Korczak’s legacy now
Left to right, keynote speaker Irwin Elman and panelists Rachel Malek, James Copping and Jess Boon. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
“Children are not the people of tomorrow but 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 are meant to be.”
Polish doctor, educator, writer and orphanage director Janusz Korczak’s philosophy and writing laid the foundation for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Murdered in 1942 at Treblinka with the almost 200 children in his care, Korczak’s work and life remain relevant to this day.
Jerry Nussbaum, president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada (JKAC), was one of the many speakers on Sept. 29 to remind the approximately 70 people in attendance of this fact. “We hold this lecture series in his honor,” said Nussbaum, “because we seek to follow his example of respecting children and honoring the whole child.”
“How to Love a Child”: The Janusz Korczak Lecture Series is co-organized by the JKAC and the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia, with contributions from other faculties, universities, activists and advocates. The first of six lectures was called Keeping our Promise to Children: The Relevance of Korczak’s Legacy for Children Today. It featured as keynote speaker Irwin Elman, provincial advocate for children and youth of Ontario, and president of the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates.
Other speakers included moderator Dr. Charles Ungerleider, director of research and managing partner of Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, LLP; Marni Point, who welcomed attendees to the traditional and unceded Musqueam territory; Dr. Krzysztof Olendhi, ambassador titulaire, consul general of the Republic of Poland in Vancouver; and. Dr. Blye Frank, dean and professor, UBC faculty of education. The most poignant tribute came from child survivor Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, board member of JKAC, author and UBC instructor.
“Korczak has been my hero all my life,” she said. Both she and Korczak were among those held in the Warsaw Ghetto. She spoke of going to school secretly until one day two Nazis came in and pushed the teachers around (they were sent to prison) – “we children sat there frozen in fear for quite some time, then the teachers sent us home. The next day, the school was boarded up. And that is what I remember, clutching my father’s hand ever so tightly while looking into the cellar through a little window at the now-empty grey room, where once there was life, color and learning. I had lost my right to education.”
Her father took her to Korczak’s orphanage. Even though the doctor was not in, they were welcomed, and she saw the children reading and doing artwork, seemingly happy “inside this space, as if the horror of the ghetto and the threat of the always-impending danger didn’t exist. This was Dr. Korczak’s world…. I had the impression that the doctor also tried to raise the children’s spirits during the terrible times in which they lived.”
She described the deportations; she, her mother and little sister narrowly missing the transport cars to Treblinka when a commotion distracted the guards and her father managed to save them out of the line. “We were lucky, not so Dr. Korczak and his children, who were destined to walk along the same route.”
On Aug. 5, 1942, the Nazis came for the children of the orphanage. While he was offered a reprieve, “Korczak refused, saying I hate desertion and besides, my children need me.
“Father often spoke of that day and how Korczak’s 200 orphans were ordered out of the building and made to march through the Warsaw Ghetto with Korczak at the helm, holding a small child in his arms and one little one by the hand. They were carrying the green banner of King Matthew, the character in his [Korczak’s] popular book for children about a child king who fought for children’s rights…. No survivor who was there at that time can forget the long procession. Many wrote about it.”
Boraks-Nemetz said her father often spoke about Korczak and taught her his principles, principles she followed in raising her own children. She concluded her remarks with the poem “And Still They March” by Yala Korwin, before presenting the first JKAC scholarship award to UBC PhD student Matthew Lee for his work on children’s social and emotional development.
When Elman began his keynote address, he admitted that he only learned about Korczak about 15 years ago, on a trip to Japan, where he was invited to “help them learn about children’s rights and to help teach them to elevate the voice of children.” When visiting a children’s home – an institution that can have as many as 200 children living in it – a staff member mentioned Korczak and was amazed when Elman, a Jewish educator who had worked with children for 20 years at that point, did not know the name.
Elman has since learned enough to know that Korczak’s work and life are relevant. “In Canada today, there are approximately 350,000 children connected to care in one way or another…. Some say that there are as many as two million former Crown wards … in this country.”
Speaking of his home province, he said there were 23,000 kids in Ontario living in some form of care, 8,000-10,000 permanently (ie. Crown wards, which, in British Columbia, are called continued custody orders) – and they are not doing well. Of those, more than 18% are aboriginal; in British Columbia, it’s 60-65%; in other provinces even higher. “It’s not hard to understand and listen to and hear the echoes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, and the need to address this over-representation of First Nations children across the country in our systems of care.”
In Ontario, he said, children can only come into care if a social worker (or somebody in such a capacity) has deemed the child in need of protection – from abuse or neglect – and a court has agreed. The children have not done anything wrong.
When the state takes children into care, said Elman, “You’re making a promise to them. The first thing, obviously, is, you’re protected now. The second thing is … if you’re permanently in our care, we’re going to take care of you … we’re going to ensure that you’re going to live to your full potential. And, when that child is brought into care, what do they hear? Maybe we don’t say it, but they hear, we’re going to love you, it’s OK now.”
But, he said, only 40% of children in care in Ontario graduate from high school, and that percentage doesn’t vary much between provinces; 43% of the homeless population of Canada have had an in-care experience. Young people connected to care are over-represented in the justice and mental health systems.
Elman shared many stories of his work as the province’s advocate. When somebody steps up for a child, he said – whether it be a community, foster parents, a group home, adoptive parents, anyone – “the government needs to say thank you, we’ve got your back, what do you need? We’ll do whatever is necessary, because we owe our children a home in which they are nurtured and loved…. That takes a whole different way of thinking about child welfare.”
He has been told, “We can’t legislate love.” His response is, “I don’t think you can legislate love, but I do think you can create conditions in which love can flourish. The government should be all over that… And, to do that, they need to ask young people and they need to ask children and they need to ask their caregivers in whatever form that is…. We owe that to children.”
If we took that approach, he said, if children in care were listened to, they would feel in charge of their own lives. If they knew what was in their files and had a say in what was written there, they would contribute to making policy, they would have a say in where they lived. Social and child-care workers would be trained differently, including respecting all the different cultures from which children in care come. “Many practical, revolutionary things … would happen in the way in which the system is run if children felt listened to.”
Panelists Rachel Malek, Jess Boon and James Copping – all members of the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks – joined Elman on stage for a 35-minute Q&A. Questioners wanted to know more about the criteria for a child going into care, how to create a sense of belonging for a child and ensure their safety, how to reduce the number of children in care, the impact of poverty, and which programs in Canada reflect Korczak’s philosophy.
As the final question, the consul general asked the young panelists, all of whom had experienced the care system, “What does it mean to you to love a child?” Boon spoke of commitment, being there for the serious and fun times but also investing in your own education to give back to the community. Copping mentioned consistency in home, support for school, having someone on whom to rely through thick and thin. For Malek, it is to be vulnerable – to open your heart, to recognize that it’s a two-way street, to be willing to go the extra mile for a child.
The next lecture in the Korczak series takes place Oct. 29, 7 p.m., at UBC Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre. Registration is required via jklectures.educ.ubc.ca.