Under the Pen

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a short part of the story of Janusz Korczak,owner of an orphanage for Jewish children in the time of the Holocaust in Poland.

Submitted: February 19, 2012

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Submitted: February 19, 2012




 In a cold, dull room, Henryk Goldszmit sat debating. He looked out the window. It seemed like any other day in any other Polish winter. Cold. Uninviting. It did nothing to encourage a stumped children’s author. Head in his hands, Henryk worried. He had no inspiration for his book and no distraction from his doubts. How was he to provide food for his orphanage? Hundreds of abandoned children were under his responsibility, and there was no stable source of nutrition for them.  Mr. Symanski’s potatoes had grown much too small this year, and were incredibly overpriced. Mr. Nowak had left to France, and without him, Henryk could not provide the children with healthy meat. They were growing incredibly thin, and increasingly hungry. He fell back into his habit of pacing the room in hurried steps. He knew that Ms. Adamski would be angry at him for the noise it made in her bedroom, but he could not help it. He had to ease some of the tension. Maybe a walk would help him. A breath of fresh air.

Mr. Goldszmit’s feet took him to the haunts he’d been to since childhood. Things had changed, and in a confusing way, they were exactly the same. Same houses, same neighbors, same him. There was no difference in the way that the air felt on his face, a cool breeze, a shiver down his spine. The clouds moved in the same speed, and he still watched them with identical fascination. But so much was the opposite of what he’d loved. Just then, a Nazi soldier ran across the road to a harassed looking man. The man couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, and in tattered, filthy clothes. The soldier grabbed him by the shoulder, and dragged him to the wall, as he began to plead with him;

“…Please, sir, PLEASE! I have children, a wife, PLEASE! HELP ME! I’m no Jew, I’m Christian, Christian! I beg of you! SAVE ME! ANYONE! HE’LL KILL ME!...” His calls echoed in the empty square, as Henryk looked away, and struggled to not cover his ears. He knew what was about to happen and worse yet, he knew he could do nothing to change that man’s fate. Sure enough, a moment afterwards, a shot; strong and brutal as death itself, cut through the air, and the man’s begging could no longer be heard. Mr. Goldszmit walked away hurriedly, he wanted no trouble. Nevertheless, as he was walking past the body, a thin trickle of deep red blood seeped in his path. He could not help but stare back. The man’s body was slumped on the wall behind him, covered in gore. It wasn’t an uncommon sight, Henryk ought to have been used to it, but no one could become accustomed to that emptiness in a corpse’s eyes. Startlingly blue eyes, with drops of his own blood dripping into them in a horrible, hypnotic way. Oddly thoughtless, a complete lack of any emotion, no fear, no pain. But those eyes could bore into one, leaving a chill so deep it reached the very bones.

He shook the snow off his shoulders, trying, without success, to do the same with his emotions. Henryk continued on his way. As he walked, he looked at the cobblestone; the dead man’s voice rang in his head… he’d had children, a wife. But there was nothing that Henryk could do for him, or his family. The rest of his walk went by in haste. Before he knew it, he was at the doorstep of the warehouse home to the orphanage. It was late by now, and completely dark. He guessed it was past the children’s bedtime, so as he proceeded inside to his office, it was in utmost silence. Now he sat down once more in his comfortable leather armchair. His walk around the neighborhood had done the opposite of calming him. He looked around the grey room. There were books piled up on the floor, taking up most of the space. Empty pens lay forgotten, crumpled papers on the ground. I really ought to clean this place up Henryk thought to himself. He knew it would not happen. After all, Ms. Adamski had been trying to convince him to since he had first employed her, and she had refused to clean it herself. “You should learn how to clean up after yourself,” she had persisted. He supposed she was right. Maybe he’d do it tomorrow, but knowing himself, probably not. Sighing, he picked up a book and began to read it. A moment later, he put the book down, realizing that he wasn’t in much of a mood to read. At that moment, Ms. Adamski walked in. Ms. Adamski was a plump old woman, and had dark brown eyes and wild grey hair.

“Ah, Ms. Adamski. Any news?” Mr. Goldszmit said.

“Three things today, Mr. Korczak” She replied in a crisp voice, using his pen and more common name, Janusz Korczak.

“That’s good, that’s good,” he said distractedly

“Well, anyways,” Ms. Adamski continued, “Erek hasn’t been eating, Roza has the flu and Marcin has been picking at his scabs.”

“I see.”

“And I heard you with your pacing, you should stop.”

Ms. Adamski shook her head resignedly and left the room. When she was gone, Henryk lent back in his chair and closed his eyes. It was no use to continue trying to write his book, if he had been distracted before, it was nothing to how he was now.



The next morning, Mr. Goldszmit woke up groggily. It took him a while until he persuaded himself to actually get out of bed; it had taken him much too long to fall asleep last night, his mind was too preoccupied to be convinced to rest. He opened his eyes slowly. The sunlight seemed unrealistically bright; it burned his eyes and made him want to just turn back into the dark blanket. But the day was short, and there were things to do. Now that he was standing up, he needed to find the way to the washroom. It was a daunting task, but at last, decent-looking enough, he deemed himself able to eat breakfast. He sat in the large dining room by himself, thinking about the day ahead. He had to see if Mr. Nowak had some way to provide the meat without actually being there. He didn’t know how much longer the orphanage would be able to exist like this. He also ought to check on the children; Ms. Adamski had a good heart, but she was rather strict at times. There were also the boring day to day things that had to be done, no matter how tedious they may be; checking on the cleanliness of the washrooms and sleep rooms. Many of the children had acquired a fear of the darkness and of being alone in their time in the streets, so they had to all be in one room at night. However, as they were still young, they did have their fights, which always left the rooms looking like a hurricane had made its way there during the night.

He decided that he would begin the day with a walk around the boundaries of the courtyard, to make sure that everything was cleanly and in order. Ms. Adamski had always joked about how he had always ensured that everything around him was in good condition, with the sole exception of his room. She was right, but God knew that it wouldn’t change. Oh, let God look down upon me now, if such a God exists. It had been an idea that confused and intrigued him throughout his life.  He believed that God was a common image of superiority, vengeance, creation, mercy. A being that could be blamed for the misfortunes in life. But where had God been when his father had killed himself? Where had God been when Henryk had had to support the entire family by himself even before he had become an adult? Where was God now, when so many innocent lives were being slaughtered like animals? Why wasn’t God protecting them? What sort of idol was this, watching his own people die? Shaking his head angrily, he looked around at the harsh winter scene around him. After a few moments of watching the frozen sight in despair, he shivered and turned back to the warmth. He went directly to see the children. They were a priority.

He walked to the washrooms, where they were brushing their teeth, washing their faces, and, of course, bickering.

“What is it now, Erek?”

“Marcin has been making fun of Roza, sir!” The young Erek was only 7 years old. His parents had been taken away by the Nazis, but little Erek and Roza, his sister, had been in their bedroom. They had lived on the streets for many weeks before Mr. Goldszmit had found them. Now the child looked over at Marcin angrily. His normally pale face was flushed, and his dark brown hair flopped messily on his head, blue eyes piercing his roommate. Marcin looked over lazily. He looked totally at ease with the situation, leaning on the soap-covered counter in ultimate superiority. Marcin had lived with his grandmother until the age of 11, when she had died. Marcin, the stubborn, confident boy that he was, tried to live by himself. Ms. Adamski had found him lying on the street, almost dead and sporting an infected long and deep cut across his leg. Once he had healed, he had retained his cockiness, and hadn’t lost it since. He rolled dark brown eyes up to the ceiling, knowing that he might be chastised and not caring in the least. His dirty blond hair was perfectly combed, clothes clean, looking in a much better condition than Erek.

“And what do you want to do about it, Erek?”

“I want to hurt him.” Marcin looked at him in surprise.

“You want to hurt me?” He snorted.

“And do you agree to fight Erek, Marcin?” Henryk asked, looking at them both.

“Sure, it’s not like he could actually hurt me. Should I do it now?”

“I don’t see why not. Erek?” Erek nodded and swallowed. Henryk stood back. The two boys circled each other on the wet floor. Erek suddenly lunged at Marcin with pure hatred on his face. Marcin dodged him, leaving Erek with a bloody nose, scrambling back to his feet. But before he could get up, Marcin was right before him, swinging a kick right into the already damaged face. From the way he moved gracefully, Henryk could tell that this was not by far the first time that he had fought. Erek fell backwards, and Henryk rushed up to him, making sure that no serious damage had been done. Meanwhile, Marcin stood looking down at him. For once he looked scared, but not at what he saw. He seemed out of focus, as if he was looking at Erek, but seeing something else. After a moment, he shook his head and returned to his usual state.

Once Erek had been taken to Ms. Adamski to be cleaned up and all the rooms had been cleaned, Henryk went to Roza. He told her briefly about the fight. Her thin face, so similar to her brother’s, scrunched up in disgust.

“Marcin is cruel. Erek did nothing to him.”

“Erek was the one who called the fight, not Marcin.”

“Still, Erek did it because Marcin had insulted me. He was being a good brother.” She turned away, and walked to her friend, Marcia, who had just gotten out of bed. Henryk watched her go, but left them then, and returned to his study. Outside his window, a line of Nazi soldiers turned the corner. Henryk shivered. They had always intimidated him, ever since he had first seen them walking down that same street.



Henryk woke up, hyperventilating. He had dreamed about that man again, kicking a fallen victim. He had the odd feeling that he knew this man from somewhere. The sharp features, the cheekbones, they reminded him of someone, but he had no clue as to who. Nazis were walking outside again, more this time, and Henryk wondered whether it was just a coincident, or if they were supposed to be walking around the warehouse so often. He shouldn’t worry so much, he ought to stop; it made him nervous and jumpy. The day had to be done again. Henryk wondered whether he was unappreciative of his life. The idea of life ending scared him, yet he had that feeling of having to get through each day like a chore. 

Someone knocked on the door, pulling Henryk out of his thoughts. He walked to the door and opened it; unaware that he was still wearing his night time clothing. Ms. Adamski stood there; ignoring the unusual attire she walked past him through the clutter to the lone chair in the middle of the room.

“Erek and Marcin fought yesterday,” she said bluntly, waiting to hear his reply. Henryk recalled his conversation with Marcin late last night in this very room. He remembered hearing about the boy’s father, and life at his grandmother’s. Finally, he had found out why he had recognized the man he had seen in his last minutes. He confided in Marcin, who gulped and nodded. I thought he must be dead by now. I have no more to grieve. Always the same, that boy was. Strong, un-yielding, but that was the way he was supposed to be. That was how he got through life, that was how he survived.

“I know. They wanted to.”

“But they didn’t need to. You let them.”

“I am aware of that.”

“But how could you? Erek’s nose is broken! We cannot afford such injuries! This time a nose, but perhaps next time it will be a leg, a rib!”

“Some things are worth more than money.”

“But this was a fight. How is a fight worth more than the money and pain it causes?”

“Erek wanted the fight. Marcin insulted Roza. Life is an open ocean: If you don’t learn to swim, you will drown in time. You must be able to keep above the tide, or face the threat of suffocation. As a child you must fear and respect the waters. If you have not experienced the terror of falling into its depths you will underestimate its power, and you will die. I will not let these children die. Make of it what you wish.” This he said and took his pencil. “I must write to Mr. Nowak. Please.” And so Ms. Adamski shook her head and left the room with a tut.

But Henryk Goldszmit had never been taught to swim.


There was a knock on the door downstairs. Nobody ever knocked on that door. All who knew them always entered immediately so as to lower the chances of someone passing by the empty warehouse and seeing them. Now Henryk panicked. He quickly dressed and ran downstairs. As he scrambled down the steps, worried thoughts sped through his mind. At first, his mind was assuring him that everything would be fine, there was no need to waste emotions over it, but at a horrifying pace they showed him worse and worse things that could happen, until he reached the very worst, the one that he had done everything to prevent. It made him sick to the stomach, he wished only to hide, only to run away and not see who was at the door. But he mustn’t; he had to see who was there. All he had to do was peek through a peephole in the door, it was that simple. At the last step he breathed in deeply; he closed his eyes for a moment, then, a second and an eternity passed, and he stepped forward.


He marched along forever. His knees were weak, but he was determined to stand straight and strong. The children beside him looked shocked, frightened and out of focus, and yet they too, walked boldly, making him more proud than they could ever imagine. Roza, Erek and Marcin stood side-by-side. They looked forward, as if afraid that if they looked each other in the eye they would break down, but Henryk knew that they would not. He nodded to himself as he looked back at the city of his birth, the last time he would see it. He smiled.











“A miracle occurred. Two hundred children did not cry. Two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows, they clung to their teacher and their mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak, so that he might protect and preserve them. On all sides the children were surrounded by Germans, Ukrainians, and this time, Jewish policemen. They whipped and fired shots at them. The very stones wept at the sight of the procession.” – Joshua Perle  

On August 5th, 1942, Nazis came to take the children of Janusz Korczak’s orphanage to the Treblinka extermination camp. Korczak was offered the chance to official pardon, but refused it, stating that he would remain with the children. They died there together.


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