Janusz Korczak was well known in Poland as a children’s book author, a popular radio show host of programs advocating for children and a former pediatrician who literally gave his life as the director of a Warsaw Jewish Orphanage during WWII. The Teacher of Warsaw is a first person narrative novel, cast as Korczak’s diary of his time caring for his orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. Escobar’s research of the real people he portrays and life in the ghetto and the characters he created to carry the story along is excellent. Day by day, week by week the culture, the struggle for life, the dead beggar children, the corrupt black market players, the varied choices made by those in the ghetto and on the outside to help, to ignore the inhabitants’ dire circumstances or to actively harm those inside unfold.
Escobar writes in a sparse and simple style. I wondered at first if the translation did the original Spanish justice. As I read on, I found the story of the man and of the people surrounding him during a horrifying chapter of the German occupation of Poland shone through because of this simple factual approach, with a touch of feeling and pain, but mostly a story of the day to day existence of hundreds of thousands of people confined to a living hell. The bare truth of what happened is horrible and painful and none of that is lost in the telling. Escobar shares that Janusz Korczak –despite his doubts and his own deep fear that there was no hope– inspired hope for as long as he lived, ultimately joining his charges in their death march to the trains transporting them to Treblinka. Escobar suggests that the Teacher believed that death is inevitable and it is how we spend each moment that matters, not when or how we die. Every well done book like this one should be read and the history preserved. Never forget.