December 2019, Nonfiction

A Light in the Darkness by Albert Marrin

A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Marrin. September 10, 2019. Alfred A. Knopf, 388 p. ISBN: 9781524701215.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA; Lexile: 1010.

From National Book Award Finalist Albert Marrin comes the moving story of Janusz Korczak, the heroic Polish Jewish doctor who devoted his life to children, perishing with them in the Holocaust.

Janusz Korczak was more than a good doctor. He was a hero. The Dr. Spock of his day, he established orphanages run on his principle of honoring children and shared his ideas with the public in books and on the radio. He famously said that “children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today.” Korczak was a man ahead of his time, whose work ultimately became the basis for the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

Korczak was also a Polish Jew on the eve of World War II. He turned down multiple opportunities for escape, standing by the children in his orphanage as they became confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. Dressing them in their Sabbath finest, he led their march to the trains and ultimately perished with his children in Treblinka.

But this book is much more than a biography. In it, renowned nonfiction master Albert Marrin examines not just Janusz Korczak’s life but his ideology of children: that children are valuable in and of themselves, as individuals. He contrasts this with Adolf Hitler’s life and his ideology of children: that children are nothing more than tools of the state.

And throughout, Marrin draws readers into the Warsaw Ghetto. What it was like. How it was run. How Jews within and Poles without responded. Who worked to save lives and who tried to enrich themselves on other people’s suffering. And how one man came to represent the conscience and the soul of humanity.

Filled with black-and-white photographs, this is an unforgettable portrait of a man whose compassion in even the darkest hours reminds us what is possible.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Harsh realities of war, Racism, Anti-Semitism

 

Reviews

Booklist starred (September 1, 2019 (Vol. 116, No. 1))
Grades 9-12. Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jewish physician and an author of books on children’s rights, also served as an orphanage director in Warsaw before and during the Holocaust. The “Old Doctor” refused all rescue offers for himself, accompanying his charges into the Treblinka extermination camp, where he met his death. Marrin’s tribute to the humanitarian is not a traditional biography, however; instead, the National Book Award finalist juxtaposes Korczak, who believed hope comes from bettering the lives of children, with Adolf Hitler, who saw children as raw material to be molded into his racial ideology. Through meticulous research and impeccable storytelling, the result is an astonishing account of the Holocaust that alternates between the worst and best of humankind. The author adds context through background information on how Hitler’s ideology later played out in WWII, including anti-Semitism and mass killings of Jews in Poland. Amid the horrific details of these deaths shine rays of light from the resistance movement and individuals who risked their own lives to save those of persecuted Jews. Rarely seen photographs help document both sides. The conflicting views of children continue to the end as Marrin both honors Korczak’s legacy and reveals how children are still used by terrorists today. Although intended for YA readers, this eye-opening history also belongs in all adult collections. Painful yet profound.

Kirkus Reviews (July 15, 2019)
Janusz Korczak’s dedication to orphaned children during World War II serves as a reminder of the good one person can do in a world gone dark. Henryk Goldszmit, known by his pen name, Janusz Korczak, was a quiet, unassuming doctor, veteran, respected author, director of a children’s home—and a Jew in Poland at a time when Nazi ideology was on the rise in neighboring Germany. Considered a pioneer in child psychology, Korczak and his chief assistant, Stefania Wilczyńska, operated Dom Sierot, a home for orphans in Warsaw, guided by the philosophy that children were worthy of respect as whole beings, not just future adults, and deserving of autonomy and self-determination. Unfortunately, the nurturing environment of Dom Sierot was no match for the Nazi war machine and Korczak, Wilczyńska, and their beloved children died in the gas chambers of Treblinka in 1942. Marrin (Very, Very, Very Dreadful, 2017, etc.) uses Korczak’s life to explore 20th-century Germany’s path to extremism and brutality. Going beyond simple biography, the book focuses on eugenics and the Nazi’s molding of youth, the roots of anti-Semitism and racism, and their modern legacies. The readable tone makes the long text accessible and engaging. Disappointingly, more attention is paid to Wilczyńska’s perceived lack of beauty than to her intellectual accomplishments as a rare woman able at that time to complete a science degree. Meticulous research supports a Holocaust book worthy of attention. (notes, selected sources, index) (Nonfiction. 14-adult)

About the Author

Albert Marrin is a historian and the author of more than twenty nonfiction books for young people. He has won various awards for his writing, including the 2005 James Madison Book Award and the 2008 National Endowment for Humanities Medal. In 2011, his book Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a National Book Award Finalist. Marrin is the Chairman of the History Department at New York’s Yeshiva University.

Teacher Resources

Janusz Korczak Research Activity

Around the Web

A Light in the Darkness on Amazon

A Light in the Darkness on Barnes and Noble

A Light in the Darkness on Goodreads

A Light in the Darkness on LibraryThing

A Light in the Darkness Publisher Page

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