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A moving Holocaust story simply told:Dr Korczak’s Example by David Greig
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier puppy called Bertie! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com 

Janusz Korczak was a Polish Jewish educator, doctor and writer (1877-1942) , who devoted his life to establishing the rights of the child, regardless of nationality or religion. As early as 1911, he founded an orphanage where, living and working with the street children and orphans in his care, he formulated and put into practice his child-centred ideas, giving young people rights and treating them as equals.

When the Nazis liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto, he chose to accompany his children to the gas chambers, to comfort them to the last, refusing offers of safe conduct out of occupied Poland from many admirers of his work. But his name and ideas live on, for they were adopted by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - and fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II was an ardent admirer!

David Greig’s drama Dr Korczak’s Example takes its audience into the temporary haven Dr Korczak creates in the Warsaw Ghetto, with his devoted assistant Steffa, or Stephanie, where right up until the last the young people in his care have rights and are treated as equals – they even have their own children’s court where they try and are tried by their peers!

But as the Ghetto is systematically emptied during the summer of 1942, his pacifist principles are pushed to the limit, not only by the Nazi regime, but by the arrival of Adzio, a youngster who believes in fighting back.

With just three talented actors, director Amy Leach manages to create that threatened safe haven and people it too. In this they have more than a little help from designer Miriam Nabarro, who evokes the children with pairs of children’s shoes and pots of sunflowers to represent their growing; and from sound designer Gerry Marsden’s soundscape of the voices of children at play. Marsden also chillingly represents the net that is closing around them with announcements of Nazi diktats first confining the Jews on pain of being shot and then ordering them to report to the railway station for ‘resettlement’. Nabarro’s great wooden gates eloquently suggest both the safe haven of the orphanage and the confining gates of the Ghetto itself – and a sinister empty Nazi uniform on a hanger hovers silently and threateningly over the action, called into being as a fourth cast member when Philip Rham’s troubled Korczak addresses him.

Greig is not out to tell the whole story of Dr Korkzak’s life – or death. He homes in on the dilemma facing the Ghetto internees, as they strive to keep not just their principles but their very selves alive in constant danger of death, from starvation, casual fire and ultimately deportation. So Rham reveals Korczak’s agony and depression in those desperate asides to the ‘Nazi’. Rham is a big, mature, engaging presence on stage who begins, and at intervals underscores the production most effectively with his plangent cello playing.

Amaka Okafor also successfully conveys the anguish of the (male) Jewish leader of the Ghetto Council trying in vain to mitigate the suffering of his fellow internees by liaising with the Nazis and bargaining for lives as the transport lists for the death camps are drawn up.

Okafor’s main role is as Stephanie, who in reality was an adult but is here a teenager torn between her admiration of Korczak’s gentle way and her burgeoning love for the defiant Adzio. She brings a quality of luminous sincerity and a real vulnerability to Stephanie.

And Craig Vye’s Adzio, subsuming his vulnerability into his fighting spirit, makes a fine case for active rather than passive resistance. Desperate times call for desperate measures and in the face of unprecedented brutality, the fight for survival has to come first, even if it means meeting violence with violence. Korczak tries to introduce him to the just world he has created in his little haven; but any lesson Adzio learns from his arraignment in the orphanage court and trial by his peers counts for little, for he’s heard the truth about the final destination of the trains ‘to the East’ and means to spread the dreadful word and fight back by any means he can.

Greig implies rather than shows the horros of the end of the Ghetto, the almost universal fate of its internees in the gas chambers and the brutal crushing of the 1943 uprising, as Adzio and Stephanie prefer to die fighting back rather than boarding the train with Dr Korczak and the orphans (although the real, older Stephanie went to her death with Dr Korczak and the children).

Since Greig has made clear in the incident that starts the play that this is not a real story and that in reality Adzio would have been shot by the Nazi who caught him stealing food rather than rescued by Dr Korczak, he earns the right to alter reality. And in truth the fates of his protagonists in his alternative reality are ultimately as harsh and tragic what actually happened, even if this is not entirely spelt out.

Greig originally wrote the play for a youth audience and by all accounts it has been extremely successful in introducing the reality of the Holocaust to young people during its original run in Manchester. In London there are also special matinees for schools. Its origins are perhaps not made clear enough to adult audiences seeing the play at the Arcola theatre at evening performances. But nonetheless it is a powerful story told with a powerful and eloquent simplicity.


You can  hear Judi Herman's  interview with director Amy Leach and members of her cast – and hear also from the Israeli artist Itzhak Belfer, one of the few orphans who did survive – by clicking on this link to Jewish Renaissance Magazine's website http://www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk/  and then clicking on 'JR Out Loud'

Dr Korczak’s Example continues at the Arcola Theatre, Arcola Street, Dalston, Kingsland, London E8 2DJ until 18 July. The box office number is 0044 (0)20 7 503 1646 www.arcolatheatre.com . The performance is suitable for ages 9+

The play was first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester and is presented by Tangram Theatre Company www.tangramtheatre.co.uk  


Related Links:

  • Read additinal review by Judi Herman
  • Read additional Holocaust Theatre
  • David Greig's bio

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    1.Holocaust Novel
      Charles Weinblatt, United States    (7/11/2009)

  • Judi Herman

    David Greig

    Janusz Korczak (1877-1942)

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