Painter and sculptor Yitzhak Belfer, who grew up in Janusz Korczak's famous Warsaw orphanage, passed away last Friday, January 22 at the age of 98.
Belfer lived at the Korczak Orphanage in Warsaw for eight years, from the age of seven to the age of fifteen, leaving two years before the outbreak of World War II. During his adult life, he commemorated Korczak's legacy by translating his books into Hebrew, writing books about his own personal story, and meeting with teenagers and educators.
In his lectures around the country and his meetings with students and teachers, he conveyed a concise summary of the teachings of Korczak, his personal educator: "A child connects and understands like an adult – he only lacks the adult’s burden of experience." For many of the students, this was their first encounter with Korczak's character.
"Korczak was a proponent of giving independence to his charges," he said. "The children managed various institutions in the orphanage, and fulfilled the principles of democracy in day-to-day life, which were equally valid for both children and adults."
In his meetings with educators, Belfer upheld Korczak’s views on how children should learn.
"The education system should take children seriously and have an open dialogue with them,” he said. “A child should experience given situations and understand them for himself, experiment, and reach his own conclusions."
Belfer had a special connection with the youth movement Machanot HaOlim.
"When Itzhak told us about Korczak, we felt like we had met him," said Liron Avnat, coordinator of Machanot HaOlim. "For us, he was the thread that connected and tied us to Korczak's spirit, and we learned a lot from him."
A permanent exhibition on Korczak's legacy is on display in the Machanot HaOlim building. The exhibition was created together with Belfer, and is called “New Faith.”
Korczak's orphanage was an estanlished institution in Warsaw, and Korczak was a very famous figure in all of Poland. The orphanage operated for thirty years, during which time it absorbed over 550 children. It also continued to operate under German occupation, with special permission, within the Warsaw Ghetto.
On August 5, 1942, German soldiers arrived and transferred the 300 orphans and some of the staff to the Treblinka extermination camp. Despite the offers Korczak received to save his own life, he accompanied the children to their deaths in the Treblinka gas chambers.
Belfer was born in April 1923 in Warsaw in a religious home. When he was four years old, his father died, and the family moved into his mother's parents' house.
"It was a crowded house. We shared the beds in pairs. The children's games bothered the adults," he described. After three years, his mother decided to send him to the Jewish orphanage in the city.
"My years as a pupil at Dr. Janusz Korczak's orphanage opened a window to new horizons that changed my worldview," he said. “My personality."
When the war started, Belfer and a friend decided to make their way to the relative safety of the USSR. He went to say goodbye to Korczak.
"It was difficult and brief. Korczak took out all the money he carried in his pockets and gave it to us. We received his blessing and fled," he described.
After the war ended, Belfer found out all of his family was murdered. While trying to make his way to Israel illegally, he was captured by British soldiers and held in a detainee camp in Cyprus, where he was taught to draw and sculpt by a fellow detainee. When Belfer finally reached Israel, he decided to devote his art to the commemoration and appreciation of those he lost during the Holocaust.