Sunday, September 13, 2009

Saintly Man, Ungodly Film? Controversies and Passions Fueled by Andrezj Wajda’s film, Korczak

Special Thanks to: The Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles as well as Film studio Perspektywy as patrons of the film's screening.

Writing for the New York Times in 1991, Vincent Canby provided the following portrait of Janusz Korczak (1878-1942). “….born Henryk Goldszmit, a the Polish-Jewish doctor and educator who devoted his life to the care, study and improvement of the lot of children. In the years between the two world wars, Korczak wrote, lectured, conducted a popular radio program and sponsored a magazine put together entirely by children. More important, he opened a home for Jewish orphans in Warsaw where he could put into practice his theories relating to children's rights. He died at Treblinka along with members of his staff and 200 children from his orphanage, which had been moved into the ghetto in 1940. Korczak was clearly some kind of saint.”

If it is largely in agreement that Janusz Korczak was a paragon, the same can not be said for the charges leveled at Andrzej Wajda's 1990 controversial film, Korczak released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Korczak, the first of the films in this year’s series generated impassioned discussions that were ably led by the USF historian, Case Boterbloem and psychoanalyst and author, John Hartman.

Noting that Polish citizens whole-heartedly participated in the extermination of the Jewish people, Dr. Boterbloem provided the audience with the context by which to understand the political and social world of the Polish territory before and after the War that lead to “ugly scenes” after 1945. Multiple identities were not really possible; one was either a Catholic and therefore a Pole or one was Jewish. This of course, made Korczak unique in the way he crafted an identity which would encompass multiplicity: he felt himself to be a Jew and a good Polish citizen. Boterbloem added that there were some (not just Jewish) Poles who did believe that one could be both Pole and Jew (Judaic) as one could be both Pole and Catholic or both Pole and atheist. This inclusive view of Polish citizenship, in which Korczak believed, was very much also a principle in which the Polish social-democrats and communists believed before the German invasion. Anti-Semitism was rampant right through the 1960s and some in the audience would add that anti-Semitism remains pervasive in Poland.

Dr. Boterbloem also drew a portrait of Korczak as a pedagogue, involved in the New Education Movement of pedagogical progressivism along with Maria Montessori and Leo Tolstoy. And he told us about Korczak’s “Bill of Children’s Rights” such as “The child has the right to live in the present;” meaning, “Children are not people of tomorrow; they are people today.”

Dr. Hartman prefaced his remarks about the film by disclosing his affective reaction to the film. He wished that Korczak’s children would have lived. His feeling was related to an experience with a patient of Polish-Jewish descent who during her treatment with him, dreamt that she was in the beginning of the Holocaust. Later that day, she learned that she was facing a dire medical condition: stage IV metastatic breast cancer. She and Hartman concluded that indeed her preconscious awareness of the cancer provided the manifest content of the dream. His wish for the children and his wish for the patient were the same. He wanted life for both.

Hartman’s focus was on how to make sense of Korczak’s decision to die with his children. Hartman noted that Korczak could have taken the following actions: he could have saved himself because of his fame; he could have committed suicide (one could argue that Korczak committed suicide by Nazi); or he could have despaired and given up.

Background on the young Korczak was instructive. Hartman noted that Korczak’s father died under mysterious circumstances and it was thought, by his own hand. Having suffered from a psychotic illness, Korczak new his father as mentally unstable. Like his father, sexual conflicts plagued Korczak and he never was known to have formed a romantic relation. Perhaps even as one audience member later added, he feared that he would have fathered mentally unstable children himself.

Turning to Eric Erikson’s book, Childhood and Society for ideas, Hartman suggested that Korczak’s decision to die with the children was consistent with Erikson’s final stage of personality development: integrity vs. despair. Korczak lived a life as a doctor, writer, and advocate for children. A death with dignity then would be an extension of his identity. Korczak manifested no ambiguity or compromise like some other Jews featured in the film who worked the black-market or who resisted German domination outright. While in his personal life, Korzack was extremely provocative to the Germans, he refused to wear an arm-band which would have identified him as a Jew and he continued to wear his old military uniform, when it came to the children he would take no risk. To abandon the children, Hartman argued, would have been a betrayal of everything in his character and everything his life meant to him: his core values, his identity and his life’s work.

The audience raised the following questions:

What was the meaning of the dream sequence at the end of the film?
How was it that Jews could be seen in non-ghetto neighborhoods?
What was the role of the black-market in the ghetto and the Jews that ran it?
How do we know that the film is an accurate representation of the final period of Korczak’s life?
How was the film received by the Polish people? What was the state of knowledge of the postwar generation about the ancestor’s role in the Holocaust? Why the film was not more widely distributed?

The film is based on a diary that Korczak kept, survivors from the orphanage, Korczak’s close friends and Polish witnesses. In short we learned and experienced first hand, that the film and its’ ending generates controversy. While Hartman took the view that the ending of the film is very much in the mode of the utopian vision of Korczak himself. He felt the film could be seen in the context of rumors that circulated in Poland that Korczak and the children escaped their fate of death. Boterbloem noted that others felt that this ending was a further example of the soft-peddling of Polish involvement with the murder of the Jewish people.

Claude Lanzmann’s, (director of the 1985 film, Shoah) influence at Cannes caused the film to be judged outside the normal categories and to be placed in a separate and special category of its’ own. The film has been suppressed around the world in part due to accusations that Wadja sweeps Polish anti-Semitism under the rug. In comparison to other films, there are relatively few film reviews to be found of Korczak.

Audience members had the following comments:

That the type of education Korczak provided his children did not equip them to survive in a hostile world or cause them to become politicized to the extent that they would join the resistance.

That well-organized resistance did take place in the Warsaw ghetto and Jews did not simply go to their deaths without a fight. This comment lead to a robust discussion about the role of denial. Some audience members felt, including Hartman that denial was massive and that many Jews believed they were going to work camps and would return. Even the then President of the United States refused to believe that death camps could be strewn throughout Europe. But an audience member challenged this view with the comment that the United States had conducted surveillance of the camps and were fully aware of the genocide and did not intervene in a timely manner for its’ own political reasons.

Another comment of note was Korczak’s self-comparison to a mother who could never abandon her children. This self-identification can be seen from an intersubjective perspective that we all have multiple parts of ourselves and Korczak was able to express this part of his personality. Another perspective could interpret this self-labeling as consistent with Korczak’s pacifist, idealist, utopian character stemming from his ability to manifest integrity, the final stage in Erickson’s theory of personality development.

Hartman and Boterbloem recommended the following resources for further study:

Hartman, J. and Krochmal, J. (2003). I Remember Every Day... the fates of the Jews of Przemysl during World War II. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Remembrance and Reconciliation, Inc.

Gross, J. (2001) Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton University Press.

Jeffrey Veidlinger @


Case Boterbloem (Ph.D. McGill university, 1994) is a full professor in the Department of History, who has been at USF since 2005. He is the author of three books on Russia and the Soviet Union, all of which are in USF's library, as well as more than a dozen of scholarly articles. He teaches European history, Russian and Soviet History, and Theory of History at USF.

Dr. John J. Hartman is a Florida Licensed Psychologist and Certified Psychoanalyst. He is Training and Supervising Analyst at the Tampa Psychoanalytic Institute and a Clinical Associate Professor in the Psychiatry Department at the University of South Florida. He is the author or co-author of 3 books and 22 scientific publications.

Thanks to

*Mark I. Greenberg, MLS, Ph.D., Director, Special & Digital Collections and Florida Studies Center and Eileen Thornton;

*Carolyn Bass; Ula Szczepinska; Erin Blankenship of The Florida Holocaust Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida;

*USF News Coordinator Barbara Melendez for her article on the series located at; and to

*Lycia Alexander-Guerra, President, Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society for her support and the popcorn!

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