#1 Story Statement: Facing the grizzly reality of the Nazi “final solution” of WWII, the great Doctor Janusz Korczak must protect the innocence, dignity and very humanity of the two hundred Jewish orphans in his charge - up until their final march to the rail cars headed to Treblinka - even if it means sacrificing his own life.
#2 Sketch the Antagonist: Raised in Berlin by a brutally authoritarian father, a veteran of the first Great War, and a frail but adoring mother, Alrick Jung learns obedience, conformity to gender roles and a strictly male-centric social order. Fueled by his father’s stories of battle glory and the promises of a brilliant and charismatic Fuhrer, Alrick beams with pride for Motherland as he grows into the splendid epitome of the new Aryan ideal. His precious Germany struggles to recover from the humiliation of the first Great War and the injustice of the Treaty of Versaille. Alrick eagerly embraces his small yet critical role in the “final solution” as a Gestapo officer charged with facilitating the deportation of all Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. Alrick Jung will do everything in his power to make his father and his Fuhrer proud by ridding Germany’s newly occupied Poland of it’s abhorrent Jewish blight. Germany will shine with a new splendor and the golden Alrick Jung will bask in her glory.
#3 Three Breakout Titles (okay, four):
The Railcars of Warsaw
The Innocents (of Warsaw)
The Trees of Treblinka / The Treblinka Forest
(God) Bless the Innocent
#4 Genre and Comparables:
Historical Fiction - based on the last two years of the life of Doctor Janusz Korczak, Poland’s national hero, and the time he spent behind the walls of the Warsaw ghetto caring for the two hundred Jewish orphans in his charge.
Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale - Set during WWII and based on the true stories of little-known heroes who risked their lives off the battlefield to save the lives of others, or as in the case of my story, to find meaning and worth in the final moments for those facing certain death
Jim Sheppard’s The Book of Aaron - tells the story of Korczak but through the first person narrative of a feral and parentless street child who is taken in, civilized and introduced to his own humanity by Korczak in their final moments just before boarding the railcars.
In the hell of the Warsaw ghetto, an aging Jewish doctor clings desperately to the few remaining scraps of innocence and humanity of the hundreds of orphans in his care. Meanwhile, an idealistic and brash Gestapo officer, hell-bent on validating his rigid but rapidly deteriorating world view, aims to empty the ghetto of all traces of its Jewish inhabitants.
#6 Sketch out the condition for the inner / secondary conflict for the protagonist:
KORCZAK / PROTAGONIST - In the face of near starvation and deplorable living conditions comes the gradual but inevitable realization that Korczak, his faithful colleague Steffa, their staff and orphans all face a grizzly end. While this sobering reality settles in on the Doctor, he relies increasingly on his faithful mistress, a bottle of Russian vodka to comfort him. Then, when he drunkenly stumbles upon a severely injured Alrick Jung in the streets, Korczak, a battle seasoned field medic, must decide to honor his oath to heal and save Alrick’s life. An unlikely father-son bond ensues as the pair polish off the precious last drops of the vodka while arguing questions of social order, gender roles, and their deeply conflicting worldviews.
While struggling to face his own mortality and keep hundreds of mouths fed, Korczak juggles the incessant questions of one of his older wards, the objections of the staff and his need to ready those in his care for their inescapable truth - that Death is imminent but Death can be a gentle friend. In order to accomplish this gargantuan task, he relies on one of his brilliant orphans, a little girl with a big imagination and the power to create and believe alternate truths. Through Kasia’s vivid fantasies starring her homemade doll, Valery, she creates a constellation of worlds - worlds where glamorous trapeze artists swing their way to new homes, where mothers peacefully mourn their dying daughters, where daughters must say goodbye forever to fathers, and where famous adventurers see the beautiful lands beyond the walls of the ghetto. Korczak harnesses the power of imagination and play to prepare them all for their certain end.
Korczak is presented with multiple opportunities to save himself and avoid deportation into the forest to an unknown destination. But each time, Korczak refuses, choosing instead to do everything in his waning power to make each moment that’s left of his orphans’ lives bearable, worthy, peaceful, even filled with joy and love.
ALRICK / ANTAGONIST who becomes a PROTAGONIST: Alrick grew up believing that Germany was great, that German women served great men and great men deserved glory - a simple and Natural Order. But the humiliation of the first war and the reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versaille left Germany battle scarred, his father jobless, his mother helpless, and he and his small sister hungry. Years later, a brilliant new Chancellor makes promises of a brighter future for his beloved Motherland - a future where every German man would have a lucrative job and the Golden Ones would rule - a Golden Dream. Alrick, truly one of the Golden Ones, looks forward to this bright future for himself, his family and his country - just as soon as they carry out the Final Solution and clean up the dark mess behind the ghetto walls. Alrick has a role to play and he will do it with his customary excellence.
But this Jewish doctor who saved his life talks to him about another Natural Order, one where children don’t learn through beatings but through love, and where every human being is deserving of dignity and care. A Natural Order where tiny acorns grow to be mighty oaks simply because it is their nature. Alrick sees the devotion of the children and of his staff and remembers the brutality of his upbringing. Letters from his sister at home reveal that the suffocating and tightly woven fabric of his father’s dominion quickly unravels, the rent struggles to get paid, his mother drinks all night and his sister is relegated to unspeakable acts to help keep food on the table. The luster of the Golden Dream begins to tarnish as Alrick is tasked with completing his duties behind the ghetto walls, duties that require him to deport his teacher, his mentor, his friend.
KASIA: Truly a flawed specimen of humanity, Kasia limps her way through life in the orphanage on her painfully deformed feet. If it weren’t for Kasia’s gift of magnificent storytelling - or “pretendings” as the others call it - Kasia’s life in the ghetto orphanage just might be wretched rather than the grand adventure she makes it. Accompanied by her scratch-made doll, Valery, Kasia weaves a reality where she is beautiful, victorious, brilliant, able-bodied, loved and deeply cherished. Each fantasy is tailor made to reconcile the truth - that she is a damaged little Jewish orphan girl, that her father abandoned her and that she has developed an obsession for the glorious and golden Alrick Jung. Tall, strong and glimmering with anticipated possibilities, Alrick is everything Kasia isn’t, but longs to be. Alrick is everything her father wasn’t, but she wishes he had been. Alrick is everything Kasia wants, but can’t have. And he reminded her of it the day he smacked her down to the ground when she dared to touch the shimmering buttons of his uniform. If only he would look at her, see her, say her name, then she would truly be brave and beautiful. What Kasia doesn’t know is that one day soon Alrick will rely on her imagination to deliver him from the danger he walked into himself.
SISTER PHILOMENA: Driven by the power of the Holy Spirit, devoted to the wellness of children and fueled by her unconditional faith that one true God unites all people, Sister Philomena is tormented by the events of the occupation and the treatment of the Jewish children in Warsaw. She commits all her efforts to supporting the orphans’ home behind the walls. But when she learns that the Mother Superior of her convent school wants her to take an orphan from the home and shelter her in the convent, blending her in with the Catholic students only to force her into a Catholic conversion, Sister Philomena struggles to discern the ethicality of this in light of the Nazi attacks on Judiasm as a whole but is conflicted by her desire to save them. She realizes that her commitment to protect a child is not enough, she must secretly protect their true Jewish identity while shielding them from Mother Superior’s efforts to force baptism. Finally, upon learning of the final march to railcars and the horrific fate of the orphans that she left behind, Sister Philomena rails against God and questions everything she has ever believed in. It takes the fresh faith of one little girl in her charge to bring Sister Philomena to a new place of spiritual understanding.
#7 Setting: sketch out your setting in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story?
The Orphans Home before the ghetto: Like a loving matriarch, an aging oak tree spreads her branches in a loving embrace around the spacious and dusty yard where the children play in her shadow, never doubting that she will always be there to watch over them. The dusty yard doubles as the Roman Forum as Kasia imagines a raucous chariot race around the arena, surrounded by cheering fans. A puddle of mud under the back stairs always hides a generous supply of worms for Mikolaj to gather up in his tiny fists. The ample kitchen is almost never silent as staff cleans from one meal only to begin preparations for the next. A vast dining room is lined with tables and benches and a huge bulletin board flutters with announcements of student run activities, meetings, rehearsals and performances. Upstairs, boys and girls sleep in separate wings, with clean tidy beds arranged in reliable and tidy rows. A simple parlor off of the front foyer houses a tiny desk, a well worn chair and short bookshelves stuffed with books, journals and sketch pads. A small wobbly coffee table holds a dish always supplied with sweets. A pair of enormous windows in the parlor look out over the broad front walkway leading to the heavy front door. The roomy front foyer is the setting for nightly story telling where the well-worn chair is brought out. The Doctor takes his place in his chair as the children gather on the warm wooden floor to listen to another chapter of their favorite story unfold in the Orphans Home before the ghetto divides Warsaw.
The Orphans Home after the ghetto: A meager patch of dirt and a weed patch struggle to find the sun. Classrooms double as dormitories and mattresses stand against the walls making space for lessons. The cramped foyer doubles as a dining hall and the tiny kitchen and pantry double as a parlor. A flimsy front door leads out to a short stoop that dumps out into the busy sidewalk and noisy street. The stench of grit and filth assault the masses of the ghetto, their heads down, their eyes barely seeing. Hastily constructed ghetto walls stumble through the once elegant city like drunken soldiers staggering aimlessly. As hope for the people of the ghetto wanes, their bodies litter the sidewalks like old stories, once cherished and shared but now forgotten.
The Sisters of Mercy Convent and School for Catholic Girls: In the chapel on a gentle hill, sunlight filters through the stained glass windows, casting a rosy glow over the sisters as they join their voices in praise. The warm spicy aroma of incense and wooden pews fill their lungs. The gardens that surround the convent and school are laced by trails that weave through an orchard of pear trees and rose bushes heavy with fragrant and tender white blooms. The Apostles' Garden is filled with life sized bronzes of the sleeping apostles surrounding a prayerful Jesus, hands held high in supplication to his Father. Finally, the trails meet at the bottom of the hill at a gurgling grotto framing the elegant statue of the Virgin, in celestial blue robe and crown of gleaming white roses. The statue is surrounded by flickering candles balancing on the rocks of the grotto, each offering up a silent petition for a miracle.