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Prologue: Warsaw, 1919. In a medical classroom, Janusz Korczak lds a "class" for new teachers in which he shows the destructive effects of the harsh treatment of vulnerable children. Three young student-teachers attend the class, and as Korczak presents his lecture—"The Heart of a Child"—using a young boy as teaching aid, they become lost in traumatic childhood memories.

Act One: Warsaw Jewish ghetto, Winter, early 1942. The Warsaw ghetto has closed in around Korczak and his orphanage, which he continues to run now, though only for Jewish children since the Nazis have walled them off from the rest of the community. Korczak is chided by Stefa, the co-director of his orphanage, for risking his life by going outside without wearing the Star of David armband that is required for all Jews.

That evening, Korczak has a nightmare in which he revisits his own childhood, when, left alone at a Christmas pageant, he is terrified of a child being scooped up into Father Christmas' sack. Once awake he realizes he is terrified of the "sack" that his own orphans will be bundled off in. Shaken by this nightmare, Korczak worries about his own sanity: he is the son of a madman, and fears inheriting his father’s illness.

The first act ends with the "Children’s Tribunal," a session of court in which orphans get to try each other and their caregivers for wrongdoings. The defendants include the young teacher Esterka, who has boxed the ears of a child, and Korczak himself, who has embarrassed a young girl. In the end, the children learn a lesson in forgiveness.

Act Two: Spring 1942. The horrors of ghetto existence are taking their toll on Korczak’s staff. A few of them gather to complain about Korczak and his recent behaviors, which seem to them unbefitting a "Director." His reply is to sing about one of his many habits, his routine of clearing the dining table.

The opera then follows Korczak on his rounds in the ghetto, where he has a chance meeting with Bula Szulc, one of Korczak’s orphans who has now grown and started his own family. They reminisce about the “old days,” and recall how Korczak told the story of "Puss ‘n’ Boots" on the radio. Korczak has come to identify as the crafty "Puss" himself in his endeavors, though they have exhausted him. Bula suggests that Korczak take an opportunity to flee the country, but Korczak insists he will never leave the children.

After a scene of insanity on the ghetto streets, Korczak meets with Adam Czerniakow, who is chairman of the Jewish council given limited authority over affairs in the ghetto. On the way home he encounters two children playing “horsey,” nonchalantly stepping over a dead child’s body in the street to continue their play. In his horror at witnessing this, he determines somehow to prepare his own children to face death bravely rather than to anesthetize themselves against it. The act ends back at the orphanage, where the children share with Korczak the “letter” they have written to the local parish priest, asking that he allow them some time to play in the garden of his church. Their innocent verses, ending with the refrain, "and the people in your church won’t be disturbed," take on a prescient, ominous meaning.

Act Three, Summer 1942. In contrast to its usual orderly patterns, the orphanage is thrown into chaos when almost everyone, both children and staff, come down with a horrible bout of dysentery. Korczak and Stefa minister to everyone, and he attempts to convince her that they must also minister to the children’s psyches, preparing them to face their almost inevitable deaths. This horrifies Stefa, so he enlists Esterka to direct the children in Tagore’s play The Post Office, whose plot centers in the death of a young boy and which Hitler has forbidden anyone to perform.

While rehearsing for the play, the children, practicing their lines, speak indirectly of their own fragile mortality. But then new horrors intervene: Esterka herself has been snatched up by the S.S. in one of their street raids. Panicked by this news, Korczak does everything he can to get her released, but without success. Finally, one morning without warning, S.S. soldiers enter the orphanage to clear it out, and he and Stefa must gather up the children and their belongings. As chaos surrounds Korczak, he reflects on the youth of the soldier, and on the fragility of a soul that can grow from an innocent child into an agent of terror. Bearing the flag of the orphanage “Children’s Republic,” Korczak and the orphans process on their final march to the trains waiting to take them to Treblinka.

 

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