Because the most precious aspect of an olive (its oil) only comes forth when pressed.
Olives on their own are bitter, unattractive, and not good for much.
But olive oil contains many healthful properties and contains a wide variety of highly beneficial uses.
And this segues into the heart-stirring life and personality of Janusz Korczak (pronounced "yanush korchak").
Born as Henryk Goldszmidt in Warsaw in 1878 or 1879 to assimilated Jews, Korczak later took on the pen name "Janusz Korczak" and rose to become one of the most heroic figures in the Warsaw ghetto.
Because we'll be discussing several books in the post, I've provided some images to give you a better idea:
The terror Korczak felt as a child upon witnessing the brutal methods common in Polish schools during his time combined with several other impacting experiences inspired him to develop more compassionate and more effective child-rearing methods.
While I haven't yet read his books, he apparently favored a gentle and mature approach with children, while still inculcating necessary values of responsibility, self-discipline, consideration of others, and emotional maturity.
Unlike the American pop psychology movement, which viewed (and still views) self-esteem as a goal rather than a result, it seems that Korczak understood that self-esteem was the result of making good decisions and engaging in mature behavior, rather than something that can be merely bequeathed to a child (or any person).
Even his books for children, praised for being able to enter the mind of a child so appealingly, were meant not only to entertain, but to inculcate important values.
Korczak the Humble Celebrity
Korczak himself became agnostic and didn't believe in forcing any religion onto children.
After attending university to become a pediatrician, he served in the Polish army, and eventually joined the staff of a Polish orphanage.
But because of their hate-filled attitude toward Jewish orphans (who weren't always literal orphans, but placed there by destitute families who'd lost one parent), Korczak went on to open his own orphanage for Jewish children where he was free to apply his own methods for raising children and did so with tremendous success, as attested to one of the last surviving orphans, Itzchak Belfer. (Link below)
Within Polish society, Korczak rose to become one of the leading pedagogues of his time, with his own popular radio show where he propagated his child-rearing theories via stories and wry humor.
With the publication of his book, Kaytek the Wizard, Korczak became the JK Rowling of Poland when his book hit enduring bestseller status, its fandom similar to that of the Harry Potter phenomenon. But it wasn't his first novel; other popular books preceded this one.
The Equally Courageous & Devoted Stefa
In the 1930s, Stefa visited Eretz Yisrael and worked with the children of a kibbutz where she provided the staff with good guidance and advice on how to improve their care of the children before returning to Poland.
In Korczak's orphanage in Poland, the children described the set-up as a mother-father dynamic, with Stefa as the mother who remained "at home" with the children and Korczak as the father who supervised them in the early morning and came home from his other work in the evenings to children who skipped and danced to greet their returning "father."
After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, arrangements were made for Stefania to flee to Eretz Yisrael, but she chose to remain with her orphans and enter the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Resisting the Warsaw Ghetto from Within
There, he, Stefa, and their assistants made every effort to create a normal and even thriving life for their children. Even though they too were starving, they did everything they could to provide whatever food and activities for the orphans.
In his 60s at this time, Korczak developed terribly swollen feet from entire days spent plodding from one welfare institution to another, standing in lines and begging bread or buckwheat for the children. He also suffered lung problems among other health issues.
He personally and lovingly cut the children's hair and nails, told them funny stories, weighed them, and gave them their medicine. He also checked on them as they slept, pulling a fallen blanket over one slumbering child and checking the forehead of another suffering from fever.
How was a man broken in health, rejected by the very society to which he'd given so much (including endangering himself as a doctor on the battlefield), and himself starving able to provide nearly 200 children with not only their physical needs, but the love and tenderness they so desperately lacked?
As an agnostic, he didn't even have God to lean on.
The Beis Yaakov Influence
Gutta taught the children blessings and Hebrew songs. She said Shema with them at bedtime and regaled them with stories of tzaddikim and miracles.
Periodically, Korczak sat by and listened to Gutta's religious uplifting, impressed by the positive impact she made on the children. Despite his own feelings toward any religion, he encouraged Gutta to continue because it made the children happy and that was all he cared about.
When Gutta wasn't able to make the curfew, she spent the night at the orphanage. During those times, Korczak asked her about her upbringing and Beis Yaakov experiences, to which he listened with a curious and open mind.
At one point, he told Gutta,
"I myself am lost, but I am looking for a word of strength for my children and for myself. I am desperately looking for a prayer to God."
"Dear child, please help the children. Show them your love for God. Share with them your trust in Him. Tell them about Rosh Hashanah. Tell them that God is so close that everyone can speak to Him. Do you promise?"
The Astonishing Park
The controversial head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow (who gained hot-button fame when he committed suicide rather than participate in Nazi deportations), initiated a park project. He gathered a group of Jewish artists and architects trapped in the ghetto to create a park of trees, mountains, valleys, a waterfall, cows and sheep -- all out of paper.
(They had no other materials.)
The children were outfitted in special navy-and-white uniforms for the outing, also all made out of paper.
Because of the Nazi terror and deprivations, the children were in deplorable condition despite the best efforts of the Korczak's staff. Some were just days away from death.
But they radiated joy as they visited the "park" and enjoyed every moment of the outing.
Gutta later recalled: "If I could, I would award this park the highest prize for human endeavor and creativity...I was so proud of the Jews who created this park."
The Situation Deteriorates
"You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this," he stated.
One effect of starvation is not just physical lethargy, but mental lethargy. Apathy seeps into the sufferer.
Korczak and Stefa experienced this too, but they fought it for the sake of the children, continuing to minister to them with all the love and care they could muster.
The Final Act of Courage & Love
To soothe their terror as much as possible, Korczak told them they were going to the countryside where they would experience fresh air and eat berries.
With Korczak heading four neat rows compromised of the children, Stefa, and the nurses & teachers devoted to the children throughout their ghetto incarceration, Korczak held one particularly debilitated child in his arms while holding the hand of another as the heart-breaking entourage was marched all the way through the ghetto to the main boarding platform.
As they moved forward, one of the teachers bravely tried to prop up the children's spirits by breaking into a rousing marching song about keeping one's head up through a howling storm.
It was a very long way to the trains and the children suffered, but the group was not allowed to stop walking.
As they crossed over a bridge, their heartless escorts shoved the youngest ones up the bridge and then knocked them down the other side as Poles below shouted, "Good riddance, Jews!"
Upon reaching the boarding site, they encountered thousands of other Jews sentenced to cattle car transportation.
At that point, one Judenrat official urged Korczak to come with him to the Judenrat for a possible reprieve. But Korczak feared leaving the children for even a moment.
And Korczak's fears proved right.
As the Judenrat official stood there, the Nazis ordered Korczak's orphans to be loaded into the cattle cars.
At this point, the account splits. Some say that a Nazi official, influenced by a person with sway, approached Korczak with a document that would allow Korczak to return to his residence.
Others say that this officer was actually working under Nazi orders because sometimes internationally famous Jews were transported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp with deceptively better conditions designed to mislead the Red Cross.
Still others say that an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of his children's favorite books and offered him an escape.
But Korczak refused to leave his children.
Then they were sent to Treblinka where their final moments were lost to history.
Note: The shock of losing Korczak and his orphanage was so great that for years, various people claimed to have spotted Korczak, Stefa, or the orphans around the Polish countryside.
But no evidence exists of their survival.
Gutta Sternbuch would have accompanied them to their final destination, but Hashem had other plans for her and she survived to marry and raise a family and nurture fellow refugees, as documented in her memoir.
The Deeper Lesson of Korczak, Stefa, and the Others
With very few exceptions, most heroic people unknowingly worked up to their heroism via a series of smaller heroic decisions throughout their lives. The heroism of Korczak and the others stands out not only because of the ultimate sacrifice they made in the end, but also because their heroism was ongoing. It's easier to be a hero for a moment than to keep up the heroism through deteriorating health, mental lethargy, disillusionment, constant terror, and the bleakness of a truly hopeless situation.
And that's the real lesson to take away from such stories:
It's the decisions they made in the good times that affected how they responded in the bad times.
Even though I'd come across Janusz Korczak's story decades ago, my discovery of Stefa was a lot more recent. Equally devoted to the children throughout their lives, Stefa refused refuge in Eretz Yisrael and also accompanied her cherished charges into the gas chamber.
And according to eyewitnesses, even throughout the terrible hell of the Warsaw Ghetto, Stefa's physical and emotional deterioration wasn't as rapid or pronounced as Korczak's.
Women's Studies devotees will certainly proclaim that it is merely because Korczak's male status earned him historical status while Stefa's gender relegated her to the sidelines.
But the truth is that Korczak was an international celebrity in that part of the world. Respected by colleagues for his military service and his education while adored by the nation for his theories, wry humor, and writing, Korczak was both the (l'havdil!) JK Rowling and the Dr. Spock of his time complete with books, speaking engagements, and his own radio show, all of which was the TV and Internet of its time.
And this likely propelled his deterioration too.
While I can't know for sure, accounts indicate that Korczak was never able to make peace with the betrayal of the Polish society he'd helped revolutionize and build. A handful of colleagues were willing to save him, but not save the children whom he treasured more than himself.
Everything he'd devoted his life to was being torn apart and annihilated.
The horrific circumstances rammed him into the wall of disillusionment again and again.
He'd invested heart and soul into propelling society to a better place, using his fame to make his world more moral, caring, wiser, and compassionate.
Yet it all ended with him carrying broken children in his own faltering arms while dragging his broken body past jeering countrymen into crate on wheels headed for a gas chamber.
I'm not sure if he ever sensed the precious golden oil that managed to seep out of the olive press in which he found himself.
Note: Janusz Korczak achieved even more in his life than what's written here. Furthermore, his ghetto diary was saved and published, revealing much more about his life and his personality. There is also so much more good to relate about Stefa and the teachers and nurses who tended the children in the orphanage, which are available online and in books. This post is just a drop in the sea.