On July 18, 1942, the educator, medical doctor, and Polish-Jewish literary personality Janusz Korczak staged a play at his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. The performance of Poczta (The Post Office) was an adaptation of a Bengali play, Dak Ghar, by the playwright and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
It’s extraordinary to imagine art flowering in this place and time. By July of that year, Korczak’s Children’s Home had twice been relocated, as the borders of the ghetto had been shifted and shrunk by the German authorities. Korczak’s orphanage swelled to hold nearly two hundred children between the ages of seven and fourteen, as food rations became increasingly difficult to acquire. Hunger, starvation, and illness were ever-present, and word had spread of the possibility of mass deportations. In this time of fear and suffering, why did Janusz Korczak have his orphans stage a play, and one by an Indian playwright no less?
The Post Office was first performed in Rabindranath Tagore’s school at Shantiniketan in West Bengal; following this, it was performed outside of India notably several times before Janusz Korczak’s staging of it. In 1913 it was performed in Dublin and London, at the urging of W.B. Yeats. It was performed again in 1921 in Berlin with Tagore himself in the audience, and it was performed in 1940 in Paris the night before the city fell to German forces.
I first encountered The Post Office as a child in elementary school in India. We read it in class and then our teacher involved us in a ragtag production where we made our own costumes. The plot centers on an orphaned boy, Amal, who’s been quarantined in his home due to a mystery illness. Amal is instructed to stay indoors by the village doctor and is forced to experience the world through his windows, through which he meets many engaging figures: young boys his own age, a curd-seller, a flower girl, the village watchman, and a wandering musician. Though he’s rebuked for his imagination, Amal comes to believe that beyond the mountains in the distance lives a great King, who will someday send him a letter. In the final movement of the play, as Amal lies on his deathbed, the King’s doctor and messenger arrive at his house and in this moment Amal’s vision of the world is vindicated.
In the bleakness of the Warsaw Ghetto, Korczak was fighting to keep his children and his staff from falling into depression.
As a seven-year-old child I was less interested in Tagore’s themes than I was in the fact that I was getting to put on a costume and perform in a play where the main parts were mostly children. I still remember one moment that surprised me. Amal has to stay inside his house, and he misses his outdoor toys. He asks the neighbor children to come by, this way he can vicariously experience them playing with his favorite things. As a boy who loved his train sets, I found that moment moving and resonant. Of course, I couldn’t have imagined that decades later I’d encounter the history of this same play and come to realize that a single work of art can serve so many purposes.
In the bleakness of the Warsaw Ghetto, Korczak was fighting to keep his children and his staff from falling into depression. He planned a series of weekly “chats,” where the possible subjects spanned the range of his intellectual interests: literary analysis, visual art, the rights of women, the emotions of the individual, philosophy, and the nature of evil. Korczak also organized talks to be held in the ballroom of the orphanage — where everyone from newspaper vendors to poets were invited to speak about their professions — and for the older students and staff Korczak held additional study circles. He integrated arts into the everyday life of the orphanage, with performances of marionette plays along with musical and theater productions. The children performed in some of these programs, while notable artists living in the ghetto led others.
For Korczak’s children, staging a play was a meaningful enterprise. They made their own costumes out of materials like old bed sheets and torn socks. They were excited by the prospect of the entire community coming to see them perform.
I think Korczak was inspired by the play’s themes. He’d been a student of theosophy and meditation and had delved into Eastern mythology. I think he saw Amal’s journey as a brave example in dark times. Tagore once described the play:
Amal represents the man whose soul has received the call of the open road… that which is ‘death’ to the world of hoarded wealth and certified creeds brings him awakening in the world of spiritual freedom.
So the end of the play isn’t the end for Amal but rather some kind of awakening, as Tagore describes, a gesture toward freedom from what enslaves us. I believe Korczak was inspired by this sense that art can unlock us, that in the performance the audience can be moved and the actors might find their sense of dignity restored.
What would have happened if the actors of yesterday were to continue in their roles today?
Jerzyk fancied himself a fakir.
Chaimek — a real doctor.
Adek — the lord mayor.
So wrote Korczak in his diary after the performance of The Post Office. Three days later mass deportations to Treblinka began, and neither Korczak nor his children would be spared.
Looking back, it’s difficult to discuss Korczak’s approach or his words without invoking the term “protest.” As a witness and as a vital actor in his attempts to save the children in his orphanage, Korczak’s protest was in living. His staging of The Post Office, a simple play with complex themes, was in the name of art, renewal, and life — a kind of searching in the darkness for human connection.
Jai Chakrabarti is the author of the novel A Play for the End of the World (Knopf), which won the National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction and is long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He is the author of the forthcoming story collection A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness (Knopf, 2023). His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and has been anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and awarded a Pushcart Prize. He was an Emerging Writer Fellow with A Public Space and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College and is a trained computer scientist. Born in Kolkata, India, he now lives in New York with his family.