Protectors of Warsaw’s Children By Charlene Foose Geyer

I have held an extreme interest in WWII and the Holocaust for many years, educating myself through
reading, researching, and watching documentaries; but nothing I have ever done could even come close
to teaching me as much as this trip with Classrooms Without Borders. Not only am I able to see the
actual locations where events occurred, but I have the benefit of a wonderful scholar who is guiding and
lecturing along the way, explaining all the details of the sites, and reading quotes from books written by
survivors. I listen, transfixed, as I am transported back 80 years, astonished that it was just 80 years ago
when this horror unfolded.
Yesterday, we went to the Warsaw Zoo and learned the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, which was
depicted in the movie The Zookeeper’s Wife. The entryway into the zoo is as beautiful as it was
depicted in the movie, but the actual house and basement are much smaller, a fact which I found to
make the story even more impressive, as the Zabinskis hid and saved hundreds of Jews, including
children, in the basement of their modest home that was often visited by Nazis.
Today we started at the Warsaw Ghetto, seeing portions of the wall that are still standing. We learned
how food and people were able to be smuggled in and out of the ghetto; the horrible conditions of
overcrowding, disease and starvation in the ghetto; the bravery of doctors who documented their
findings about starvation and buried their notes in the ground for safekeeping to be discovered after the
war. In July, 1942, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto began, with Jews taken from the ghetto to
Treblinka, an extermination or “death” camp, located a little over an hour from Warsaw.
We then visited Treblinka, seeing the area where 900,000 people would die during the war. The camp is
no longer standing, having been destroyed by the Nazis to eliminate evidence of their acts. What
remains is actually a peaceful, touching contrast to the evil that occurred there: tall, green trees
surround the area, birds are pleasantly chirping, and rock monuments stand to honor the dead. We
were joined at Treblinka by a Holocaust survivor, whose family members were killed there, and
participated in a memorial service, while a special guest played the song from Schindler’s List on his
violin. You can imagine what an emotional response this drew. At Treblinka, there are large stones
bearing the names of the towns and countries of its many victims; there are no memorials for a single
person…except one; the stone commemorating Janusz Korczak.

By profession, I am a child abuse and neglect assistant prosecuting attorney.  Given this, it may not be surprising that the story of Janusz Korczak moved me to tears today, as he was a great advocate for children.  A fascinating man, he was a military doctor in WWI, an author of children’s books, a pediatrician, and the director of an orphanage.  He argued that children have various rights, including the right to respect, the right to make mistakes, the right to live in the present, etc.  He spoke out against corporal punishment, wrote teachings on how to deal with difficult children, and urged consideration for the best interests of children.  He recognized the damage abuse causes to children, stating “There are many terrible things in this world, but the worst is when a child is afraid of his father, mother or teacher.”  Those who know what I do for a living will understand why that strikes a chord in me.

This great man, Janusz Korczak, ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto.  He was given the opportunity on multiple occasions to be smuggled out of the ghetto by the Polish underground but turned them down because he so loved the children, he could not abandon them at such a time. When the ghetto was being liquidated and he knew the Nazis would be coming for them, he prepared the children in their best clothes and then led over 190 children out of the orphanage to be transported to Treblinka.  What an incredible example of agape love; a man who not only taught these children how to live, but who also walked bravely with them to their deaths.  As I listened to his story, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this man and his acts. 

I thank Classrooms Without Borders for this wonderful experience and the opportunity to increase my knowledge and awareness.

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