Clothes at Polish Orphanages

Figure 1.--.

Polish Orphanages

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Dr. Korczak

Dr. Korczak, ran an orphanage in Warsaw for poor Jewish children and stayed with his Jewish orphans on the train to Treblinka, refusing all chances to rescue himself. Before the War he was a celebrated author, founding a successful children's newspaper. He was a pediatrician who hobnobbed with Warsaw's rough street urchins. He was also a Polish Army officer who scribbled tracts on child psychology at field offices under bombardment. An impish, solitary man, often abrupt or quitoic with adults, but capable of endless patience, warmth, and humor with children. He devoted his entire, celibate life to their care. At age 30 he gave up a promising medical practice to found an orphanage for poor Jewish kids (abandoned, brutalized, or orphaned) that became admired throughout Europe. Later he took a Catholic orphanage under his wing also. He trained the children in cleanliness and discipline, tenderly sat with the weeping or sick ones at night, took temperatures, told stories. Solemnly, he collected his orphans' baby teeth and built a castle from them. With instinctive empathy for their many losses--and at a time when most orphans were themselves thought of as refuse, beaten and starved in other orphanages--he insisted on each child's right to a locked drawer in which to treasure bits of string and broken junk, "memories of a lost love." He shocked everyone by his stubborn respect for the child. Other educators were outraged by his children's court, in which the orphans could sue and judge each other and their teachers. But Korczak insisted that it was only by living democratically that the children could absorb the lessons of individual rights and respect for the law. Student teachers flocked to learn from him. He would begin by taking them to a laboratory, sitting a youngster behind a X-ray machine, and exhorting the startled students. "Before you raise a hand to a child ... remember what his frightened heart looks like." At the end, old sick and exhausted, Korczak was still protective of those frightened hearts. He hobbled around the nightmarish ghetto streets to scrounge and beg for just one more crust for his orphans. And not only crusts: he tried to arrange a visit to a church garden so they could see a flower one last time. He organized concerts, Passover seders, and helped the starving children perform a Tagore play about "reconciling oneself to death."

Soviet Orphanage

This HBC contributor was cared for in a Polish orphanage near Moscow during World War II. I'm not sure as to whether to classifybit as a Polish or Russian orpanage.

The Polish Home in Zagorsk (which had since reverted to its traditional name, Sergeyev Posad) was like an oasis in a desert and I have extremely happy memories from that period of my childhood, even though the quantities of food, including American food, as opposed to quality, were insufficient. For example, when on picnics we were instructed to hide our Whitbread sandwiches from Soviet children.

Soviet resettlements

The home was formed in 1943 by Wanda Wasilewska for Polish children, many of whom previously found themselves in Soviet orphanages after their parents had died from disease and starvation following their forcible resettlement in Komi, Siberia and other Soviet territories with a very cold climate. However, a number of the children (a few of whom were Belorussian) had at least one parent, usually in the newly formed Polish army. In 1993 I attended the 50th reunion of the Home held in Warsaw, with many participants from abroad, including North America. (I live in Ottawa area, Canada.) Here I discovered that some of my fellow "inmates" actually had both parents, but managed to place their children in the Home to attend our Polish school.

I was forcibly resettled with my family (seven persons) in Komi ASSR, and I was the only one to survive, probably because I was transferred to Zagorsk. After my father died from pernicious anemia on January 8, 1943, my mother sent me, with my approval, to a Polish home near Syktyvkar set up by the Polish London Government in Dodzha, Komi, and ran by friends of my family. My mother died on May 2, 1943 from a stroke at the age of 41. The transfer from Dodzha to Zagorsk (where we were in limbo) saved my life.

In March 1946 the Zagorsk children, (excepting Belorussians) were repatriated to Poland. After a short stay in a Polish orphanage near Warsaw I was adopted by a relative from Canada, an Anglican minister and family doing relief work in Poland, whom I joined in Canada in 1949. Because of the terrible conditions, many Polish children forcibly resettled in the USSR lost their parents; schoolchildren like myself had a better chance to survive than did their parents, grandparents or younger siblings.


You asked about the staff in Zagorsk. The blue collars workers and nurse were Russians. Other staff were mostly Polish. We had Russian instructors in Russian literature and military training only. One housemother, a very refined person, was Russian. In 1989 I found her and visited her, after a trip to Zagorsk, where the Home now shelters deaf and blind Russian children. The housemother, Vera Nikolayevna Koroleva, whose father, a physician, had been the director of the Zagorsk hospital at the age of 80, returned to Moscow and teaching after we had been repatriated to Poland. In 1989 she was 92 and shared an apartment with sister, 90. I had a very nice visit with the two old ladies.

The sister's granddaughter, an archivist, came to Ottawa to take a course for archivists in the early 1990s. Subsequently, she sent me a letter, via an archivist from the Canadian National Archives, to tell me that her great aunt had died at the age of about 95. She had been a front-line nurse in World War I; came from the Russian nobility; and lost her husband to Stalin's purges. (She couldn't have shared this kind of information with us in 1943-1946 under Stalin!)

Orphanage life

We often went to Moscow, to see plays, for special events, etc. This was a lot of fun and was sometimes limited to older children. I saw quite a few plays at the Bol'shoy Theater, for example.


Regarding uniforms--we didn't were any. However, the girls had a Sunday outfit that was the same: navy blue skirt with a navy blouse and sailor's collar. They were terrible to iron!

Kazimiera J. Cottam, PhD


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Created: February 15, 2000
Last update: March 20, 2004