Building Bridges in Changing Times

This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource The Jews of Poland


Like his father and grandfather before him, Henryk Goldszmit spent much of his life trying to bring together Poles and Jews. But in the 1930s, he was finding it harder to do.

By 1930, Henryk Goldszmit was a respected physician and a noted author of adventure stories for children and scholarly works for parents, psychologists, and educators. He also headed two of the most progressive orphanages in Poland, one for Jewish children and the other for Catholics. In addition, he published the first national newspaper written for and by children and served as the defender of their rights in the nation’s juvenile courts. Yet few people in Poland knew his real name.

Goldszmit wrote under the pseudonym Janusz Korczak—the name of a patriotic hero in a popular novel. Biographer Betty Lifton believes the pen name was not chosen by chance. “In a country where one’s last name reveals one’s religious affiliation, Goldszmit was unmistakably a Jew, the outsider. With an old gentry name such as Janusz Korczak, Henryk could re-create himself as an insider, linked to an heroic Polish past. People who were unwilling to buy their child a book by someone named Goldszmit were more than willing to read a story by someone with a name as respectable as Korczak. Still, by 1933, it was common knowledge that Janusz Korczak was really Henryk Goldszmit."

That year, Goldszmit was offered his own radio show on the condition that he use another pseudonym. Executives at the radio station were fearful that they would be accused of letting a Jewish educator shape the minds of Polish children. Korczak reluctantly agreed. He saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime. What other medium, he wondered, can bring the world “into the home, into the intimate areas of life, and into the human heart”? Korczak decided to call himself the “Old Doctor,” the name he had used when he worked for Polish independence.

The program was a huge success. Children and adults alike rushed home on Thursday afternoons to listen to the Old Doctor on the radio. They never knew what to expect when they tuned in. One week, he might interview young patients in a hospital and the next, chat with listeners about everything from a child’s relationships with adults to current events. Other weeks, he acted out stories with the help of children in his orphanage.

Then on May 12, 1935, Goldszmit and his listeners alike were stunned by a news bulletin: Jozef Pilsudski had died of cancer at the age of 67. As the entire nation mourned the loss of a beloved leader, Goldszmit wrote a tribute to Pilsudski entitled “A Pole Does Not Cry.” Contrary to an old saying that Poland’s heroes never cry, Goldszmit planned to tell his listeners that Pilsudski had cried at least twice in his life—once when his soldiers were surrounded by the Russians and again when his favorite horse died. It was the Old Doctor’s way of telling his audience that it was OK to feel sad and even to cry. It was also a way of reminding listeners that, like all leaders, Pilsudski was human.

The government now controlled the nation’s radio stations and reviewed programs before they were allowed to air. When the censors read Goldszmit’s script, they ordered him to replace it with one that was less controversial. Although influential friends appealed the decision, the Old Doctor was forced to abandon his tribute. Only after Pilsudski’s widow intervened was he allowed to read his tribute over the airwaves.


The show was broadcast on December 5. By then, nationalist newspapers had identified the Old Doctor as Janusz Korczak, the “so-called Pole” who was really Henryk Goldszmit the Jew. A few months later, his show was canceled.

Connection Questions

  1. William Shakespeare once wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. How do Henryk Goldszmit’s experiences challenge that idea? Would he have been as popular a writer if he had used his given name?
  2. Make two identity charts, one for Henryk Goldszmit at the turn of the century and the other in 1936. How do you account for changes between the two charts?
  3. After visiting Poland in 1938, Raymond Buell, the president of the Foreign Policy Association, called the government radio “an antisemitic weapon.” How can the radio serve as a “weapon”? How dangerous a weapon is it?
  4. By 1936, Korczak was seriously considering moving to Palestine. Why would a man who saw himself as a Polish patriot even think about moving to another country?
  5. Abraham Lewin, a teacher in Warsaw, was deeply committed to Zionism and encouraged many of his students to settle in Palestine. He traveled there twice but returned to Poland after each visit, in part due to the poor health of his wife and child. In January, 1933 he wrote to a former student now living in Palestine:

I often ask myself if I could put the Diaspora life, with all the doubts and soul-searching that characterize those around me, behind me and start an entirely new life there, of the sort that you live? The question arises of its own accord and cuts deeply, but I admit without shame that I find it difficult to give a positive answer. It seems that within me there is a terrible fear of “there,” a fear that cannot be quieted solely by logic and reason. Yes, I think that this is a weakness that has its origins in man’s too great love for himself . . . . I do not have the internal resources to throw off the chains of the past and to involve myself in the new life I have dreamt about, even if the fetters constraining me to my present circumstances were to be removed."1

The “Diaspora life” to which Lewin refers is life outside Palestine. How does he regard that life? Why is he reluctant to leave it? What would it take for you to leave all that’s familiar for life somewhere else? What does it take to overcome the kinds of fears Lewin discusses in his letter?

In the fall of 1936, Goldszmit was asked to resign as a director of the Polish orphanage. Soon after, he also lost his job as a consultant in juvenile court. One of the lawyers who witnessed his dismissal later wrote, “I still cannot forgive myself for my silence at that time. Those officials who represented Polish law and justice informed Korczak: ‘No Jew can be in charge of our juvenile offenders.’” Why is the lawyer unable to forgive his own silence? Suppose he and others had protested the dismissal. Would it have made a difference in overturning Korczak’s dismissal? Would it have made him feel less alone? How might such a protest have affected the way they felt about themselves? How might it have affected actions they might take in the future?


  • 1 : Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 207.

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