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The Good Doctor of Warsaw    by Elisabeth Gifford order for
Good Doctor of Warsaw
by Elisabeth Gifford
Order:  USA  Can
Pegasus, 2021 (2021)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The Good Doctor of Warsaw was Dr. Janusz Korczak, a Polish doctor who devoted his life to children, writing several books about child welfare and psychology which made him famous throughout Poland and in much of Europe in the early twentieth century. He worked full time with children at a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, as well as opening a home for Polish orphans.

After World War I when Poland became independent, he 'wrote and lectured expansively, on and for children, made child-centred broadcasts, founded a children's newspaper and served as a court advocate for teenage delinquents.' He had many friends in Warsaw because of his work in the orphanages. Many had personal relationships with him because they had been cared for and grown up in one of the two orphanages, each of which held a hundred children. Indeed, he thought of himself as a father to the orphans under his care.

During the thirties when the Great Depression caused much hunger and misery everywhere, anti-Semitism spread. As Hitler rose to power in Germany and started his military march in Europe, Poland also made life difficult for Jewish people. Even though Korczak had never been a practicing Jew, he was told that he could no longer run the Polish orphan's home that he had founded because a Jew couldn't be in charge of Christian Polish children. He had so many Polish friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that he found this attitude difficult to understand.

No one thought that Hitler would be able to take over Poland, even as his armies were approaching, since they believed that the Polish Army would be able to defend their country. When Hitler's troops easily defeated the Polish soldiers, the Jewish people in Warsaw became worried, but Korczak thought that his children would not be affected. He had lived for a time in Germany and believed that the German love for children would protect his orphans. Unfortunately, once the Wehrmacht arrived in Warsaw, they began to move Jewish people into an area that quickly became a ghetto, as they built a wall and moved the Christian residents out. Korczak's orphanage was also moved into this area, where they initially found a large, comfortable building to house the children.

The story of Dr. Korczak and his orphans is interposed with the love story of Misha, who helps out at the orphanage, and Sophia. Misha is studying to become a teacher at the university when he sees Sophia, another student, and after they finally meet, they are drawn together by their respect for Dr. Korczak and his efforts on behalf of children. We are introduced to several of the children in the orphanage who become integral parts of the story, as well as Sophia's family and other persons who were helpful to Dr. Korczak.

Knowing what I do about the German occupation of Poland during World War II, I found it difficult to read about the mistreatment of Warsaw's large population of Jewish people. However, this is an engrossing story of the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity and many of the characters portrayed in this fictional account were real people who survived. Dr. Korczak in particular shines as a man who wouldn't abandon the children who relied on him, even if it led to his imprisonment or death.

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