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Janusz Korczak Biography
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Child of the Drawing Room

 

    He made his first moral decision at the age of five.
    Peering down at the courtyard around which his fashionable Warsaw building was wrapped like a fortress, Henryk Goldszmit confided to his maternal grandmother, the only one who understood him, his "bold scheme to remake the world." He would do away with all money, but how to do it and what to do next, he had no idea. The problem was perplexingly difficult, but the goal was clear. to fix things so that there would be no more dirty or hungry children like the janitor' s son and the gang down below with whom he was forbidden to play. "My little philosopher," said his grandmother, slipping him a raisin.

    He never knew the exact year he was born-July 22, 1878, or 1879 -because his father, Jozef Goldszmit, a prominent lawyer in Warsaw, delayed registering his birth. "I suffered a few difficult moments over that," Korczak was to write. "Mother called it gross negligence."

    Jozef may already have been showing signs of the instability that would eventually erupt into mental illness, or his procrastination may have been deliberate. Warsaw was then part of the Czarist empire (Poland having been partitioned over a century before by Austria, Prussia, and Russia), and many parents falsified their sons´ ages with the hope of postponing, even avoiding, their induction into the Czar´s army But though he hadn´t officially registered the birth of his first, and only, son, Jozef sent announcements to friends at home and abroad. He was extremely proud of a letter of blessing from the Chief Rabbi of Paris:
    "Your son will be a great man of Israel." Korczak kept the letter throughout his life, although he was aware that there had been little in his early behavior to give his father confidence that he was raising a great man.

    He was a dreamy child who could play for hours on his own. The large household was dominated by women: besides his mother, there were his younger sister and maternal grandmother, a cook, a maid, and a series of French governesses. Outside was a world where men had power, but in this elegant apartment of ornately carved chests and tables, plush sofas, and oriental rugs, "that stern regiment of women" held sway. In those days there were few places a child could play. Saxon Garden, in the heart of the city and not far from his home on Senatorska Street behind the National Theater, had no playgrounds with swings or soccer fields where a child could stretch his legs and work off his energy. Janitors took a broom to anyone who dared bounce a ball near their gates, and the police chased those children who made a sport of jumping on and off the red horse-drawn tramcars that clanged through the streets. Because it was considered bad manners for a child of good family to play in the courtyards, a sensitive, overprotected boy like Henryk could do nothing except sit indoors and "harbor secrets," or press his nose against the dining-room window and envy the janitor´ s son and the other roughnecks in the courtyard below.

    The boy heard repeatedly from his mother that poor children were dirty, used bad language, and had lice in their hair. They fought, threw stones, got their eyes poked out, and caught terrible diseases. But he saw nothing wrong with the janitor´s son and his friends. They ran about merrily all day, drank water from the well, and bought delicious candy from the hawkers whom he wasn´t allowed to go near. Their bad words were actually funny, and it was a hundred times more inviting to be down there with them than in that boring apartment with his French governess and his little sister Anna. "A child is someone who needs to move," he would write one day; to forbid this is "to strangle him, put a gag in his mouth, crush his will, burn his strength, leaving only the smell of smoke."

    "That boy has no ambition," his mother said when she saw him playing hide-and-seek with his sister's doll. She didn´t understand that while searching for the doll, he moved into dimensions beyond the narrow confines of his apartment. "The doll wasn't merely a doll, but the ransom in a crime, a hidden body which had to be tracked down. "

    "Children's games aren't frivolous," he would write. "Uncovering a secret, finding a hidden object, proving that there is nothing that cannot be found-that´s the whole point."

    His father flew into a rage, calling him "a clod, fool, or an idiot" when he saw him sitting for hours with his building blocks. He didn´t understand that Henryk was constructing the solitary towers that would appear in King Matt the First "and other books as a symbol of refuge for the orphaned and the lost. "Feelings that have no outlet become daydreams," he wrote. "And daydreams become the internal script of life. If we knew how to interpret them, we would find they come true. But not always in the way we expect."

    It was also considered bad manners for a child to hang around the kitchen, but sometimes when his parents were out Henryk would sneak in to ask the cook to tell him a story. This imaginative woman would set him up on a high stool by the table where she was working-as if he were "a human being and not a lapdog on a silk cushion."

    "So it is to be a fairy tale? Well, all right. What was I going to say? Oh, yes, it was like this. Just a moment, let me see. " She seemed to know he needed time to make himself comfortable before she started.
    "So she is going through the forest, " the cook might begin, as if continuing where she had left off before. "It is very dark, nothing can be seen, neither trees nor animals, not even a stone. It is pitch black. And she is so afraid. Well, she crosses herselfonce, and that helps a little. She makes the sign of the cross once more and goes on . . . "

    She knew when to pause to let him catch his breath, when to rush on. He never forgot the warmth of her style, the dramatic suspense, as natural to her as the rhythm of her fingers kneading the dough. He would always be grateful for her patience when he interrupted with a question, the respect she had for both the tale and the listener. it was she, he knew, who was responsible for the magical ingredients that went into his own talent as a storyteller.

    Not all of his experiences with the household staff were positive. One night when his parents had gone to the theater, Catherine, his French governess, had a visitor in the kitchen, a strange man with high boots. When Henryk started to cry that he wanted him to go away, his governess told him to apologize. The boy refused. "If you don´t, we´ll leave you here alone," the governess threatened. "I will turn out the light, and you'll be in the dark. An old beggar will come and grab you, and put you in a large bag."

    He stood there helplessly until his parents came home. "Why isn't my son sleeping?" his mother asked the governess. And then to him: "Were you crying? Your eyes are red."He shook his head no, and kissed her. The drawing room was another place that was off-limits to children. During the day the gauze curtains filtered out the rays of the sun but not the clip-clop sounds of the horse-drawn carriages passing over the cobblestone street below. Like all fashionable drawing rooms, it faced the front rather than the dark courtyard. Only at night when there were guests did the room come to life under the candlelit chandeliers.

    Sometimes Henryk was summoned to meet the guests and recite the Romantic ballad by Adam M ickiewicz that all good Polish children were required to memorize for such occasions: "The Return of Daddy." He would stand pale and awkward as he began: "Daddy is not coming back! Daddy is not coming back!" -becoming as he spoke the child who feared his father would be killed by bandits on his way home from a business trip. The father was eventually spared by the bandits, who were moved that a child was waiting for him. But little Henryk was never spared the "false smiles" of the men with prickly beards who blew cigar smoke in his face, and the strong perfume of the women who tried to draw him onto their laps. (Until he was reprimanded for it, he wiped his face thoroughly after each kiss.) He was embarrassed by the senseless ques- tions and hollow laughter: Whom did he resemble? Oh, he was such a big boy! Just look how he'd grown! Didn´t they know that children don´t want to be touched or kissed by strangers? Even his mother and father seemed like strangers at such moments.

    His father had already become unpredictable. He tweaked Henryk´s ears quite hard despite the most emphatic protests from the boy´s mother and grandmother. "If the child goes deaf, it´ll be your doing," his mother would say. Once, when the boy had an exciting piece of news, he ran into his father´s study and tugged at his sleeve. Jozef exploded at him for causing an inkblot on an important piece of paper. Yet at other times his father would act like a friend, especially during the Christmas season, when he would take Henryk and his sister to a Nativity play. His mother was always nervous when the children were out with Jozef Sometimes it seemed to the boy that his charming, mercurial father was as dangerous as the janitor´s son. He exuded a reckless male sense of freedom that was both exciting and terrifying.

    Something in Henryk knew that there was reason for his mother´s concern. "Mama was right to be reluctant about entrusting her children to the care of her husband," he would say when looking back on that time, "but just as rightly my sister and I would welcome such excursions with whoops of delight and remember fondly even the most strenuous and disastrous pleasures sought with an amazing intuition by that not particularly reliable pedagogue-my father."

    One year when he went with his father to a Nativity play in the long, overheated hall of an orphanage, his father agreed with "a mysterious, strange lady" that his son would see better ifhe sat with the other children in the front row. Already overwhelmed by the air of mystery in the packed house, the boy panicked at the thought of being separated from his father. He also remembered that he was always terrified when the Devil and Death came prancing out.
    He called out helplessly as he was being led away. "Daddy!" His father, not comprehending, replied only. "Go along, silly boy" On the way to his seat, he kept asking the woman whether Herod and the Devil would appear, but she was as unaware of his anguish as his father. "Wait and see, " was all she said. It was not by chance that the future educator would instruct teachers: "Don´t force surprises on children if they don´t want them."

    Preparations dragged on and on before the curtain went up, and the faint sounds and whispers coming from behind it set his nerves on edge. The lamps were smoking. The children pushed and shoved each other: "Move over! Take that hand away! Keep your legs to yourself! Don´t lean on me!" A bell rang, and then, after what seemed a very long time, it sounded again.

    Writing about the incident years later, Korczak could not recall if the Devil was red or black, but he knew that never before had he heard such a laugh or seen such leaps, such a pitchfork, such a very long tail. "I even suspected, which may well be true, that hell really does exist." Somehow, he managed to survive the experience and even felt a pang of regret when the lights went up, revealing an ordinary room in Warsaw filled with cigarette smoke that made him cough.

    He had his father's hand in his again, but could not remember if they stopped to have ice cream or chipped ice with pineapple juice. He did recall that he lost his scarf, and developed a low fever for which he was kept in bed for three days. His mother let his father know that he was not to bring ice cream home until spring, and admonished him sternly when he tried to approach his son´s bed on the third day: "Your hands are cold, don´t go near him!"

    Jozef withdrew meekly, but threw his son a "conspiratorial glance." The boy answered with a "cunning, knowing grin." At that moment, Korczak would write, father and son were as close as they would ever be:
    "I think we both felt that in the end it was we men who held the upper hand . . . We were the masters, but we had to give in for the sake of peace. "

    There was another event during the Christmas season that Henryk both looked forward to and dreaded-the Nativity puppet show that the unemployed construction workers from Miodowa Street brought around the neighborhood. His father always invited them in over his mother´s objections that they would track in mud. While the men made their way to the kitchen entrance, the maid rushed about hiding small valuables, convinced that these yearly visitors were the reason for two missing spoons.

    The "regiment of women" was always in a high state of agitation as the puppeteers set up their little wooden stage in the kitchen. He watched from the doorway. It was not Death or the Devil prancing about to the accompaniment of an accordion or barrel organ that he had been dreading all year, but rather that moment at the end of the performance when the curtains closed and an old man appeared from behind the set with a sack to take up a collection.

    The boy had already changed all the money he had into tiny two-penny coins as his father had instructed; trembling with excitement, he tossed them into the sack. But as usual, after peering inside, the old man said, "Not enough, young gentleman, not enough! A bit more!"

    He had scrimped all year to avoid this terrible confrontation, even refusing street beggars their expected allotment so that he´d have extra coins. But the old man was as insatiable as his sack was bottomless: "It managed to devour every last penny. I gave and gave, always trying to see if finally he'd say enough."
    It was never enough. The old man with the sack was teaching him "the hopelessness of defense against persistent requests and unbounded demands that are impossible to meet."

    Henryk did not know that the puppet shows and Nativity plays had religious as well as cultural significance. By stressing the ethical rather than the ritual part of their Jewish heritage, his parents had not yet made him aware of that "mysterious question of religion." It took the janitor´s son and the death of his canary to do that.

    The canary had been the boy´s closest friend, caged in as they both were, neither allowed to fly free. (The bird might perish from the cold outside, just as Henryk might perish from some terrible disease.) But one day he found the canary lying stiff on the bottom of the cage. He picked up the little body, put the beak in his mouth, and tried to breathe life into it. It was too late. His sister Anna helped him wrap the dead bird in cotton and put it into an empty candy box. There was no place to bury it except under the chestnut tree in the forbidden courtyard below. With great care he constructed a little wooden cross to put over the grave.

    "You can´t do that!" the maid told him. "It´s only a lowly bird, lower than man." When tears streamed down his face, she added,"It´s a sin to cry over it. "

    But Henryk was stubborn, even then. He marched down to the courtyard with his box, his sister tagging behind him, and began digging the little grave. Then the janitor´s son came along, took in the scene shrewdly, and objected to the cross for a different reason: the canary was Jewish. And, what was worse, so was Henryk.

    It was a moment of revelation he never forgot:
    "I, too, was a Jew, and he - a Pole, a Catholic. It was certain paradise for him, but as for me, even if I did not call him dirty names, and never failed to steal sugar for him from my house-I would end up when I died in a place which, though not hell, was nevertheless dark. And I was scared of the dark...

    " Death - Jew - Hell. A black Jewish paradise. Certainly plenty to think about."

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