Dr Korczak’s Example

David Greig
Unicorn Theatre

Sam Swann as Adzio

Dr Korczak was a Polish paediatrician who brought what was, for many, a controversial way of looking at children and child care for he was a champion of children’s rights—indeed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the UK ratified in 1991) is based on his writings.

Korczak (not his birth name) was a Jew. He died in 1942 in Treblinka extermination camp. His ”experiment” was the application of his ideas to child care and rearing.

David Greig’s play, first produced by TAG in Glasgow in 2001, is set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 when Korczak, who had been the director of two Polish orphanages, had been moved by the occupying Nazi authorities into the ghetto they had established to which all the city’s Jews were restricted. Here he tried to continue with as much normalcy as possible.

The Doctor’s charges are represented by just two actors playing Stephanie, a girl who often helps him in his office and a Adzio, a boy who has been living on the street and is shot when seen attempting to steal—or he would have been were this not theatre, for Greig reruns the scene so that Korczak can save him. They are given lively performances by Kae Alexander and Sam Swann with which young audiences will easily identify.

Both the script and Ria Parry’s production emphasise that this is a piece of theatre. It is played in James Button’s set of wire cages and cardboard boxes with a group of Play-Doh figures representing the other children. These are tenderly handled by Ben Caplan’s Korczak and Ginny Holder, who plays a diversity of roles including the Jewish head of the Ghetto, and sometimes, as when they are all put to bed, the two live children too.

While telling the tragic story of the privations of the ghetto and the deportations to Treblinka, the play also sets in opposition Korczak’s apparent refusal to believe that even the Nazis could really go ahead with murdering the children with the rebellious spirit of Adzio and the Doctor’s determination to show them that, if only within the walls of his building, it is possible to create a world of equality and justice and pass on the principles he values with the boy’s initial reaction of, "what’s the use when we are all going to be dead," for he knows the rumours of what happens after you get to your destination.

But Korczak is not blind to what is happening and in speeches addressed to the soldier across from his window he seeks an explanation for Nazi inhumanity. There is a chance that Korczak could escape and go into hiding but he turns it down. He will not desert his children. Still trying to keep their spirits up and keep the terror from them as long as possible, he goes with them. The ending mixes tragedy with hope, for Adzio and Stephanie manage to hide and survive to join the Warsaw rising, but that does not blur the powerful impact which is emphasised by the cast reminding the audience, “This is all true.”

Intriguingly, across London, Korczak is also the subject of Jonathan Salt’s one-man show Confessions of a Butterfly, which also presents the last days of the orphanage in the ghetto. It is good that a little-known figure whose influence has been great is now getting attention.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton