“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

– John 15:9-17 

Each school year, I look for a quote that will be my guiding quote for the year and I share it on Back to School Night. After 20 years of Back to School Nights, I started to worry that I was running out of quotes, but I stumbled upon this one while surfing the web:

“Children are not people of tomorrow but are people 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 of them is our hope for the future.” -Janusz Korczak

I had no idea who Janusz Korczak was. I had never heard of him before. The quote spoke to me so deeply that I decided to find out has much as I possibly could about the man who wrote it and what I found out about him was so incredibly moving, I just had to share with all of you.

Janusz was a Polish-Jewish educator, children’s author, humanitarian, pediatrician, child pedagogue and defender of children’s rights. In 1911 he became a director of a Jewish children’s orphanage in Warsaw. He served as a doctor in both WWI and the Polish-Soviet War but returned after the war to his practice in Warsaw.

During the 1930’s he had his own radio program where he spoke about the rights of children. He thought of moving to Palestine, but he did not want to leave the children behind. He stayed with the children throughout the war and in 1942 the Germans came to collect the 192 orphans that were in his care and take them to Treblinka for extermination. Janusz himself had been offered safekeeping by the Polish underground but he turned it down because he did not want to abandon the children, “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” When they reached the camps, he was again offered freedom, but he refused, and he died with them in Treblinka.

Each day we are bombarded by the atrocities of war and its impact on our world’s children. It is so hard for us to think about the true evil that exists and the toll it is taken on little ones and every human being. But then we see people like Janusz who literally laid down his life for the children he cared for.

Janusz’s faith in God was totally based on love of God, not fear. He regarded God as people’s best friend in their struggle to reduce evil and increase goodness. For him, God was the greatest good that people could imagine and seek to resemble. God was the source of human yearnings for a better world founded on compassion. God was close to all who called out to him and could be revealed to every creature, in every action and feeling, in every sentient being. Korczak called Him “the educator of educators” and “the physician of physicians.” This God made only one demand upon people: to love and honor themselves, their fellows, and nature.

And Janusz lived that life.