King Matt the First

Friday, October 22, 2021

It is an unfortunate reality of many who died in the Holocaust that their tragic deaths overshadowed their extraordinary lives, and such is the story of Janusz Korczak. While his death elevated him to the status of a legendary saint and martyr, it also diminished his importance by simplifying his impact on the world. Janusz Korczak (born Henryk Goldszmit, 1878-1942) was also a caring pediatric doctor, a protector of orphans, an innovative pedagogue, a prolific and inspirational writer of fiction and non-fiction, a radio personality, as well as an all-around insightful thinker.

His death on August 5, 1942, in the Treblinka extermination camp along with the starving children from his Jewish children orphanage had effectively hidden many of his other roles from the Western public. The exceptions to this rule are Poland, his native country, and Israel, where a number of his orphaned children and mentees settled. There, his published works are discussed and revered, and are frequently a topic within public debate. His books for children are read widely and are often assigned to elementary school students. King Matt the First is his most widely known book. There is a Polish film adaptation and some stage productions of The King of the Children, Matt the First.

Goldszmit wrote in Polish. He was raised in an educated secular Jewish family and chose his Polish writer’s pseudonym, Janusz Korczak, as a young doctor.

Polish anti-Semites enjoyed “outing” Korczak, alerting others to his Jewish identity, especially after he became very popular through his radio talks. But he never hid his Jewish identity and was always a part of the Jewish community. Korczak was not a Zionist, but visited Palestine in 1933 and 1938, and considered Aliyah during the time of growing anti-Semitism and fascism of the late thirties.

International recognition, beyond the fame of his martyrdom, happened slowly. On the centenary of his birth in 1978, UNESCO declared it the “Year of Korczak,” and in 1989 the work of United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child – inspired by Korczak’s writings – was completed. It was ratified over the years by many countries. An English translation of his most famous children’s book, King Matt the First, was published in the United States in 1986. In 1988, Betty Jean Lifton, who discovered Korczak’s legacy though her connection with UNESCO, published the first solidly researched biography of Korczak, titled, The King of Children. A two-volume selection of Korczak’s non-fiction writings in English translation was published in 2018 under the title, How to Love a Child.

King Matt the First was first published in 1923 and is a fable-like story about a 12-year-old boy (an orphaned prince) who establishes a children’s kingdom and tries to improve the world. Matt is a persistent reformer. He experiments with changing power structures and reversing the authority structure; he remains a long-term debunker of the adults’ hypocrisies.

His experiments fail, and the adult schemers often prevail. The adult advisors and experts are full of overblown self-importance, but short on competence, and are unable to face the consequences of their decisions and actions.

Matt’s Children’s Parliament shows initial promise and passes resolutions that we could heed today – for example, that children should not be routinely kissed without their previous permission, and that the pants they wear need to be equipped with more pockets!

In Korczak’s fantasy world, the parents are sent to sit and study in schools while children attempt to run the country. These attempts fail because of children’s incompetence and because of the betrayal and duplicity of adults. The vested interests trump over all circumstances. Throughout King Matt, the ideas Korczak expressed in his non-fiction find echoes in the adventures of Matt and his friends.

Matt’s artless but mostly well-meant endeavors fail, and we watch him suffering and learning from his failures while we follow his attempts to impact the life of the friends he acquired and of children from distant lands. His friends come from backgrounds far from his privileged one. As progressive as Matt is, the story is very much a product of its time, depicting African culture as uncivilized, backward, and cannibalistic. At the same time, Matt has the innocent charm of Huckleberry Finn in his deep friendship and admiration of the African girl, Klu Klu. Klu Klu is presented as a brilliant child both physically and mentally, and expresses her opinion that white girls cannot succeed in the world while having long hair and long dresses that constantly get in the way.

Matt spends a sizable chunk of the story in anonymous disguises – as a soldier, as a prisoner, a peasant, a shepherd, and finally as a factory worker who spends Sundays writing. The delightful episodes of the beginning give way to a series of misfortunes that depict Matt’s failures and his tenacious attempts to survive and do good again. In the process, Matt learns about honesty, courage, loyalty, and humility. He is repeatedly diminished in his circumstances – as a child soldier, as a prisoner of war waiting for execution, as a prisoner after his escape from the desert island, and as a child-shepherd in threadbare shoes among hostile others in a rural school. He retains equanimity and copes adequately with all these tough situations, without losing his humanity or his positive outlook.

In the end, in the sequel not included in the English translation, Matt dies a common, non-royal death, in a factory accident caused by his close friend, Felek.

The lighthearted tone of Matt’s fable adds a level of irony more visible to the adult than a young reader, while it signals a level of doubt that Korczak must have felt while posing quite extraordinary ideas and exploring utopian goals with his audience.

On August 5, 1942, Korczak marched to board the train in the Warsaw Ghetto with 239 Jewish orphans in his care, under King Matt’s green flag.

Their destination was Treblinka.


Contributed by Margalit Tal, Serials Coordinator



Pictured below are images from the original Polish books in the Klau’s collection:

Korczak, Janusz — Król Maciuś Pierwszy (OCLC #4084808) — PZ 69 G6K7.2 1977

Korczak, Janusz — Król Maciuś na wyspie bezludnej (OCLC #4084970) — PZ 69 G6K7 1977

The Klau also holds the English translation of the first volume:

Korczak, Janusz– King Matt the First (OCLC #13461621) – PZ 8.2 K6.7 K5.6 1986