I’ve read quite a few Holocaust narratives over the years. My father can’t deal with them–the injustice of it all overwhelms him, and he can’t understand why anyone would read something so depressing–but I’m drawn to them, perhaps because they are, ultimately, survival stories. When my friend told me about Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak & the Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto, then, I put it on hold almost immediately; I’ve had it out for a while, but its number finally came up, and I finished it the other day. I wondered at first why I found it so much harder to read–by the end–than I expected. After a day or two, however, I figured out why.
Mister Doctor, you see, isn’t a typical Holocaust narrative. It’s based closely on a true story–I think all of the people in it may be real people–but it is not a survival story. The good doctor of the title refused to leave the orphans he was responsible for, and so he accompanied them from the orphanage to the Ghetto, and from the Ghetto to Treblinka, where their story ends. The narrator who describes what ‘Mister Doctor’ was to those orphans WAS, in fact, one of the orphans in question. The book was harder to read than I expected because the (child) narrator was doomed. He knew it, and I knew it.
Yes, I found it harder to read than I thought it was going to be. I’m still glad I read it. The art is haunting, the story is lyrical, and its length made the difference between “harder” and “too hard.” (Think of it as a very text-heavy picture book.) Lately, song lyrics for every occasion have been popping into my head, and this particular story keeps reminding me of the end of “Camelot”–
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
We mourn for the man, for the children he loved, for the world he created for them–we mourn for the loss of all of them–but we also celebrate the fact that they lived. Janusz Korczak was a significant force for good in the world, and this book is a beautiful record of that.
We need more books that remind us of the good in the world.