest, dedicated his life to those suffering from leprosy who were confined to the leprosarium on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He gave himself completely to the lepers, and after contracting leprosy (Hansen's disease), died among them and was buried with them.
I was reminded of the steadfast love of another generous and compassionate man, Dr. Janusz Korczak (Dr. Henryk Goldszmit), a Polish Jewish pediatrician, children's author and humanitarian. He was a man of many gifts and talents. A skilled and compassionate pediatrician, he established just before the outbreak of World War I a Jewish children's orphanage, Dom Sierot in Warsaw. As the director he implemented the principles of what was then called the New Education movement, which proposed a holistic pedagogy that took into account the moral, spiritual, physical and intellectual development of the child.
He wrote: "...children should be fully understood... must be respected and loved, treated as partners and friends... [and that] one ought to behave towards [each child as] a respected, thinking and feeling human being." Under the pen name Janusz Korczak, he wrote children's books that illustrated the challenges faced by the impoverished children who were in his care.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Dr. Korczak accompanied the children and staff of his orphanage into the Warsaw ghetto, rejecting generous offers by rescuers to bring him to safety. He refused to be separated from the children of the orphanage and walked with them to the terrifying Umschlagplatz, where the Jews of Warsaw were assembled for deportation. On August 7th, 1942, Dr. Korczak, with 190 orphan children in his care were killed at the Treblinka death camp.
A teacher who studied under his direction wrote:
"Everyone makes so much of Korczak's last decision to go with the children to the train. But his whole life was made up of moral decisions. The decision to become a children's doctor. The decision to give up a full-time medical practice and writing career to take care of poor orphans, The decision to go with the Jewish orphans to the ghetto. As for that last decision to go with the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature. It was who he was. He wouldn't understand why we are making so much of it today."