Janusz Korczak’s Last Day


Janusz Korczak's Last Day

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Peretz Markish

Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Wolfthal


The next day, announcements appeared on the walls, ordering all children to report to the Umschlagplatz, which meant to slaughter. The Germans had designated the corner of Gęsia and Okopowa as the waystation to death. Three-year-old Jews and four-year-olds and five-year-olds huddled together in a corner of the loading yard Jews who had “instigated an international world war on the earth in order to murder the Aryan nations.” They stood around in their little school aprons, turning their little heads this way and that, searching for their mothers. And those who had brought little toys with them sat down on the ground: one with a little shovel dug up some sand and made a little house, another was baking a little bread made of sand, a third one was weeping, and another was biting his nails.
A shot suddenly rang out, shattering their quiet childish play. They threw themselves on the ground. But in front of them a mother who had been shot through the chest flung herself down. She hadn’t been able to find her child at home and had started running, her scarf flying around her head, like a hunted deer, down into the abyss called Gęsiaand Okopowa, the waystation for children to be slaughtered. She didn’t hear the warnings of the guards. She didn’t notice the screams of the SS. She was running to her child and saw him from a distance. She was reaching out her hands, and that was how she fell, oblivious.
The last breaths of her lungs pushed her forward. A little flock of children flickered before her, who had been driven into a corner of the yard at Gęsia and Okopowa. Alas, would she reach them? And if she did, could she save them? There she was now, so close to the little flock. She was almost face to face with them. Now she could see that some of them were playing with little shovels, and some were kneading the sand.  Alas, these children didn’t know who was playing with them. Just one more breath, and she could protect at least one child in the whole flock with her body.  At least her child. At least that much. Or that one, with the fine, tousled hair. Or that one who was crying. “Don’t cry!” she screamed from far away, flailing her arms like wings that have been plucked yet keep flying. And it was with those words, “Don’t cry!” that she fell to the ground, with bullet holes in her chest, in the waystation for children to be slaughtered that would drench it with blood.
The children burst out weeping. All of them.  They looked around them. They stretched out their little hands, searching. They huddled together andsnuggled, afraid to pick up their heads. But the freight train cars were already waiting for them, like the boxes that dogcatchers use. They made the trip and back in no time. Two of them left town in the morning, packed with the dead bodies of tiny two-year-old children. They were lying on top of each other, like little birds with bloody feathers that had been shot down, their little heads turned to the side, and their faces white like those of angels. But their delicately woven braids were somewhat stuck to their foreheads.
The children were eating breakfast when the murderers entered the orphanage. One of the children was sick. The old teacher and caretaker sat next to him and tried to convince him to take his medicine. He was telling him a story and the child was listening. The teacher told him about two doves who longed to be together, but the River Sambatyon kept them apart. The good old teacher lamented, “And they couldn’t get together, because he hurled boulders far away all week long, so that it was impossible to even go to the riverbank. And the boulders were fiery. And they fell with a terrifying roar. And they, the doves, cooed and cooed all week. They could hear the other one calling, but they couldn’t fly over the river.”
“What about the Sabbath?” asked the sick child. “Did the Sambatyon hurl boulders on the Sabbath, too?”
“No, sweetie. He didn’t hurl boulders on the Sabbath. He rested on the Sabbath. But the doves didn’t fly on the Sabbath. They rested. And so they could never get together.”
The child took his medicine, and his eyes filled with pity for the doves who could never get together, neither during the week nor on the Sabbath. But the uproar caused by the murderers who had suddenly invaded the children’s home interrupted the teacher with his story about Sambatyon, and the child who felt pity for the doves.
The teacher glanced out the window, but he saw only the trampled greenery that the children had planted in a little garden under the window. The little flowers were crushed together in the early autumn soil, as well as the grass, and the toy houses that they had built to play with and the little fence were all overturned. It was as if a part of the orphan home had been torn from its body. The teacher did not see the murderers through the window. They were already filling the vestibule with their tumult, rushing to get the children.
When they came inside, the old teacher greeted them from where he was, sitting next to the sick child, and the look that he gave them with his good, old eyes, made it clear that he didn’t know for what purpose they had come to this children’s home.
One of the men inquired, “Who here is Henryk Goldszmit? Doctor Goldszmit,” he repeated.
The teacher answered with complete composure, “That’s me.”
“How many children are in this institution?” the German continued, as his eyes scanned the group of children.
“As many as I saved, that’s how many there are,” replied the teacher with bitterness, glancing at the children.
“What did you save them from?”
The old teacher folded his hands. “From death, from starvation, from illness.” He didn’t look much different than he had in that bright children’s home that he’d founded years ago and nurtured on Krochmalna Street. His pale face reflected his constant worrying about the fate of the children ever since they had been driven into the ghetto. But his high, furrowed forehead kept his fears under control and wouldn’t let him fall into depression. And above all, it wouldn’t let him impart that depression to the children.
The teacher – this serious old man – all of whose facial features seemed to have been carved by time andthoughts, this man who had devoted his whole life to the children until the very end, thinking about them, writing books for them, attending to them, sowing the best seeds in their young hearts – which he himself had sifted through over dozens of years – and then sent them out to the world from the children’s home, enlightened and endowed with wings, he knew well that he was now facing an unequal struggle. He was floating with his children on an ice floe from a world in ruins, with no land in sight. Bad luck was coming for him and his little orphans and it would send them into the abyss. He knew this well, but he had to be clever to hide it from them. Like a good hen with tiny chicks, he took care of the orphans night and day, fed them, washed them, encouraged them, told them stories, and played the nicest games with them.
He had kept in his pocket a dreydl, an assortment of little pictures, some glue, little scissors, miniature books, a heart full of love, and a head even more full of stories. He had wielded these as an antidote against the demons. He used them to shield the children.  Those were the weak weapons he had to ward off the evil eye, which had been lying in wait for them the whole time in the ghetto. He didn’t want them to see what was happening beyond their little garden, the greenery that he had planted with them under the windows of the orphanage.
But he didn’t hide the truth from himself: that sooner or later the terrible time would come, tragic and unavoidable, when the beast would open wide its jaws on these children, too, and force them to lie down in its mouth. He knew well that a time would come when nothing that he had invented for the orphans would work anymore. The beast would knock it all down and its bloodthirsty eyes would look the children right in their faces. Neither the little garden with its tender plants, nor the little toys of the children, nor the stories that he had made up for them so they would forget where they were, so that they would feel they were somewhere else in a faraway magical world - not here behind the mute wall that surrounded the ghetto none of that, he knew, would work anymore. It would come to an end, the way the song of a shepherd’s pipe is interrupted when wolves attack his flock.
And the time had come. It was here. He, the old teacher, had nothing more with which to protect the children, nothing that could shield them anymore. He stood, unarmed, in front of the murderers, and they demanded: “Get the children ready for the Umschlagplatz!” That horrifying word, that very word which reeked of ghastly death and did not exclude his orphans tore through his heart, and the floor quaked under his old, but steady, feet.
He had chased it away from his children for an eternity. He had tiptoed around it and not paid attention to it for a long time. He had closed his ears to the rumors of slaughter.   But still, in the end, it had torn into him in the children’s home. It was here. Here it was. It wore a black helmet, skulls on its sleeves, and crossbones on its cap. There were two worlds. There were three. There was half a world. And he didn’t have the means with which to fight back against that poisoned, depraved half of a world that had no idea what a child was, no idea what a mother was, no idea what a plant was.
He took a heartrending look at his orphans. How would he hide them now from the Angel of Death? Just one more minute… just one more second… Maybe something would happen. Maybe something would transpire. Maybe the world, the depraved world, would simply disappear. And his eyes trembled as they darted from one child to the next, and back again. Then he came to himself and said to the murderers: “They’re having breakfast, the children. Let them finish their pitiful breakfast.” The old teacher watched his children eating their last food with their little plates and little spoons that would never again be given to these pure and bright little creatures. Never again would their cheerful twittering be heard as they were given their utensils. And he began to walk among them, grief-stricken, encouraging each one in a voice that was cracking, “Eat, children… eat… the food’s getting cold.”
And although his voice was weak, he could still pick up a fallen spoon, and lift up their hands, and raise their downcast eyes. He went from one child to the next, patting this one’s head, hugging and cuddling the next one, so that his heart shouldn’t fail before it was time. He needed his heart, but only as long as the children looked to him to protect them and hide them from the tragedy. It was on their account that he needed his heart until their last breath. But in truth, what kind of world was it that murdered children? What kind of Heaven was it that looked on at murdered children? And what kind of earth was it that allowed itself to be used for the graves of murdered children?
“Eat, sweeties.” And the children obeyed their good teacher, as always. They looked at him and felt bad that he was so troubled, so they ate with tears in their eyes and nodded to him, “We’re eating, teacher, we’re eating.” They wiped themselves very clean with their little napkins, then they stood up but didn’t know what to do next. They simply watched their melancholy teacher, and their tearful eyes said, without words, “We’ve finished eating, teacher.” The old teacher came to himself. “Already finished… Yes, I see…” But what should he say now? He, who had shown them the world, its beauty, its brightness, its goodness. He, who had opened the door to life for them and adorned it with so many nice stories. They had so much more to do, to learn, to hear… But they’d just finished eating their last meal on earth, and they’d just finished wiping themselves with their little napkins for the last time. So what should he say to them now? The black helmets with the skulls and crossbones were rushing him.
And he noticed that one child went over to the murderer who was hurrying the teacher so much, and he noticed that the child started looking at his sleeve that was decorated with a skull. The child looked at it and then suddenly looked back at his old teacher, pointed to the skull, and said, “What is that, teacher?” The teacher’s tongue was glued to his palate for a while. His eyes drifted from the child to the skull to the murderer, and back. He led the child away, who was astonished, and reassured him, “It’s nothing. Don’t look.” Suddenly his sad eyes glanced at all the children, as if he were saying goodbye, and repeated, “It’s nothing.”
But he immediately remembered that he had already said that, and it wasn’t what he had wanted to say. He turned around. He wanted to turn away from it all. And, carefully watched by the piercing stares of the Gestapo bastards, he shouted, “Get dressed, children!” He turned his head away. He didn’t want to watch the children getting dressed. He didn’t want his mouth to say those words, and he didn’t want his eyes to see them obeying what he had, in fact, told them to do. Where were his eyes? Where in the world was his heart? Wasn’t it where his children were? What was he waiting for? Why didn’t he slit his throat? Why didn’t he gouge out his eyes? The children were putting on their clothes. And if he didn’t see them, so what? Weren’t they getting dressed? Now he himself had to get dressed. And he took down his old-fashioned black jacket. They were already dressed.
The Gestapo bastard opened his mouth black like a grave and hissed like a snake: “Dr. Henryk Goldszmit, as an employee of an official institution, and as a member of the first category, has the right to stay.” The teacher Henryk Goldszmit did not look in the direction of the Gestapo’s voice. He stopped for a moment, with one hand in his sleeve. Half-stooped, he heard what the Gestapo bastard was saying, just as if it had absolutely nothing to do with him. Then he put his other hand in his sleeve, lined up the children in two rows, nodded his head, shook some dust off one child, straightened the collar of another, and showed them kindness again and again while he still had the capacity to do so. He thought to himself: What? I’m going to let my orphans go alone with you? Who is it who would let their children go alone with you? I’ll go with them.
Then he went over to the sick child for whom he hadn’t been able to finish his story when he was giving him his medicine, took him in his arms, and called, “Come, children!” He led the procession of his children, carrying the sick child in his arms, looking back to make sure they were lined up correctly. He nodded his head and continued telling the story of the two doves. The line of children approached the Umschlagplatz at Gęsia and Okopowa, which reeked of slaughter since the mother had been shot down as she raced like a deer with her arms stretched out towards her child. Every once in a while, the old teacher looked around at his children and groaned as he kept telling his story to his sick little boy: “Yes, and the little doves cooed, and cooed, and the Sambatyon kept hurling boulders, and the little doves, who longed to be together but couldn’t get across, cooed and cooed.” The sick child hugged the old teacher’s neck tightly and wept.

The teacher kept walking at the head of the line of children until he disappeared into the depths of the Umschlagplatz.  


Translation copyright © Maurice Wolfthal 2024. Copyright © David Markish.

This translated excerpt from Trot fun doyres [The March of Generations] was made from the text published by Sovetski Pisatel (Moscow:1966), which is digitized on the website of the Steven Spielberg Yiddish Library of the National Yiddish Book Center, pages 284-291. 

Peretz Markish (the author) (1895 – 1952) was a prodigious Soviet Jewish writer of poems, plays, essays, and novels. Many of his works were propagandistic, but others dealt with Jewish themes. In the late 1940s when Stalin was targeting the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Markish wrote Der trot fun doyres [The March of Generations], a WWII saga with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at its center. Stalin refused to allow it to be published. When Stalin ordered the murder of Shloyme Mikhoels, the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, and said it was an accident, Markish read the poem, “S. Mikhoels—An Eternal Flame by His Coffin,” at Mikhoels’ memorial service, in which he revealed the truth. Markish was imprisoned in January 1949, tortured, and executed with twelve others in Lubyanka Prison in 1952. He never saw his book in print. 

Maurice Wolfthal (the translator) was born in Paris to parents from Buczacz, Poland, who had survived the war in the Soviet Union. He was a public school teacher in the Bronx and Arizona and is a member of the Houston Yiddish Vinkl. He has translated short Yiddish texts for the website Ingeveb and four published books: Nokhem Shtif’s The Pogroms in Ukraine 1918-1919, Yitzhak Erlichson’s My Four Years in Soviet Russia, Bernard Weinstein’s The Jewish Unions in America, and Mendl Mann’s The Fall of Berlin.

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