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Phil Hopkins
Arts & Travel Editor
8:00 AM 31st January 2020

A Dignity That Outwitted The Holocaust

Dr Janusz Korczak lived his life in a state of permanent dignity despite having to suffer the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and transportation to Hitler’s death camps.

But, by following an unwritten code of humanity based on a philosophy of ‘right and wrong’, this noble writer, doctor, storyteller and persecuted Polish Jew, left a legacy that continues today, despite perishing at the hands of the Fuhrer’s Nazi henchmen.

He was the man who ran an orphanage in the Polish capital, said to be incredibly liberal and progressive at the time, but despite everything that was happening around him, he always treated his child guests with respect and dignity.

And it was that set of personal beliefs that ultimately formed the basis for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Leeds Playhouse stalwart, Rob Pickavance, who has played an array of different roles at the theatre, slipped into Korczak’s shoes with ease for this 80-minute drama, in which a cast of three, cleverly aided by James Brining’s imaginative direction, told the story of this ghetto hero.

And its success is in the fact that it features one life, a microcosm of something that is almost bigger than history itself: a simple, amazing man who left a strong legacy. He was to the ghetto what Australian speech therapist, Lionel George Logue was to King George VI: they were both game changers.

Despite the absence of photos of Korczak, somehow you believed that Pickavance, with his slim frame, grey hair and comfortable, kind face, might just be how Korczak would have looked. His ever-forgiving persona and repeated demands of respect for all, was believable, whilst Gemma Barnett as Stepanie and Danny Sykes as Adzio – two of his charges – were excellent and so watchable.

Choosing the theatre’s Bramall Rock Void in which to stage this play, was also an inspired choice: an intimate venue for an intimate production. Peering into the rubble of bombed Warsaw, you might have been there.

However, Brining cleverly used a series of puppets to flesh out the characterisations of those ‘invisible’ characters that were not present: the other kids, the Nazi soldiers, the Catholic priest who refuses to let Jewish children play in the presbytery gardens lest there are reprisals.

This is not a production to be enjoyed, more to be appreciated. More than that it tells us about a man who, despite the worst circumstances in the world – persecution, starvation and the daily threat of extinction – maintained dignity throughout and, in setting an example to the Nazis, is still remembered today with ideals enshrined in law.

Dr Korczak’s Example
Leeds Playhouse
Until 15th February