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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Sad Mame

Life never giues more than partialliberation .
Achieuement can never be more than fragmentary.
-Educational Moments

 

    It was not only Stefan with whom Korczak parted that March of 1917, but also Walenty, who moved on with the field hospital. When his eyes recovered, Korczak asked for and was granted an assignment with a regiment in Kiev, a place he had been thinking about from the time he had taken a three-day furlough there two years before.

    Kiev, the ancient capital of the Ukraine, had not been part of Poland since the late seventeenth century, but it still had a large Polish colony. Arriving there the day before Christmas in 1915, Korczak had gone straight from the train with a letter of introduction to the founder of the first Polish gymnasium for girls, Waclawa Peretiakowicz. She had opened the door suspiciously, fearing it might be the police for her daughter, Janina. Instead she found a slight man in a Russian officer's uniform, whose jacket, she noted, was too long for him. He introduced himself as Henryk Goldszmit, but the two women soon discovered he was Janusz Korczak, the famous writer and educator.

    Madame Peretiakowicz was able to direct Korczak to Maryna Falska, a Polish woman, who had just become director of a Red Cross horne for sixty Polish boys evacuated from Warsaw before the Germans took the city. Korczak rushed over to Bogontowska Street, expecting to find a tenement in a poor area of town, and was astonished to arrive at a large dacha surrounded by trees on a slope overlooking the Dnieper River.

    Despite the placid setting, the interior was in total disarray. The boys, confused by their dislocation, had run rampant over everything, including their new directress. Overwhelmed by her own personal tragedies as well as those of her charges, Maryna Falska could hardly have guessed that the nimble military doctor who stepped unannounced into the orphanage that day would both change and anchor her life.

    A crisis was occurring even as he entered the house. A welfare officer had just arrived to remove a thirteen-year-old boy accused of stealing a watch. Asking for time to question the child and to do a little investigation on his own, Korczak soon proved the boy´s innocence. The children quieted down immediately, sensing an ally in this authoritative male stranger.

    In the two remaining days of that Christmas leave in 1915, Korczak managed to infuse the boys with enthusiasm for self government, a court ofpeers, and a handwritten newspaper for which he wrote the lead article.

    As the moment neared for him to return to his unit in Tarnopol, Maryna Falska, shy and private by nature, did not know how to express her gratitude other than to assure her new friend that she would carry on his work. Korczak, with his charm and humor, had been one of the few people ever to break through her formidable reserve.

    The Sad Madame, as some maliciously referred to Maryna, had inspired many rumors in the Polish émigré community, where everyone had some kind of complicated past but few veiled in such mystery. It was said that the loss of her husband a few years earlier accounted for the sorrow in the Sad Madame´s eyes, the severity of her tightly pressed thin lips, and her long black dresses.

    Born Maria Rogowska into a landed gentry family in Dubno Podlanskie in southeastern Poland on February 7, 1877 Maryna had studied to be a teacher before following her brothers into underground activities. Taking "Hilda" as an alias, she was frequently arrested for operating an illegal printing shop for the Polish Socialist party, and once shared a jail cell with Jozef Pilsudski, the future Marshal of free Poland.

    Maryna told no one how or when she met her husband, Leon Falski, a Polish doctor, but it is believed that it was in London, where they both had fled to escape arrest for their political activities. Upon their return to Poland, she concealed her pregnancy as long as she could. When Falski took his first medical post in the poor Lithuanian town of Volozhyn, famous for its century-old yeshiva, he enjoyed a busy medical practice that included Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews alike. He treated poor yeshiva students without charge, discussed philosophy with the rabbis, and hunted with the landowners. Yet when Maryna insisted they move to a city where she could be politically active, he agreed to relocate. While they were making plans, a typhus epidemic broke out. Maryna would suffer guilt for the rest of her life that she had inadvertently caused her husband´s death: she insisted he accompany an old woman who appeared at their door late one night seeking help for a sick relative. He contracted typhus from the patient, and died within a few days.

    Maryna´s sense of guilt, however, did not prevent her from boycotting her husband´s funeral. A staunch atheist who had broken with her devoutly Catholic mother over religious issues, she objected to a priest, rabbi, and minister officiating jointly at the burial in spite of her protests.

    While gentry, peasants and Jews turned out in an unprecedented show of unity to pay their respects to the revered doctor who had served them so selflessly, the widow and her two-year-old daughter remained at home behind closed shutters.

    Maryna left with her child for Moscow, where she had friends, but the severity of the winter and her inability to provide her daughter with adequate nourishment took their toll. Within two years, the child was dead. Unable to return to Warsaw because of the war, Maryna applied for a Red Cross job running an orphanage for homeless Polish boys in Kiev.

    When Korczak returned to the Red Cross Home in Kiev in 1917, two years after his first visit, he found Maryna operating it along the lines he had set down. She was as happy to see him as the boys were, and proudly showed him around the new workshops in shoemaking, tailoring, bookbinding, plumbing, and sewing. The orphanage now included several young girls who, like the boys, had become separated from their families, as well as a few women volunteers from the university.

    Korczak was to have little time to spend with Maryna and her orphans. Through the influence of a Polish intellectual who worked for the local Russian administration, he had been assigned as assistant pediatrician in three municipal shelters for Ukrainian children. Moving into a basement room, he often went hungry, like so many others in that beleaguered city. The markets had only kasha and leaden bread whose dough was often mixed with sand. Should Maryna Falska's children bring over a loaf of bread they had baked, he'd send it back rather than take any food from their mouths. Once, when he ate tripe at a cheap restaurant, he "cried his eyes out" because it reminded him of home.

    It was a difficult, lonely life, made even more frustrating by conditions in the Ukrainian shelters, which proved to be even worse than the "refuse bin" where he had encountered Stefan. The orphans were covered with ulcers and scabs; their eyes were infected; they were hungry. They were suffering from malnutrition and maltreatment. He did what he could, often sleeping over to comfort them with his presence. His indignant protests about the incompetent way the shelters were being run enraged the corrupt directors (who were no more qualified for the job than an "instructress of embroidery"). He saw himself as "saving the children". the directors saw him as threatening their authority. "The same revolver that was used to shoot sick horses was pointed at me as a warning that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Graft! Infamy! Human language has not invented terms strong enough to denounce the situation."

    Still, it was better to be in Kiev trying to rescue children than in the thick of battle with a field unit. And there was the comfort of the natural beauty of this "greenest of cities" with its old churches and palaces built on hills over the steep banks of the Dnieper. Parts of Kiev resembled Warsaw, especially the poor workers' district along the river that must have reminded Korczak ofhis beloved Vistula. The Jewish quarter, known as Podol, was teeming with Orthodox Jews with their sidelocks and long gaberdines, much like those who lived at the lower end of Krochmalna.

    Sometimes in his walks about the city he dropped in at the cafés filled with Polish and Jewish writers and intellectuals who had been drawn to Kiev by its Polish university, established after the 1905 revolution. There were people of every political persuasion gathered at the tables, including spies working for one side or another. The early German offensive in the Ukraine had driven hundreds ofthousands of Polish refugees eastward, many of whom had joined the revolutionaries and counter- revolutionaries who made up Kiev´s polyglot émigré community. Everyone was careful about voicing opinions because murders were an everyday affair, accepted without comment. One faction wanted Kiev to be the capital of an independent Ukraine, another to see the Ukraine merged with Russia, and still another to have it become part of Poland once again.

    Every day brought artillery bombardments and fights in the streets. Horsecarts filled with corpses were common sights. "Kiev-chaos," was how Korczak described it. "Yesterday the Bolsheviks. Today the Ukrainians. The Germans come nearer and nearer, and the whole of Russia is believed to be in turmoil."

    Through all the chaos he was still working on How to Love a Child "absolutely every day" When Madame Peretiakowicz asked him as a favor to evaluate the Montessori school that had just opened, he made time for that, too. It was an opportunity to learn about this Italian educator whose work teaching young children to read and write had already spread to the major European cities. Although they were never to meet, Janusz Korczak and Maria Montessori had much in common. Both were medical doctors who spoke of the child´s soul; both put great stress on the importance of the child´s early experiences; and both were influenced by Pestalozzi´s ideas about sense training-helping an individual child develop through the use of his hands, eyes, ears. But there the similarity ended. Montessori concentrated on her educational kit with its specific learning materials, while Korczak was primarily concerned with the social interaction of children.

    Korczak agreed to observe at the Montessori kindergarten in two - or three-hour intervals over the course of two days. He arrived with his own equipment: a pencil and paper. His plan was to use this opportunity to develop a note-taking technique for schools of education. The ability to record what one saw was, in his opinion, an essential skill for every teacher: "In notes are the seeds from which forests and cornfields grow, the drops which become springs. . . . Notes are the entries with which you draw up the balance sheet of life, and the documentary evidence that it has not been wasted."

    Scouting his "observation site" -a large room with a piano in the corner, six tables with four chairs each, a chest of toys, and Montessori blocks and kits-he was ready for action. Surely no intelligence agent in Kiev was taking notes as assiduously as this educator for whom the political scenario outside was nothing compared to the drama unfolding in there. Had his papers been seized by the police, they might have been suspected of being in code, formatted as they were like a script:

    THE CAST: The charming heroine, three-and-a-half-year-old Helcia, used to being admired for her intelligence and allure, has to match wits with several costars: Jurek, a three-year-old tyrant with a bad reputation, having once tried to take a whip to his mother. roguish five-year-old Hanna, who has her head screwed on right, knows exactly how far she can go; and six-year-old Nini, a typical child intriguer who defies characterization, prefers the company of younger children.

    SCENE ONE: What are they up to?
    Helcia: (looking at a picture) The dog has a red tongue. Why?

    Nini: Because it´s a dog.
    Helcia: Do dogs have red tongues-sometimes?

    Observer. I can understand that a child looking at the picture would examine the tail, ears, tongue, and teeth separately, details that an adult would pass over, although the same adult would give paintings in an art gallery similarly detailed attention. If we are constantly astonished at children´s perceptiveness -which means that we do not take them seriously- we are, in fact, astonished that they are human beings and not puppets.

    I take Helcia´s question about dogs. tongues to mean that she wants to converse on any subject with Nini, who, being older, is higher on the socialscale. The clue for me was the word sometimes inserted at random. In the same way, a simple person meeting someone of a higher socialclass will throw in an unrelated or farfetched word to prove he is not a fool.

    SCENE TWO: Jurek and Hanna are grabbing the blocks from Helcia. She pleads with them timidly because she knows that life is cruel, and she will not get through unscathed. Still, she does not want to run away. It is not the words she used that matter now, but the calm, utterly sad voice, the expression on her face, the posture. No actress could plead so convincingly for help, indulgence, and pity . . . And the words? So straightforward. "Please, Hanna, don´t take my blocks."
    Hanna -live knows nothing of compassion- grabs. Helcia hits her on the head with her last block. She fears retaliation. Note the dramatic force in her treble "Take it!" as she presses the block into Jurek´s hand. In just this way, a dying standard-bearer passes the colors to the nearest man in order to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy.

    Jurek, a passive witness of the scene, turns to me in a voice thick with emotion. He pleads for the girl deprived of her all, wronged-while he himself, holding the last block, is at a loss. In turning to me, he communicates to Helcia his understanding and support, and his condemnation of Hanna. Hanna understood. Hit on the head with the block, she only rubs the spot gently-no thought of retaliation. A sense of guilt-she gives back more than she took, and asks Jurek´s pardon.

    At the end of the first day, Korczak noted that "children are much richer in the realm of feeling, for they think with their emotions." Finding it impossible to record the children´s movements and gestures, he had taken down only words, "wonderful in their simplicity, gathering force by repetition." When Helcia handed the block to Jurek, she said "Take it" three times. Jurek pointed out twice that Helcia had nothing to build with, and Hanna also repeated that she had returned the blocks. "It seems to me that, in a highly dramatic situation, a writer or actor might achieve a more powerful effect by repetition than by a lengthy tirade."

    Stressing the importance of observing, rather than interfering in their play, Korczak was critical of himself for missing some essential details, such as how the block box suddenly appeared on Helcia´s desk. Furthermore, he felt that some of his comments, which were in the "style ofa theater review," lacked clarity: "When reading an essay on a play by Shakespeare or Sophocles, one has the advantage of knowing Hamlet or Antigone, but here the reader knows neither the leading lady-Helcia- nor the actual play."

    Somehow the plan for a note-taking technique never materialized, but Korczak did inadvertently happen on a teaching "formula" for himself -a technique of passing from a minor detail he had observed to a larger frame of reference which allowed him to illustrate a general problem. This and the manuscript for How to Love a Child were the booty that he brought back to Warsaw after the war.

    When, on January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson made a free and in- dependent Poland one of his fourteen points, the Poles who had taken refuge in Kiev were exhilarated. And in March, after the Brest Litovsk treaty between Russia and the Central Powers recognized Ukrainian independence, Korczak´s friends offered to help him obtain travel documents that would enable him to return to Warsaw. The papers came through in the late spring.

    As he said goodbye to Maryna and the boys, the twinkle in Korczak´s eyes, the lightness of his step showed everyone how much it meant to him to be going home. Korczak assured the children that they would be leaving soon. Madame Maryna, as they called her, was waiting for papers that would enable her to escort them back to Warsaw, where they would be reunited with their remaining relatives. She couldn´t be sure of her future, of what kind of work she could find in the city that had once been her home. But one thing was certain -there would be no lack of homeless children.

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