The Boy with the Harmonica


  Among my Holocaust scholar friends, it is no surprise that Janusz Korczak is one of my heroes. I wrote a blogpost about him a while ago, in awe of his support of children.  His devotion to the orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto touches my heart; his words about parenting and teaching often move me to tears (but more often move me to being a better person.)
    Today, I spent some time by his memorial here at Yad Vashem.  His protectiveness and compassion really came through in this statue; it is clear that the artist understood him and made a connection.   This matches a man who knew that children had their own personalities and interests and made a point to create his schooling and orphanage culture in a child-centered way long before that was in fashion.
   I learned, though, another reason to love Korczak even more.  It all has to do with a boy with a harmonica.

   You see, even in the Warsaw ghetto, Korczak made sure that the tooth fairy came to children who lost their teeth.  But one boy, Shmuel Gogol, really wanted a harmonica instead of whatever the typical tooth fairy treat was.  He expressed this wish to Korczak.
    Of course, harmonicas were hard to come by back then.  Ghetto life was very poor.  But Korczak saw how much this musical little boy wanted a harmonica and offered him one if he could save up eight teeth...which indeed he did. I'm just thinking about the chaotic noise in the orphanage after Shmuel got his harmonica!
   Shmuel was found by his grandmother and returned to her before the orphans and Korczak were deported to Auschwitz.  Consequently, he lived long enough to first be sent to Auschwitz closer to the end of the war.  When he arrived at the concentration camp, everything was taken from him, including his harmonica.  Naturally, he yearned for it.
   One day, he saw a boy playing the harmonica.  He wanted it so badly!  Items were traded in the concentration camps, usually for the very minimal nutrition that people were provided each day: a piece of bread (mixed with sawdust) the size of a hand.  (Soup interspersed with garbage isn't very tradable...)  After some negotiation, it was agreed that two weeks' worth of bread would be a fair exchange.
   I don't know how Shmuel did it, but he sacrificed a lot of bread.  And he ended up with the harmonica.  When he played, the guards heard him and were so taken aback that, rather than punish him, they switched his job at Auschwitz.  From that point on, his work was to play the harmonica outside of one of the crematoria.
    One day, as he played the harmonica and saw another load of victims being lined up for their murder, he saw his aunt in the line.  Imagine that total despair, that complete powerlessness.  He could do nothing to save her, but there she was, and he play for the last minutes of her life.  But at that moment he made himself two promises.
  1. He would only play the harmonica with his eyes closed because he did not want to see what he could not change.
  2. If he got out of Auschwitz alive, he would move to Israel and create a school where children would learn to play the harmonica.  (Yes, every parent's dream....not.)
The Ramat Gan Municipality Children’s Mouth Harmonica Orchestra in memory of Shmuel Gogol, conducted by Alex Reiss, photo property of Yad Vashem

    Shmuel Gogol survived.  He created a harmonica orchestra in Israel (yes, such a thing exists) and in 1990, returned to Poland with his students to perform.
     When he was already increasingly frail, he was invited by Yitzhak Rabin to perform at a ceremony in Auschwitz.  He obliged, and more than just that, he played with his eyes open.
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