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The story of Korczak's Children
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A small child (Maeve Moynihan) is brought to the orphanage after she is found alone in the Warsaw Ghetto. (Photo courtesy of Children's Theatre Company)
While few Americans recognize his name, in Europe and Israel Dr. Janusz Korczak is revered as a hero and a champion of children. His writings laid the foundation for the United Nations declaration of the rights of children. Now the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis has brought his story to the stage. Korczak's Children tells of his last hours running his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. He and his orphans were taken by the Nazis to Treblinka and killed, but not before they put on a very important play.

Minneapolis, Minn. — When the Nazis forced Dr. Janusz Korczak to move his orphanage to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, Korczak knew the lives of his children, and his own, were at risk. Korczak was offered an escape route, but he would have to leave his nearly 200 children behind. He decided to stay.

He started a diary, in which he wrote all the details of their life in the ghetto for the next two years. The diary was smuggled away and hidden when the Nazis came to take Korczak and his children to Treblinka, and its entries provide the basis for Korczak's Children.

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Image Janusz Korczak and children

The Children's Theatre Company's artistic director, Peter Brosius, came across Dr. Korczak when he was turned on to his children's book King Matt the First. Matt is a young boy who suddenly becomes king of his country. He gives out chocolate, creates more zoos, and tries to put an end to war.

Brosius went on to learn that Korczak was a leader in the movement to treat children with respect and dignity, and give them more control of their own lives.

"I was just so excited and moved by a man who had written so passionately and so poetically about the rights of children, who created institutions like a children's parliament and a children's court, whose work was adopted by the United Nations and its declaration on the rights of children -- that I said how can this man not be known?" says Brosius.

As part of his orphanage, Korczak created a children's court. Children could bring each other up on charges for things like lying, stealing, or spending too much time in the bathroom. It was up to the court to determine whether the child was guilty, and if so, how he or she should be punished. Maeve Culleen Moynihan, 9, plays the role of the waif.

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Image Children in the orphanage

"It helps the children learn how to have a responsibility," says Moynihan. "Korczak wants them to learn when they get older that they need to have that, because they just can't go around and say, 'Oh, I've been stealing food.' You have to have a responsibility!"

Moynihan says she still doesn't understand why people have to go to war and kill one another, but working on this play has taught her a great deal about the need for respect for others.

In the last days at the orphanage, life becomes increasingly difficult -- food is scarce, and so is medicine. The children, no longer allowed to play outside, come across a play in Korczak's library and decide to stage it. Visits from the Jewish Council become more and more frequent, as they add more restrictions on life in the ghetto.

The Jewish Council eventually forbids the play, which only makes Korczak more determined to put it on. The play the kids have decided on is The Post Office, by Indian playwright Rabindranath Tagore.

In it, a young boy is told he's too sick to go outside, and so he must spend all day at home looking out the window, talking to passers-by. He becomes fascinated with the King's new post office across the street, and is tricked into believing the King is going to send him a letter. He's thrilled by the news.

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Image The play within the play

The King finds out about the boy and sends a doctor to help him, but the doctor arrives too late. The boy has died at peace in his sleep. Katie McGroardy, 16, plays the part of Natalia. She says by peforming The Post Office, Korczak was helping the children prepare for their own deaths.

"It's this beautiful world of fantasy that he's created for them, and yet at the same time it deals with very real issues -- everyone is going to die and everyone has their own end," says McGroardy. "But it's done in a very graceful and almost beautiful fashion, and I think it's very moving that he picks a piece that helps them embrace such a reality."

McGroardy says she's in awe of the resilience of the children in the play. She'd never heard of Korczak before doing this play, but now she's a great admirer of his work.

"One of my favorite Korczak quotes -- which isn't actually in the play, but which I read elsewhere -- is, 'Children are not people of tomorrow, they're people of today.' I think it was very important to him that children don't feel like lesser people, and that's a very important theme in our play also," says McGroardy.

Children are not people of tomorrow, they're people of today.
- Janusz Korczak

"The mere fact that there's so much about him that is worth talking about suggests a kind of victory," says Minnesota playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who wrote Korczak's story for the stage.

Hatcher says while the production was commissioned by the Children's Theatre Company, he wrote it as a play for adults, starring children. He says while he doesn't recommend the play for small children, he's confident that 9-year-olds and up will understand what's going on.

"You find out pretty quickly that kids are more sophisticated than you think," says Hatcher. "They might not know all of the permutations, say, of the Nazi occupation. But they certainly understand the ideas of a country being invaded, they understand when one group hates another group so much that they want to quarantine them in a small setting -- in fact there's a certain level of schoolyard politics that makes perfect sense to the kids."

Hatcher researched the life of Korczak and learned what he could about the children in the orphanage. He says he's tried to stay as accurate as possible, as a way of honoring the lives of the children. Hatcher says he feels their struggle leaves the audience with a sense of triumph, despite their tragic end.

"I hope people take away the fact that the struggle is always necessary. And that the struggle is sometimes not a grim struggle, but a struggle to remain alive -- alive in the sense that there's still poetry, there's still joy, there's still dignity," Hatcher says.

Korczak's Children runs through April 19 at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.

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