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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Treblinka and After

Man feels and ponders death as though it were the end,
when in fact death is merely the continuation of life.
It is another life.
You may not believe in the existence of the soul, yet you
must acknowledge that your body will live on as green grass,
as a cloud. For you are, after all, water and dust.
-Ghetto Diary


    No one survived to tell the story of the last hours of Korczak, Stefa, and the children after their train left the Warsaw Ghetto on August 6, 1942. All that is known is that Treblinka, the extermination camp to which they were taken, was under the command of another doctor, the infamous Dr. Irmfried Eberl. In spite ofEberl's experience in gassing people during the "euthanasia" program in Germany, Treblinka was in chaos. The small gas chambers, which spewed out carbon monoxide from engine exhaust, functioned ceaselessly, but still could not handle the thousands of people the trains brought each day. Many had to be shot. There were mountains of putrefying corpses everywhere waiting to be thrown into mass graves. "We can't go on this way. I can't do it any longer. We have to break off, " Eberl phoned Gestapo headquarters in Lublin.

    "It's the end of the world," Franz Stengl said when he arrived at Treblinka in late August to replace Eberl. The stench reached him from miles away. The following April he ordered the graves dug up and all the bodies cremated on "roasting racks." The ashes were scattered in long trenches and covered with earth, over which evergreen trees were planted.

    When Misha returned to the orphanage late on the afternoon of August 6, he found everything in disarray. Korczak's spectacles, with a cracked left lens, were lying on the bed table where he had put them the night before, and his papers were scattered about the room. Misha believes that no one suspected the orphanage would be taken that day. He survived the war and was a colonel in the Polish Army until the "anti-Zionist" purge forced him to emigrate to Sweden in the late 1960s.

    "The day after Korczak and the children were taken, a red-haired boy appeared at my door with a package and ran off," Newerly recalls. "I was afraid it wouldn't be safe in my apartment and took it immediately to Maryna Falska in Bielany. We chose a spot under the eaves of the orphanage. The caretaker, Mr. Cichosz, made a hole and bricked it up."

    After two years of internment as a political prisoner in Auschwitz (where he once thought he spotted that red-haired boy), Newerly started life anew in a Poland that was now part of the Soviet bloc. Korczak's diary was unearthed from its hiding place and turned over to the Polish Writers Union. It remained unpublished during the Stalinist years, when Korczak was out of favor as a "bourgeois educator" and the works of the Russian pedagogue Anton Makarenko took precedence.

    Not until the thaw of 1956 was Newerly able to publish the works of Janusz Korczak, but even then the diary appeared only as part of a four-volume anthology rather than as a separate book. The original diary, typed by Henryk, a young teacher in the ghetto orphanage, has disappeared. Both the archives of the Korczak Society and the Museum of Literature in Warsaw possess immaculately typed manuscripts that are labeled as original.

    Ida Merzan, one of the few surviving Jewish teachers who stayed in Poland after the war, describes the diary as having been typed, with many mistakes, on delicate blue rice paper. She and another woman mounted each page on sturdy paper in the mid-fifties so that Newerly could prepare it for publication. "The diary was issued without much editing, except that a few names were deleted and others replaced with initials," Merzan said. "Some Jews who returned to Poland from Russia after the war had power in the new government and objected to the critical things Korczak had written about their relatives. And certain Polish officials wanted to delete any mention of former patriots like Jozef Pilsudski who had been anti-Communist."

    Both Merzan and Newerly maintain that except for minor details, the original diary was not tampered with. Merzan does not know who could have taken it. ";I've been told to stop searching, that Ill never find it," she admits. "But I believe that it will reappear when this generation has passed on."

    Maryna Falska had tried not to fall into despondency after Korczak and his orphans were taken to Treblinka. She continued to hide Jewish children. One ofthem remembers seeing her on the roofofher orphanage at the time of the Ghetto Uprising, watching a flame-streaked sky through which feathers from pillows and mattresses fell like snowflakes. Tears were rolling down Maryna's cheeks, but when she noticed the young Jewish girl standing there, she quickly composed herself and sent her off to bed.

    During the Warsaw Uprising, in the fall of 1944 - when the whole city was destroyed by the Germans while the Red Army sat watching on the other side of the Vistula-Maryna opened a hospital in the orphanage for wounded Polish fighters. She allowed the older orphanage boys to join the fighting units and sat up nights waiting for them to return. Eight did not.

    Shortly before her death, Maryna was informed by a German soldier that her orphanage was to be evacuated to another part of Poland. Before leaving, he grabbed her wrist and tore off the watch that had belonged to her husband. "I saw her struggling in the corridor and cried out that she should give it to him, " Eugenka, one of the teachers, recalls. "He hit her with his gun and left. She was stricken about losing the watch. She made no preparations for the move, though she said things like: 'Don't let the children carry heavy things. Please take care ofthe children.' As if she were giving her last instructions."

    On October 7, 1944, the day before the orphanage was to be resettled, Maryna collapsed and had to be carried upstairs. Eugenka started to cry when she saw Maryna's face turning blue. The doctor said! "Why do you cry? There are so many people dying." Maryna didn't ask for confession in that last hour before her death. The children and staff were told that she had died of a heart attack, but Eugenka and others believe she took cyanide rather than leave the house. Not wanting to bury Maryna in a sack, as they did the Polish soldiers who died in their orphanage hospital, four of the teachers made a wooden coffin out of a few desks. The funeral took place in the courtyard at night to avoid detection by the Germans.

    The orphans were evacuated with their teachers in an open truck that took them to a small village in southern Poland where they, and the Jewish children hidden among them, managed to survive by begging.

    After the war, Maryna Falska was given a proper burial and the orphanage was restored. It still operates under the system of self-government that she and Korczak initiated.

    A Janusz Korczak club was formed by surviving Polish and Jewish orphans and teachers in Warsaw after the war. Over the years, it met sporadically, depending on the political climate. The Korczak legend gathered momentum in Europe as poets and playwrights re-created that last march with the children to the train. Schools, hospitals, and streets were named after him in many countries. UNESCO declared 1978-79 the Year of Korczak, to coincide with the Year of the Child and the centenary of his birth. Pope John Paul II expressed his "special support" for the Janusz Korczak Literary Competition, sponsored jointly by Polish and Jewish Americans to give awards to outstanding books about children.

    In the mid-seventies, the Polish government found it politically expedient to set up the Janusz Korczak International Society to host annual conferences in Warsaw for the purpose of disseminating his educational ideas. The Minister of Education, Jerzy Kuberski (now Ambassador for Religious Affairs in the Vatican), was appointed chairman. Sometimes when I attend a Korczak conference in Warsaw, I feel that I am living a scene from King Matt the First. There are delegates from both the Eastern and Western blocs, many of them separated by the very political and religious ideologies that Korczak had hoped to bridge in his lifetime, but all of them deeply involved in rediscovering Korczak as writer, psychologist, and moral educator.

    Israeland Poland both claim Korczak as their own. The Poles consider Korczak a martyr who, had he been born a Catholic, would have been canonized by now. The Israelis revere Korczak as one of the Thirty-six Just Men whose pure souls, according to ancient Jewish tradition, make possible the world's salvation. As if settling for joint custody, the two countries dutifully attend each other's Korczak commemorations, no small gesture considering that the Poles broke off diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 Arab-israeli war. in a spirit of reconciliation at one conference in Warsaw, an Israeli delegate, a former ghetto fighter, made the motion that in Poland Korczak should be called a Jew and in Israel a Pole.

    For some time after the war it was rumored that the cattle cars that took Korczak's orphans to Treblinka had been derailed and that he and Stefa and the children were saved. People claimed to have seen them in small villages throughout Poland.

    Korczak wondered in his diary what he would do after the war:

    "Perhaps I will be invited to participate in restoring order to the world, or to Poland. This is highly improbable and I would not want it. I would have to keep an office, meaning the slavery of fixed working hours and contacts with people, a desk somewhere, a telephone, an armchair. Wasting time on trifling everyday problems, and contending with petty people with their petty ambitions, their influential friends, hierarchies, and goals. In sum, a yoke. I prefer to be on my own."

    He also imagined creating an orphanage compound in the hills of northern Galilee:

    "It will have large barracks-like dining rooms and dormitories and small 'hermit huts. 'I will have a room on the terrace of a flat roof, not too large, with transparent walls so that I will not miss a single sunrise or sunset, and so that, writing at night, I will be able to look now and again at the stars."

    Treblinka, like the other former death camps which lie like dead moons outside the main cities of Poland, is kept alive by visitors from all over the world who go there to pay homage to the victims. I took the sixty-mile trip there by chartered bus with the International Korczak Association in 1983. Sitting in the front with me were Jozef Balcerak and Ida Merzan. Misha Wroblewski was there from Sweden; Leon Ha'ari, Yanka Zuk, Stasiek Zyngman, and Itzhak Belfer from Israel. Igor Newerly was too ill to join us. Joseph Arnon had died a few years before.

    Our bus took the road along the Vistula, past small villages slumbering in the noon sun, past fields with cows, past towns renowned for their sheepskin coats, past trains with empty cattle cars sitting idly on the tracks.

    We came at last to a sign saying TREBLINKA, the name of the small town two miles from where the camp was located, and continued on down narrow roads flanked by dense birch and pine forests, so beautiful, so primeval, it seemed that nature, too, was eager to cover up what had happened there. A few years earlier, driving by car to Treblinka with a Polish journalist, we had become lost in this very spot. Flagging down a man passing by with his grandson in a wooden horse-drawn cart filled with potatoes, we asked how to find the former death camp.

    "I remember it," the man had said.
    I saw it all from the hilltop above my town.
    I was a boy tending my cows.
    I saw the trains pull up.
    I saw the people get off.
    I saw them trying to escape.
    I saw them beaten.

    Oh, it was terrible. There was nothing anyone could do.
    When the Wind was easterly, it was almost unbearable for us.
    But a westerly wind was tolerable.
    We sent our women and young children away to relatives to protect them from the drunken Ukrainian guards.

    He pointed in the direction where the camp had been. And then he moved on-horse, cart, grandson, potatoes.

    Now, the bus with the Korczak delegation drove unerringly through those magnificent trees which formed the gateway to Treblinka. Stepping down from the bus, we were greeted by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of the Janusz Korczak troop, who lined the paths as honor guards. We waited, along with hundreds of other people who had come in chartered buses, for the ceremony to begin at the fake railroad station with its fake clock whose hands never moved, and its fake ticket counter that had no tickets, all ofwhich had been meant to persuade the exhausted Jews from all over Europe that they were still in transit to resettlement in the East.

    After listening to speeches by Polish officials, we walked, accompanied by martial music blaring from loudspeakers, along stone railroad tracks that symbolized the real tracks that had led to the death camp.
    For Treblinka is not there in the sense that Auschwitz and other camps are still there. There are no guard towers, no barbed-wire fences, no barracks, no empty suitcases and piles ofchildren's shoes. This once huge killing center was partially burned down after its first year of operation in a rebellion by its captive Jewish workers, and then the Nazis completed the destruction to hide their traces.

    Sometime after the war, the violated space that had once been Treblinka was transformed into a vast stone garden. Seventeen thousand rocks were brought in from Polish quarries to represent the villages, towns, and countries of the million men, women, and children who died there-all, except for a thousand gypsies, Jews.

    The stone railroad tracks stopped at the place where Ukrainian guards and SS men brandishing whips and guns ordered the Jews out of the cattle cars-men to the right, women and children to the left-and into the "undressing barracks." The men had only to take off their clothes and tie their shoes together, but the women had to have their hair cut off as well, before they were ready for disinfection in the "showers."

    We walked to the place where they had been herded, naked, in rows of five onto a narrow fenced-in path-the "Road to Heaven," as the Nazis called it-that led to the gas chambers. We stared at the black stones over the pit where bodies were burned on the huge iron "roasting racks."

    We passed a tall stone monument honoring the dead from Warsaw. The seventeen thousand rocks stood at attention like ghostly sentinels in that ghostly garden as we reached our destination, the one rock that bore a personal name:


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