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Dr Korczak’s Example
Dr Korczak’s Example is a play by Strange Town Theatre Company, reviewed by Chris Read, our Business Support Officer, who attended the performance on January 23rd at The Scottish Storytelling Centre.
Here’s his review:
‘The right to an education’
‘The right to play’
‘The right to protest’
‘The right to refuse an education’
‘The right to secrets’
In 1945, the newly formed United Nations, founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind” formalised the rights of the child. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) enshrined in international law children’s rights to survival, protection and education. Strange Town Theatre Company’s production of David Grieg’s ‘Dr Korczak’s Example’ tells the extraordinary story of the origin of those rights.
Dr Janusz Korczak, born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw 1878, is an unfamiliar name to most people in this country. Yet as an educator he has had more influence than Rudolph Steiner or Maria Montessori combined. During Poland’s febrile interwar years he pioneered a radical child-centred approach to education and youthwork. Korczak believed children were just as deserving of respect, democratic voice and acknowledgment as the most powerful adults.
He established schools and curricula which placed the child at the centre of decision making and ensured a safe, secure space for young people. It is difficult to overstate how radical an idea this was at the time, when children were frequently powerless, beaten and voiceless. His work stood in starker contrast yet to the brutal, sadistic approaches to learning and schooling gaining currency across fascist Europe.
The combined Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 ended all experiments in education and thought. In the Nazi-controlled section of the country, Poland’s large Jewish population found themselves progressively stripped of their rights until they eventually faced mass extermination. Warsaw’s Jewish community, including Korczak, were herded into a tiny diseased ghetto to starve, prior to their eventual ‘liquidation’ in death camps.
Amazingly, Korczak established an orphanage in the ghetto, using the methods he’d pioneered before the invasion. And he accompanied all his children to Treblinka, refusing to leave their side even at the very end.
Edinburgh’s Strange Town Theatre Company have already established a reputation for arresting, first class performances. Like Korczak himself, Strange Town believe that youth theatre should be treated with the same gravitas and respect as adult theatre. Hence their decision to perform ‘Dr Korczak’s Example’, which tells the story of the orphanage and two young people that find sanctuary there.
Adzio and Stephanie are two traumatised teenagers who survive and grow under the loving protection of Korczak, navigating the terrors of the ghetto. Rumours abound that the ghetto is to be destroyed, food is desperately scarce and the orphaned children suffer most.
Throughout, Korczak somehow finds the extraordinary strength to insist on the children’s humanity, fight for them and provide a viscerally human example to the Nazi occupiers. The play addresses the plurality of responses to fascist oppression. Adzio argues that it is better to fight and finds Korczak’s insistence on absolute moral superiority impossible. Korczak privately struggles with his decisions, addressing sleepless monologues to the German guard at the gates, wonderful played by a puppet.
The play is smartly directed and acted with a special sincerity despite the challenge of capturing the final days of the doomed orphanage. The regular use of puppets to act out key scenes is remarkably powerful and the set design is clever and evocative.
One thing to note – this is not a briefing for a descent into hell. The play is not focused on the holocaust, antisemitism or Nazism per se. The focus is on children and their rights. As such teachers, youthworkers and educators might want groups to attend and learn more about their rights.
The performance ended with a discussion between the play’s director Steve Small, NHS Strategic Programme Manager Linda Irvine and The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson, chaired by Assistant Director and Producer Kai Peacock (Rolled Up Productions, however we’re proud to say that Kai also works at Fast Forward as Arts Project Director!). In private the participants admitted it was hard to focus given the power of what they had just seen. With the audience they explored the play’s themes and how best to realise Korczak’s legacy.
In this way the play mirrors Korczak’s views – treat children with adult respect and dignity. Take them to plays like this. Let them learn about the brutal crucible in which the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was formed. And discuss it, at length, afterwards.
Chris Read is a former English teacher in Poland, a Friend of Feniks, the East European mental health charity and Davno, the Polish traditional music ensemble. He is now a Business Support Officer at Fast Forward and has two Polish-speaking children.