Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak and the Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto by Irène Cohen-Janca, illustrated by Maurizio A.C. Quarello, translated by Paula Ayer
While this summer’s Justice League and Fantastic Four make for great celluloid entertainment, for true inspiration, Mister Doctor – as Dr. Janucz Korczak was called by his beloved children – is a real life superhero to be admired and emulated. His accomplishments beyond doctoring included also being a scholar, writer, international speaker, even a radio star, but his most important duty was to protect “the orphans and the poor children of Warsaw” during the horrific years of the second World War.
Beginning in November 29, 1940, Mister Doctor and the 170 residents of the Orphans’ Home – “our big, beautiful white house” – would be targeted, driven out from home to home, and eventually sent to death camp. In spite of the many chances he could have saved himself, Mister Doctor never wavered in his dedication to his young charges. Rather than blindly succumb to the crushing Nazis, Mister Doctor rallied his children to stay strong each time they were forced out: “Mister Doctor wanted our departure to be like the journey of a great theater troupe, not a sad eviction.”
He made “Memory Postcards” for each child, “so we don’t forget things that happen in our lives – our good deeds as well as our bad ones.” He created “a real Republic … which we, the orphans, ran ourselves … so there would be justice and our problems would be taken seriously.” He instilled resilience and hope, even joy, even as conditions became so fatally deplorable. When the Nazis arrived on August 5, 1942 with final evacuation orders, as always, Mister Doctor was there to lead “the march, head held high, looking into the distance, a child on each hand.”
Beyond his cruel death, the good doctor left behind a vital, lasting legacy: his writings would ultimately influence the Convention on the Rights of the Child, established by the United Nations in 1989. Ironically, tragically, the United States and Somalia are the only two member countries to not ratify the Convention.
French author Irène Cohen-Janca takes on the horrors of the Holocaust and, in choosing Mister Doctor as her subject, offers “a shining light in one of history’s darkest periods.” In the midst of the most heinous evil, Mister Doctor remained a beacon of kindness, justice, courage, and unconditional love. Cohen-Janca is blessed to have Italian artist Maurizio A.C. Quarello magnify her stirring text: the details are stunning – close-ups of tightly held hands, the haunting whimsy of Puss-in-Boots hurdling over barbed wire followed by a view of trapped ghetto residents, the oversized fly corpses scattered on an abandoned window sill, the desiccated leaves above a drainage grate, an open empty birdcage. Most notably, the penultimate illustration which folds out from both sides to double in size is a rousing, unforgettable image to behold.
These pages are waiting: let the good doctor prove that true superheroes do indeed exist.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult