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Janusz Korczak Biography

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How to Love a Child


    The outbreak of the Great War put an end to the geranium plan. AllofWarsaw was in a state of chaos that August of 1914: refugees crowded into the city from outlying areas and people rushed to hoard food and supplies. The Orthodox Jews at the lower end of Krochmalna were certain that this was the final battle between Gog and Magog, after which the Messiah would come. Expressing a secular version of the same sentiment, Korczak hoped that a pure world would emerge from this conflict. He could not know when he was conscripted once again for medical duty with the Czar's imperial Army that it would be four long, bloody years before he would see either a new world or his orphans again.

    It was a tragic war for the Poles. Mobilized by all three occupying powers-800,000 in the Russian army, 400,000 in the Austrian, and 200,000 in the German-they were put in the intolerable position of fighting against each other. Even their leaders were divided as to which was the greatest enemy: Russia, Germany, or Austria. Those who joked cynically that the only way for Poland to be reunited would be for all three countries to be defeated did not really believe that this was exactly what would happen.

    Korczak rushed about as frantically as everyone else, trying to make arrangements for Stefa and the orphans while he was away. Izaak Eliasberg, also conscripted, would not be there to raise funds. Donations to the home had fallen off while the number of children needing care had increased. When the bank refused to give him more than two hundred and fifty of the five thousand rubles in his private account, Korczak sought out his publisher, Jakub Mortkowicz, for the hundred rubles he had left with him "for a rainy day" in happier times he had often joined Warsaw´s cultural elite in the room behind the bookstore in Mortkowicz´s office and had cappuccino and cream cake with them at the Zemianska, a popular literary caf‚ which shared the same courtyard on Mazowiecka Street.

    Mortkowicz, an assimilated Jew, attracted the finest writers to his firm because of his high standards in publishing. His wife, Janina (as talkative as her husband was taciturn), published Korczak´s stories in the children´s journal, In the Sunshtne, that she edited with Stefania Sempolowska It was a tightly connected literary world, and Mortkowicz, unlike the bank, did not hesitate to give his celebrated author the hundred rubles he needed. He even offered to look in on his mother during his absence.

    Korczak did not find it easy to say goodbye to the orphans. Until then, it had been they who left him when they were old enough to go out into the world. He had braced himself for those farewells, and turned his attention to the newcomers. But now he was the one leaving, and at a time when they needed him most.

    While Korczak reassured the orphans, Stefa reassured him, even though she felt overwhelmed at being left with complete responsibility for the children, whose numbers had swelled to one hundred and fifty. A few months before the outbreak of the war, she had fulfilled her dream of sending her beloved Esterka Weintraub to college in Belgium, and she would not consider Korczak´s suggestion that Esterka be asked to return. But before he left Warsaw, Korczak took it upon himself to write Esterka of his concern about Stefa. As he hoped, she interrupted her studies to rush back. She stayed at Stefa´s side for the next two years, working night and day under the difficult conditions of the German occupation, even carrying sick children on her back to the hospital. When she caught typhus and died during the epidemic of 1916, Stefa felt as if she had lost her own daughter. Crazed with grief, she even thought of giving up her work, but because there were so many children dependent on her, she forced herself to carry on. But never again would Stefa allow herself to become so deeply attached to any of the orphans.

    Korczak was assigned to a divisional field hospital on the Eastern front. This brutal war, through which he slogged in his heavy Russian uniform and high military boots as the armies of Russia and the Austro- Hungarian Empire swept back and forth across the defenseless villages of Eastern Europe, was to impress on him that men march to "a clock with only one hand-the sword." Not even men, but "an orgy of devils in intoxicated procession. " And for what?

    While camping overnight in a deserted village, he was riveted by the sight of a blind old Jew groping his way with his stick through the infantry unit's convoy ofhorses and wagons. The man>>s family and friends had tried to persuade him to leave with them, but he had insisted on remaining behind to watch over the synagogue and cemetery. (Twenty- five years later, when Korczak chose to remain in the Warsaw Ghetto with his orphans, he would liken himself to that blind old Jew.)

    Yet he tried to see everything in universal terms. "It is not only the Jews who suffer," he wrote. "All the world is submerged in blood and fire, in tears and mourning. And suffering does not make men noble, not even the Jews."

    Perhaps to keep himself from falling into despair as the field hospital moved back and forth with the troops across the battlefields of Eastern Europe, he began writing the book which would become How to Love a Child. It was to be no less than the " synthesis of the child" he had dreamed of during his half year in Paris, distilled from his experiences as a pediatrician, camp counselor, and educator. He wrote in the field station to the deafening cacophony of artillery fire, on a tree stump in a forest where the troops were resting, in a meadow under a pine tree. Everything seemed important-he was constantly pausing to jot things down so that he wouldn´t forget. "It would be an irretrievable loss to mankind, " he would jest ironically to his orderly.

    The orderly, whom we know only as Walenty, was given the task of typing each day´s segment. He must have been a long-suffering aide: typing a manuscript on child development is not the usual military assignment. He rebelled only once during a brief respite in their schedule: Korczak quotes him fondly as grumbling, "Is it worth it for just a half hour?" There were times when Korczak would be forced to interrupt his work on the book for as long as a month. During those periods, he would be filled with self-doubt. Why make a fool of himself ? "That which is wise is known to a hundred men."

    How to Love a Child was originally to be only a short pamphlet for parents and teachers, but perhaps because it was a long war the manuscript grew to hundreds of pages. One of its main theses is that you cannot possibly love a child-your own, or another´s -until you see him as a separate being with the inalienable right to grow into the person he was meant to be. You cannot even understand a child until you achieve self- knowledge: "You yourself are the child whom you must learn to know, rear, and above all, enlighten."

    Because he was an artist by temperament and not a theorist, Korczak did not produce a systematic tract, but rather images of the child in each fleeting time frame of its development. Feigning modesty, he admits that to most questions the reader may have, he can only answer "I don´t know." (But he adds slyly that this seemingly empty phrase contains limitless possibilities of "new breakthroughs.")

    "It is impossible to tell parents unknown to me how to rear a child also unknown to me under conditions unknown to me," he writes. The mother must learn to trust her own perceptions; no one can know her child as she does: "To demand that others should provide you textbook prognoses is like asking a strange woman to give birth to your baby. There are insights that can be born only of your own pain, and they are the most precious."

    Korczak, the artist, speaks mystically, comparing the child to a piece of parchment covered with hieroglyphs, only some of which the parents will ever be able to decipher: "Seek in that stranger who is your child the undiscovered part of yourself," The pediatrician urges common sense, warning that a baby´s development cannot be measured like other things in society. "When is the proper time for a child to start walking and talking? When he does. When should his teeth start cutting? When they do. How many hours should a baby sleep? As long as it needs to."

    Behind all of Korczak"s assertions are the honed reflections of a child psychologist who was one of the first of his time to recognize the importance of infancy in human development. While Freud was still gathering information on childhood from his adult patients, Korczak already understood the necessity for direct observation of the baby. "Napoleon suffered from tetanus, Bismarck had rickets, each was an infant before he became a man. Ifwe wish to probe the source ofthought, emotions, and ambition, we must turn to the infant."

    He found in the infant a "well-defined personality composed of innate temperament, strength, and intellect." Bending over a hundred cribs, he could pick out the "trusting and suspicious, the steady and capricious, the cheerful and gloomy, the wavering, the frightened, and the hostile." But though their temperaments might be different, each was attempting to prevail over unknown powers, to probe the secret of the mysterious world which was delivering both good and bad messages. "The infant runs its affairs within the scope of its available knowledge and meansboth of which are meager. . . . It does not know yet that the breast, the face, and the hands comprise a unit-the mother."

    The mother has only to observe her infant selflessly to receive its message, for what is its intense gaze if not one of inquiry? The baby may not have mastered words yet, but it speaks in "the language of facial expressions, the language of images and emotional recollections." Its every new movement is "like that of a pianist for whom the proper frame of mind and absolute self-control are essential to be able to play." The child emerges as both the benefactor and the victim of its mother´s love, with the author intervening like a guardian angel on its behalf He is equally wary of teachers, whom he consoles one moment-"You will always make mistakes because you are a human being, not a machine" -and chastises the next- "Children love laughter, movement, playing tricks. Teacher, if life is a graveyard to you, leave the children free to see it as a pasture." It was one thing to write about how to love a child and another not to have a child to love. When, in February 1917 the field hospital dug in for an indefinite stay on a hill overlooking the town of Tarnopol in Galicia, Korczak was particularly vulnerable. it was almost three years since he had left his orphans in Warsaw, and six months since a short, crumpled letter had somehow got through "the tight ring of bayonets, censors, and spies." At night, when he was finished with his duties, he would sit outside the hospital and watch as one by one the lights went out in the town below. A feeling of homesickness would overwhelm him as he remembered lights-out at the orphanage and the deep silence that fell over everything.

    As soon as he had a few free hours, Korczak visited a shelter for homeless children set up in Tarnopol by the municipal authorities. He was shocked by the conditions there. Rather than serving as sanctuaries´ places like this were "dustbins into which children were cast as the refuse of war, the waste products of dysentery, typhoid fever, or cholera that had destroyed their parents-or rather their mothers. Their fathers were off fighting for a better world."

    How did he happen to notice Stefan? Perhaps the boy was standing apart from the others. Perhaps their eyes met in an unexpected glance of sympathy. Soon they were deep in conversation. When Stefan mentioned that he would like to learn a craft of some kind, Korczak told him about the carpentry shop in his hospital compound. No sooner had he asked the boy if he would like to come along with him, to learn carpentry and how to read, than he regretted it. He had violated his own dictum that one should never spring anything suddenly on a child. "Not today. I'll come for you on Monday," he quickly added. " Ask your brother about it. Think it over." As if there was much for a displaced boy like Stefan Zagrodnik to think over-it was Korczak who had some thinking to do.

    As he had noted in his journal, he was used to working with children in groups of one hundred. His every word influenced a hundred minds, his every step was watched by a hundred pair of vigilant eyes. if he failed with some, there were always a few he had reached. He never had to fear "utter defeat." He used to say that working with only one child was a game not worth the candle; he spoke contemptuously of teachers who left group projects to work privately, dismissing them as being in it only for the money or for better personal conditions. But now he was about to offer "the hours, the days, and the months" of his life to one child. Stefan was waiting eagerly when Korczak came with Walenty and a sledge to pick him up that Monday night. The orderly had been disgruntled from the moment he heard about the plan. First he had had to take on typing manuscripts, and now he was expected to cook and clean for some vagrant Ukrainian boy. To add insult to injury, Stefan was hardly in Walenty' s company two minutes before he was calling him by his first name. But Stefan was aware only of his first moonlit ride through the snow as they passed the church, the railway station, carriages and trucks, and the bridge on their way to the field hospital.

    Korczak asked little of the boy the first few days´ although he made a mental note to have him address Walenty respectfully. He knew from similar incidents at the Warsaw orphanage that the janitor, cook, and washerwoman resented it when the children didn´t give "a handle" to their names. But he wanted Stefan to have a chance to feel his way around, test the situation, develop some trust. Stefan's mother had died when he was seven. He couldn´t even remember her name-only that blood came out of her mouth when she coughed and that she didn´t come back from the hospital. As for his father, he might have been killed in action by now-or he might still be at the front, or in a POW camp. For a while Stefan had lived with his seventeen- year-old brother in Tarnopol, and then with some soldiers until he was taken off to the municipal shelter where Korczak found him.

    At first, it looked as ifWalenty were right about his misgivings. Stefan was there only a day when he had a terrible stomachache, brought on by the combination of cold sausage from the soldiers' canteen and the jam cakes and candies he had bought with the fifty kopecks his brother gave him as a send-off.

    In the orphanage, sickness often meant extra trouble and could cause tension in the house, but Korczak noted that Stefan's discomfort drew them together, as it does a family. He propped the boy up in bed like the king ofthe roost. To enable Stefan to do his writing exercises, Korczak carefully secured the inkpot in an old can that Walenty had previously converted into an ashtray. Then, balancing the can in a large box that he emptied for this purpose, he put a supporting pillow on one side and another box on the other side. As Stefan thanked him with a smile, it occurred to Korczak that a boarding home could not afford such a luxury. He also realized that when he was with a large group of children, a smile was too subtle a signal to notice. Only now did he see it as an important signal deserving study.

    Korczak held to his pedagogic intent to teach Stefan to read, re- cording each day>> s progress in minute detail. it was as if initiating Stefan into the intricacies of Polish grammar would restore the universe to both of them. As Stefan tried to correct his own sentences>> without quite knowing how to get them right, Korczak was struck with the thought that a child is endowed with a "rammatical conscience" that may be hindered by the teacher´s complex explanations: The child´s mind-a forest in which the tops oftrees gently sway, the branches mingle, and the shivering leaves touch. Sometimes a tree grazes its neighbor and receives the vibrations of a hundred or a thousand trees-of the whole forest. Whenever any of us says "-right-wrong-pay attention-do it again," it is like a gust of wind that plays havoc with the child.

    Stefan stumbled along awkwardly the first week, but then it was as if he felt the "vibrations." He glided over the book as smoothly as he tobogganed outdoors, negotiating the obstacles with a determination that he had not shown before. He had managed to "transfer the risk of sport to learning." Yet the boy was sly-he knew how to manipulate his mentor. He tried to cheat at checkers, to avoid some of his lessons. He took a cannon shell to the workshop without asking permission and resorted to lying when questioned about it.

    The pedagogue was as defenseless as any father. He had to be on is bound to creep in. One must fight back, work toward maintaining authority, by demonstration, without scolding ofany kind." As ifto further convince himself, he added:
    "Children like a certain amount of coercion. it helps them to fight their own inner resistance. it spares them the intellectual effort of having to make a choice."
    S tefan worked in the carpentry shop while Korczak made his rounds among the two hundred and seventeen patients in the wards, some of them suffering from contagious diseases, others fresh casualties from the front. When Korczak dropped by the carpentry shop, the instructor praised the boy, saying he was hardworking. But it was painful for Korczak to watch Stefan struggling to saw a wobbly plank. He had to force himself not to warn the boy to be careful of his fingers. Already his admonitions- "Don´t go out barefoot!"
    "Don´t drink unboiled water!"
    "Aren´t you cold?"
    " Are you sure you don´t have a stomachache?"
    -were making him sound like those overanxious mothers he had ridiculed in his books.

    Even Walenty (who still muttered about all the trouble and that no good would come of all this) was growing protective of Stefan. He went outside more than once to call the boy in from tobogganing when he was late for his evening lesson-"as in a family."

    Korczak hoped that Stefan would see the child in the man who sided with him, but he knew that the boy saw a balding thirty-nine-year-old medical officer who, in his eyes, was old. Yet Stefan admired him. "I´d like to write the letter K like you do," he said. It reminded Korczak of how the orphans used to copy the way he wrote the letters of the alphabet. And of how long it had taken him to master writing the capital W like his father.

    Trying to follow the logic ofmany ofStefan"s questions forced Korczak to consider how differently children perceive things from adults. When Stefan asked:
    "What is a poppy seed made of?"
    "Why is it black? "
    "Can you get enough poppy seeds from one garden to fill a plate?"
    Korczak realized that the boy´s conception of a garden covered four, perhaps five, ideas, while his own covered a hundred, even a thousand.
    "The roots of many seemingly illogical questions asked by children are to be found here, " he noted.
    "We have difficulty finding a common language with children because even though they use the same words we do, they fill them with an entirely different content. >Garden,<, >father<, >death< mean something different to Stefan than to me." He concluded that adults and children only pretend to understand each other.

    It was evening. Stefan had said his prayers and "pecked a kiss" on Korczak´s hand-a Polish custom that Korczak didn´t approve of in his orphanage, but allowed now because he knew it reminded the boy of a family ritual. Stefan lay quietly, his eyes wide open.

    "Tell me, please, is it true that if you shave, hair won´t grow again?" Korczak knew the boy didn´t want to offend him by making a direct reference to his bald head.
    "It´s not true. One shaves the chin and hair still grows."
    "Some soldiers have beards reaching right down to their waists -like the Jews, " Stefan continued. "Why?"
    "It´s a custom," Korczak explained. "On the other hand, Englishmen are clean-shaven."
    "Is it true that there are a lot of Jews among the Germans?"
    "There are some. There are also Russian Jews and Polish Jews."
    "What do you mean, Polish Jews? Are the Poles Jews?"
    "No, the Poles are Catholics," Korczak replied. <<"But if anyone speaks Polish, desires the well-being of the Polish people, wishes them well, then he is also a Pole."

    It was the belief, relayed to him by his own family, that he had passed on to his orphans in Warsaw. As Stefan lay with his eyes open, still wide awake, Korczak was reminded that bedtime evoked reminiscences and quiet reflection in the orphanage, too.
    "How old is your father?" he asked Stefan. "He was forty-two. Now he´s forty-five."
    "Your father might not know you, you´ve grown so much. "
    "I don´t know if I would know him."
    "Haven´t you got a photograph?"
    "Where would I get one from?" Another silence. " A lot of the soldiers look like him." On their seventh day together, supper was delayed because Walenty was on duty in the mess hall. This made Korczak late to his card game in another billet and he was still in a bad mood when he returned at midnight. Switching on the light, he was startled to discover that Stefan was not there. He rushed outside and saw the boy running toward him.

    ´Where have you been?"
    "In the kitchen. I was watching from the window there to see when you´d be finished. Then I looked up, and you were gone. I ran to catch up with you."
    "Were you afraid?"
    "What would I be afraid of?"
    Realizing that it was not fear but affection that had motivated Stefan, Korczak was filled with "overwhelming gratitude to the lad." He tried to analyze the strange hold the boy had over him:

    "There is nothing special about him, nothing to attract attention. An ordinary face, uncoordinated body, average mind, little imagination, ab- solute lack of tenderness-nothing of what makes children adorable. But it is nature, its eternal laws, God, speaking through this unspectacular child just as through any scrub bush growing by the roadside. Thank you, for being just as you are- just ordinary"

    "My son," he added with tenderness. "How can I ever thank you?"
    On the eighth day, he was standing by the stove thinking about that day´s lesson when Stefan, who was already in bed, said: "You promised me something."
    "What was it?"
    " A fairy tale."
    It was the first time the boy had actually requested a story.
    "Should I tell you a new one?"
    "No, I want the one about Aladdin."
    Korczak noted that of the three fairy tales he had been told -"Cinderella," "Puss in Boots," and "Aladdin"- Stefan had chosen the one that seemed closest to his own life at that time: " A wizard comes to a poor boy and changes his fortunes by means of a wonderful lamp. Here an unknown doctor (officer) suddenly appears and rescues him from the institution. in the tale, slaves carry succulent dishes on plates of gold- here, Walenty carries in the buns."

    On the eleventh day, Stefan said: "I never think about my brother now'" "A pity," Korczak replied. "You should think of your father and brother." That night he jotted in his notebook: "This wicked war." Their situation might have gone on indefinitely had Korczak´s right eye not become inflamed. At first he ignored it, but Stefan prodded him to go to the eye clinic. When he came back with blue lenses, Stefan asked in a hushed voice: "Does it hurt much?"

    Stefan wept when his genie was taken to the hospital because of the eye infection. Determined to maintain a professional distance, rather than believe the boy was genuinely concerned, Korczak noted: "I assume he is reminded of his family-someone who goes to the hospital dies."

    Stefan came to visit with Walenty. "Tell me, are those other officers ill, too?"
    "No, various complaints."
    " And are they playing cards for money?"

    When Korczak decided to work with one child, he asked his journal:
    "What will it amount to?" -a question he never attempted to answer. His warm feelings for Stefan (and for all of the mischievous boys he favored at the orphanage) may seem as suspect to the Freudian-oriented reader as Lewis Carroll´s for Alice Liddell, or James Barrie´s for the Llewellyn Davies boys who inspired Peter Pan. The intimacy of being with Stefan in close quarters might have reminded Korczak of himself as a child -as some of his reflections suggest- or brought out paternalistic longings for the child he had decided never to have, or revealed an actual attraction to young boys which he kept repressed all of his life. Or possibly included elements of all three. In any case, he recorded their experience together as a pedagogical experiment: "I found that observing one child provides as much harassment and satisfaction as observing a large number. One can see in a single child much more, one can feel things more subtly, consider every fact more thoroughly. A weary educator of a group has the right, even the duty, to apply this kind of 'crop rotation' in his work." He concluded the piece with the brief statement:
    "I spent only two weeks with him. I fell sick and had to leave, but the boy stayed on for some time. Then the battlefront began to move-my orderly sent him back to the institution."

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