The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day, every year, the UN urges every Member State to remember and honour the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides. The UN states that the: ‘writing of history and the act of remembering brings dignity and justice to those who the perpetrators of the Holocaust intended to obliterate.’ Today, we would like to remember all victims of the Holocaust. We also want to remember Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) for his unwavering dedication to children and children’s rights as the Holocaust was unfolding.


Janusz Korczak: a children’s rights champion

Janusz Korczak was a Polish paediatrician and a Jew. He was a children’s author and a pioneer of child-centred education. He also ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. A man before his time, Janusz Korczak was a passionate believer in children’s capacity to take responsibility for change in their own lives. Janusz Korczak believed: ‘a child’s primary and irrefutable right is the right to voice his thoughts, to active participation in our considerations and verdicts concerning him’. He valued and respected children as human beings and recognised their capacity and competence in the here and now, emphasising the importance of: ‘the child’s right to the present day’. The value of his life is not in the future, but in today, here at this place and now at this time! He recognised that children should be able to develop their personality and talents and to reach their full potential, explaining that children: ‘should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be – the unknown person inside each of them is our hope for the future.’ He demanded respect for the interests of children, not for reasons of charity but as a human right.

Janusz Korczak’s values translated into how he empowered children to participate in the governance of the orphanage he ran. He organised a children’s parliament and children’s newspaper, with the first editorial board in the world made up entirely of children. He also established a children’s court, based on his Constitution of the Rights of the Child.

One must remember that given the period in which Janusz Korczak did his work, it could be considered verging on revolutionary that children were given a voice in matters that affected them.

Never abandoning the children of the orphanage

Janusz Korczak’s commitment to the children he lived and worked with became evident during the events that happened from 1939. After the occupation of Poland, when many Jews of Warsaw were forced into the hardships and inhuman conditions of the Warsaw ghetto, Janusz Korczak insisted on remaining with the children and moved with them into the ghetto.

He made every effort to continue to run his orphanage based on his values and attempted to shield children from the reality of Nazi occupation.  In doing this, he tried his utmost to ensure that the conditions were liveable for the nearly 200 children in the orphanage, as well as other children trapped in the ghetto. In 1942, Janusz Korczak realised that the children were to be moved from the ghetto to Treblinka where they would be murdered by the Nazi regime. He was offered the chance to escape by his Polish friends who had organised a plan for his rescue. Instead, he chose to remain with the children, so they would not face Treblinka alone.

A movement for human rights and children’s rights

The atrocities of World War Two led to the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and although the rights of children are implicitly included in the UDHR, many considered that the special needs of children required a separate document. After much debate and deliberation, the Declaration on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959.

The 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, like the earlier Geneva declaration of 1924 focused very much on the ‘protection and provision’ rights and did not include the approach that Janusz Korczak had fostered in his children’s orphanage, i.e., children’s right to participate in the matters that affect them. It was also not a legal document and had the limited status of a declaration. It took a further thirty years for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to be adopted in 1989.

Final reflections

On this day we remember Janusz Korczak for the sacrifice he made to always be there for the children of his orphanage, and not abandoning them.  We also thank him for the lasting legacy he has given to all children, through his contribution to children’s rights globally. His vision has been recognised as influencing the drafting of the UNCRC as well as inspiring mechanisms that translate children’s rights into reality. In Wales, we have embraced this vision, with our law and policy being underpinned by the UNCRC and government and services working towards translating a children’s rights approach into practice.

Today we remember Janusz Korczak, the 200 children of his orphanage and all the people who lost their lives during the Holocaust.  We will keep working tirelessly to honour his vision and promote the rights of all children.




  1. Janusz Korczak’s quotes cited In Arie de Bruin, Children’s Rights in Health Care and the Legacy of Janusz Korczak, In Children’s Rights and Health Care (eds) Doek J and J Dorscheist (Brill Publications 2018)
  2. For School Assembly Resources

  1. For a 50 minute lesson plan KS3:


Author: Dr Rhian Croke