Warsaw story coming back to me is no coincidence

The statue of Janus Korczak in the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

I DON’T believe in the word coincidence – dictionary definition: ‘A striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance’. I think such events are ‘meant’.

For instance, there’s supposed to be a reason behind every unexpected meeting. It might not be clear at the time but the reason will eventually be revealed. And how often have you gone looking for something only to find something else you have mislaid? Lots of examples of ‘coincidence’ but just begin thinking that these things might have a deeper meaning.

I was drawn to this thinking last week when I was reorganising my hundreds of books and there, at the back of a shelf, hidden away for years, was a slim volume and I did a double take. Why?

The story goes back a good few years to when I was filming a programme for RTE. I was returning to Auschwitz via Warsaw where we visited the Jewish cemetery. I wrote about this before but the event is frozen on my mind and the remarkable discovery of last week brought it all back.

Warsaw, November, snow on the ground and the sun low in the sky. The trees had no leaves and their branches dipped down to touch the rows of stone tombs, vaults and headstones. It was very atmospheric. There were crows in the trees but not a sound came from them. It was as if the whole graveyard was holding its breath.

In the centre, surrounded by white stone markers, was a large bare area where, during the Second World War, thousands of murdered Jewish men, women and children had been thrown naked into a pit and covered over with clay.

Five of us making up the film crew stood, heads bowed for a few moments, before moving to one corner of the silent cemetery and a large statue of Janusz Korczak, a doctor and educator who established orphanages in Warsaw. There he was, standing proud in bronze with a group of frightened little bronze children clinging around his legs.

When the German soldiers came to take the children, he refused freedom and stayed with his 198 orphans, comforted and protected them as best he could as they were led away to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942 where he and they died in the gas chambers.

In the stillness of that Friday morning, standing in front of the statue, we were suddenly aware of a man who appeared as if from nowhere. He was dressed in a long black greatcoat, a blue woolly hat, his hands deep in his pockets, about 80 years of age; his face showed no emotion.

His breath came in short puffs into the cold air and he seemed to glide past me to stand in front of the statue. I stood beside him. I asked him if the statue was special. He had no English and just bowed his head. “Did you know him?” No reaction. “Was he a brave man?” He seemed to relax, “Yes,” he said “Brave.” “We are going to Auschwitz tomorrow.” I said.

He pulled back his sleeve to reveal a tattooed number burned into the skin on the underside of his arm. “Auschwitz,” he whispered. He looked at me so sadly, bowed again and walked away down the snowy path to disappear into the trees, swallowed up by the mist.

It was a deeply moving moment. Who was he? I don’t know but I feel he was one of the children Janus Korczak accompanied to the concentration camp to die, one who escaped and had come back to pay homage. Or did he actually exist at all?

It was surreal and it encouraged me to research the life of Korczak. A brilliant man, his writings became the basis for the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child. He believed every child should have the right to love and respect, to enjoy the best conditions to grow and develop. The right to live in the present, be himself or herself. To make mistakes and to have the right to fail.

The child should also have the right to be taken seriously, to desire, to claim, and to ask. The right to have secrets and to have respect for his or her possessions – however small. The right to a court of his peers, a defence, to commune with God, to education, even the right to resist education and the right to protest.

And the book that had fallen down behind the shelf – a book I don’t remember buying or being given – Loving Every Child Wisdom for Parents by Janusz Korczak. The fascinating book is full of his thoughts and his gentle advice on understanding the complexities of little people and the respect they deserve, especially in these difficult days.

He says: "A child is a piece of parchment which has been thoroughly covered with minute hieroglyphics, only a very small part of which will you ever be able to decipher."

A remarkable man of passion and insight and I feel now more than ever that the old man standing by the statue was one of his orphans who lived to give thanks.


IN THIS day and age of negativity, how nice to be able to pass on a heartfelt compliment.

Dear Anne,

I bought a lovely handbag in McAuliffe’s gift shop in beautiful Dunfanaghy while in Donegal recently. It wasn’t for me (not my colour!) but for my mum, who has something of a collection – and she was delighted.

Unfortunately, the zip broke on her first outing. I contacted McAuliffe’s and they replaced it straight away, posting a new bag and a very nice note of apology to my mum. At a time when 'customer service' means waiting on hold for an hour, then calling again and again, I must say I was pleasantly surprised and would like to say thanks.



May all your shopping this Christmas be as pleasant as Frank's.


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