A Child’s Right to Die

Janusz Korczak is a name I wish everyone could know. A Polish Jewish author, pedagogue, and orphanage director, he refused offers for his own safety during the Second World War and was deported, along with all of the children of the orphanage, to the Nazi death camp Treblinka where he and they were killed in 1942.

Over the years, I have come upon monuments commemorating Korczak and the children at Treblinka, in Warsaw, and at Yad Vashem in Israel.

Janusz Korczak left behind a vast collection of writings and today I picked up How to Love a Child and Other Selected Works.

To my surprise, the first page to which I randomly flipped says:

I am calling for a Magna Carta for the rights of a child. There may be more. I have dug out three basics:

1. A child’s right to die.
2. A child’s right to the present day.
3. A child’s right to be what a child is.

What did Korczak mean? He explains:

There is a notion going around that the higher the child mortality among the proletariat, the stronger the generation that survives and grows up. But no: The poor conditions that kill the weak weaken the healthy and the strong. Whereas it strikes me as true that the more a mother from affluent circles is terrified by the thought of her child’s possible death, the less the child will encounter conditions for becoming an at least adequately developed person physically and a passably autonomous one spiritually. Whenever I see, in a room whitewashed with oil paint, among furnishings varnished white, in a white dress, with white toys, a white child, I get a bad feeling: this room, not a child’s, but an operating room, is where a bloodless soul must grow up in an anemic body.


In the fear of having one’s child snatched away by death, we snatch the child away from life; not wanting him to die, we do not allow him to live. Ourselves raised in the corrupting, helpless anticipation of what will be, we are constantly rushing into a magic-filled future. Lazy, we do not want to see beauty in the present day, in order to prepare ourselves to receive tomorrow morning with dignity: tomorrow has to bring inspiration on its own.

The above text was published in a pedagogical book more than 20 years before his death. Yet, if we wonder about how it is that Korczak could choose to forego his own safety to suffer a tragic death with the children in his care, I think these words of his give insight.

The children’s vulnerability – the fact that they could (and eventually did) die – did not prevent Janusz Korczak from doing what was within his power and did not hamper his love toward them. That is how he managed to live each present day with such integrity, until the end.

2 thoughts on “A Child’s Right to Die

  1. Give me a real purpose, I cry out, and it’s not enough simply to live
    nor that it’s a beautiful sunny day with colourful fragrant flowers!

    I’m tormented hourly by my desire for emotional, material and creative gain
    that ultimately matters naught, I explain. My own mind brutalizes me like it has
    a sadistic mind of its own. I must have a progressive reason for this harsh endurance!

    I’m warned that one day on my death bed I’ll regret my ingratitude
    and that I’m about to lose my life.

    I counter that I cannot mourn the loss of something I never really had
    so I’m unlikely to dread parting from it.

    Besides, my greatest gift from life is that someday I’m going to die.

    I’m further warned that moments from death I’ll clamour and claw for life
    like a bridge-jumper instinctively flailing his limbs as though to grasp at something
    anything that may delay his imminent thrust into the eternal abyss.

    Angry I reply that people bewail the ‘unfair’ untimely deaths of the young who’ve received early reprieve from their life sentence, people who must remain behind corporeally confined
    yet do their utmost to complete their entire life sentence—even more, if they could!

    Could there be people who immensely suffer yet convince themselves they sincerely want to live when in fact they don’t want to die, so greatly they fear Death’s unknown?

    Oh leave me be to embrace and engage the dying of my bitter light!


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