The Rabbi Who Followed 300 Orphans to Their Death in Nazi-Occupied Poland

July 12, 2019 | Ofer Aderet
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Today, the story of the Jewish educator and children’s author Janusz Korczak (né Henryk Goldszmit), the founder and director of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw before and during World War II, is well-known in Poland, especially after it was recounted in a 1990 film. Korczak, having turned down offers to escape the Warsaw Ghetto, remained with his charges and was sent along with them to Treblinka to be murdered in 1942. Far less well-known is the very similar story of Rabbi Dawid Alter Kurzmann of Krakow, but he is now getting some much-deserved recognition, Ofer Aderet writes. (Free registration may be required.)

[Rabbi Kurzmann’s] grandson, Marcel Kurzmann, an eighty-three-year-old resident of the Tel Aviv suburb Rishon Letzion, has been working in recent years to gain recognition for the grandfather he never met. Marcel has had the assistance of his own grandson, Elad Furman, whose efforts helped get a street in Rishon Letzion named after Rabbi Kurzmann. This year a street in Krakow will also bear his name.

The rabbi’s descendants don’t know a lot about him. It’s known that he was born in 1865 in the city of Rzeszow to the east and grew up in Krakow. He made a living running a trading house for iron and other metal. He was also among the founders of the international ultra-Orthodox movement Agudath Israel, and of Ḥakhmey Lublin, a leading yeshiva in the city of Lublin to the northeast.

As president of the Dietla Street orphanage, he started to help run it on a day-to-day basis in 1918 and in practice served as its director. The orphans there referred to him as their father. He continued to run the facility after the Germans occupied Poland in September 1939, though the Nazis made the orphanage relocate to more crowded quarters inside the Krakow Ghetto.

On October 28, 1942, at the age of seventy-seven, Rabbi Kurzmann was sent to the gas chambers of the Belzec extermination camp along with 300 children who had been in his charge. Also killed with them were a teacher at the orphanage, Anna Regina Feuerstein, her husband, and Kurzmann’s daughter and son-in-law.

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