Janusz Korczak Biography
IndependencePoland-not just fields, coal mines, forests, or munitions factories
but-above all-her children.
His pale elongated face was set off by a fringe of reddish whiskers which ended in a neat mustache and goatee. His bloodshot eyes, not yet completely healed, were still filled with irony. He was still her Henryk.
The Germans had not yet left Warsaw, but it was only a matter of months before the Armistice would be declared and the occupying troops sent home in defeat. The orphans at 92 Krochmalna could not sleep the night before Korczak was to return to them, even those who had only the dimmest memory of him, or none at all. That morning they lined up with Stefa and the teachers in the courtyard to await the arrival of both Korczak and Dr. Eliasberg, the president of the Orphans Aid Society, who had also just returned from the Eastern front. When they saw the two men enter- one tall with dark hair and mustache, and the other slight, bald, with a reddish mustache and goatee-many of the orphans were not sure who was who. Not until the second man peered at them mischievously over his spectacles could they be certain he was Korczak. With whoops of glee, they started toward him.
"How they ran to me>> crowded around me upon my return from the war," he reported in his journal. And with the sly, self-deprecating humor of a man who knows children, he added: "But would they not have been eVen more delighted if white mice or guinea pigs had suddenly appeared in my place?" Hardly able to restrain his emotions, he held them, swung them, tickled them, patted them, bantered with them.
We have no record of how he greeted Stefa as she stood there in her familiar black dress with its white collar and cuffs, her short hair brushed to one side. By sheer force of will, Stefa had managed to get the children through those long, hard years of hunger, typhus, and general misery, and now she had the home ready for him as if it were only yesterday that he had set off That night, the four Eliasberg daughters rushed to the door to greet the special friend whose bald head they had decorated with colored pencils before the war. They may have changed outwardly in those four years- Helena was now eighteen, Irena sixteen, Anna thirteen, and Marta nine- but inwardly their feelings toward Korczak had remained the same. Expecting that he would sweep them up into his arms in his old playful way when he entered the hallway, the two oldest girls, Helena and Irena, were shocked when he addressed them formally as Miss, with a casual handshake, and paid little attention to them for the rest of the evening. "We didn't interest him anymore," Helena would recall. They were no longer children. The sisters wept that night.
On November 11, 1918, the orphans, together with all their neighbors, hung out red-and-white Polish flags in honor ofindependence. They listened as Korczak told the most magical of his tales: after 120 years of subjugation, their country was free again, and Jozef Pilsudski, the tireless patriot who had been working for independence all his life, was the new head of state.
Knowing that some parents would not bother to explain all that was happening to their children, Korczak began writing a column, "What's Going On in the World?" for In the Sunshine. He wanted children to understand what independence meant, how their country had been gob- bled up by three greedy neighbors, what was being decided at the Peace Conference in Paris, how elections were held and a parliament formed. He brought world politics down to size: "It is nice to have your own drawer or closet, for then it is absolutely your own, and a place where no one else has the right to poke without your permission. It is nice to have your own garden plot, your own room, and a house where you live with your family, and where no one bothers you. But, unfortunately, someone stronger passes by, and enters, and takes away your things, and des the room, and will not listen to you."
It was the firstjournalism ofits kind for children. The column became so popular that educators soon were reading it to learn how to explain current events creatively to their young students. But no one knew better than Korczak that he couldn"t give children all the answers to what was occurring, because putting Poland together again was not unlike trying to reassemble Humpty Dumpty Just as the Poles bad struggled for independence for more than a century, they now had to struggle with it.
Not only had their country been ravaged by the war-the industrial plants were in ruins, half the fields lay uncultivated, inflation was even worse than during the war-but it was left severely fragmented by its former partitions. There were four different legal systems, six different currencies, and three different railroads whose separate tracks symbolized the connections that had still to be made ifthe country was to be truly united.
Only the joy of belonging to themselves again kept the Poles from sinking into despair over the massive rebuilding that lay ahead. Hunger and cold stared at Korczak from every corner of the orphanage. No one would give him credit, and there was no money. American relief programs, which distributed Hoover care packages, rice, flour, and cotton fabric, were keeping institutions like his afloat. But they were not enough.
And then a miracle. Winter had done no more than "place one cautious foot" on their doorstep when the miners" union from the colliery-"God bless their dirty hands and crystal-clear souls" -donated a whole train car filled with coal. This generosity-"enough to move a stone to tears" -was especially touching when he realized how poor the miners were themselves. Suddenly he felt rich: coal, because of its scarcity, was regarded as "black gold." The only obstacle was that it had to be carted away from the train station at once, and he had no means oftransportation. More miracles. Everyone in the neighborhood became involved.
Horse-drawn wagons sprang out of nowhere>> and the coal began to find its way into their empty basement. Children carted it off in wheelbarrows, baskets, and buckets. Even the littlest ones carried lumps "as large as their heads."
The baker down the street, hearing of their good fortune, sent over fresh bread that could be paid for with the "black gold." One of the orphans, whose legs were deformed by rickets, ate almost half a loaf himself while carrying the "precious cargo," covering the rest of it with coal dust. He raced back to the train station shouting, "I can carry a hundred baskets now!" There were no more baskets, and he was not strong enough to carry a bucket, so Korczak gave him the only empty container in sight-a chamber pot. As he watched the boy stumbling along gaily, Korczak made a mental note to get cod-liver oil somehow and straighten out those legs.
Shortly after Maryna Falska returned to Warsaw in early 1919, the Minister of Education asked Korczak to set up an orphanage for the children of Polish workers in the small town of Pruszkow, about fifteen miles to the south. He immediately thought of Maryna as the perfect director for it, and she didn't hesitate to accept the challenge of running another institution like the one in Kiev, modeled on his ideas.
They managed to find a small three-story apartment building near a government school in Pruszkow, but there wasn't enough money to furnish, let alone buy it-nor was there a sympathetic philanthropic group like the Orphans Aid Society that supported the Krochmalna Street home. Together they hit upon the ingenious plan of seeking help from the trade unions, many of whose members, killed in the war, had left orphaned children behind. The workers were so enthusiastic about the project that they not only filled the slotted donation cans supplied to every shop and factory but chose the first fifty children to enter the orphanage. They also took charge of furnishing the home: one knew where the orphanage could borrow beds; another had access to tables and chairs; still a third, to kitchen equipment. A few even queued up for bread and potatoes and managed to find surplus flour.
The children moved into the orphanage one crisp November day that year. Our Home, as it was called, was cramped compared to the orphanage on Krochmalna, its rooms so tiny that there was not even space to walk around the beds in the dormitories, yet the children had never seen anything so grand. Never having had running water, they didn't miss it, and they took great pride in their one wooden toilet on the first floor, not knowing that it was supposed to flush. The small bathroom was better than the foul-smelling outhouses they were used to, and cleaning it was worth extra work points.
In spite of the unions' help, it was hard to put food on the table. Maryna tried to keep small squares of bread in a bowl in the kitchen for snacks; one boy kissed the bread each time he took a piece. Country people brought sacks of potatoes, but never enough. Much of Maryna's energy was consumed finding coal and potatoes at a price they could afford. "We didn't have a savings account yet," she would write later. "Not even money for toys, or colored paper to make them with. " But Maryna Falska was indefatigable. Her years in Kiev had taught her how to deal with contractors and haggle with workmen over such necessary services as window repairs. She went personally to each shop to ask for inexpensive food, and carried the sacks home on her back She dressed the children in old clothes sent from America.
Even if the Pruszkow home had room for an extra bed-and it didn't- Korczak would not have had time to stay overnight. Besides attending to his children on Krochmalna, he was busy advising welfare groups on how to set up new institutions for the thousands of war orphans roaming the streets.
He was also writing cautionary newspaper articles for adults in the Polish Gazette. Poland was free, but the skeptical doctor had seen too much suffering and bloodshed by now not to feel some anxiety about the future. The November 11 armistice had brought peace but not an end to the fighting. With chaos prevailing in the eastern regions after the collapse of the partitioning powers, the Jews frequently fell prey to riots, massacres, and even pogrom s by some units of the Polish Army-e#specially those under General Haller-and armed civilian gangs. And while the Allies at Versailles debated Poland's demand that she return to the map of Europe in her ample pre-partition shape, Jozef Pilsudski was trying to contend with History in his own way There were border clashes with the Soviets in the east, with the Ukrainians in Galicia, as well as with the Czechs and the Germans over territorial rights. Could human nature be trusted to make the world better? Korczak wondered. He had warned his readers to make lasting peace one of their national goals.
"History may be the Ruler of Nations, but she is a dishonest teacher, a bad educator, who only pretends to be orderly and making progress, " he began one article. "You have to rule History rather than let her rule you; otherwise, there will be more of the same-wars and violence. The sword, poison gas, and the Devil knows what else they'll think up. For there' s no trick to drawing blood-drill a little hole, and it flows by itself. Any scribbler can draw a whole basinful. It's not even enough to write articles-one has to build, to plow, to reforest; one must, my dears, feed the orphans, educate them; one must . . . need I go on!"
Of course, he did go on, because he still hadn't come to his main point: whatever it was that Polish citizens still wanted, whether a seaport or a different border, they had to learn to settle disputes by lawful means. "We are responsible to the children for the wars that have been and will be, and that tens of thousands of them have died in this past one. And so it isn't time yet to celebrate the Feast of Spring. It is still All Soul's Day-the Day of the Martyred Child."
"Remember," he warned them, "Poland is not being built for only twenty years. "
Having called for national conscription in March of 1919, Marshal Pilsudski was building up his armed forces in earnest. Convinced that Poland, sandwiched as she was between Russia and Germany, had to be strong, he was bent on setting up a federated Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, allied with the Ukraine and other small nations. This plan was threatened when the Soviets took advantage of the turmoil in Eastern Europe to absorb new territories into their Communist empire. In April, Pilsudski sent his troops to recapture Vilna, his beloved native city and the ancient capital of Lithuania, from the Soviets. Meeting little resistance, the Polish Army continued eastward, taking Minsk and other large cities during the summer of1919, intensifying what would become known as the Polish-Soviet War.
Toward the end of the year, Korczak received orders to serve as a reserve major in the new Polish Army. Again he had to make a round of goodbyes, but at least this time he didn't have to travel further than a military hospital for infectious diseases in Lodz, a manufacturing town to the southwest of Warsaw. After a short period, he was transferred to a similar institution in Warsaw.
Whenever he left the infectious ward for his own quarters or to visit his mother and the orphans, Korczak scrupulously washed up and changed his clothes. But late one afternoon, after yielding to the pressures of members of the family of a sick lieutenant who insisted they had been unfairly quarantined along with the patient, he signed release papers for them and did not take the precaution of washing.
Not long afterward, Korczak woke up seeing double. He looked at the table-two tables. Two lamps, two desk chairs. He was drenched with perspiration. His body burned with fever. His head was pounding. He knew the symptoms-typhus. The lieutenant's family must have been infected after all. Korczak's mother insisted that he stay with her so that she could nurse him. For days he was delirious, unaware that his mother had caught his typhus. She died before he regained his senses. Her last words were a request that her body be carried out the back door so that her son would not be disturbed.
When Korczak learned that his mother was dead, he was almost mad with grief. He felt he had killed her. Not deliberately, but through carelessness. His father had been right-he was "a fool and a clod." Only this time his mother was the innocent victim. Havelock Ellis, whose mother died from scarlet fever in similar circumstances, was able to rationalize to himself: "She could never have chosen a happier way to go, in harness as she wished, nursing her own child." But though the same could have been said of Korczak's mother>> he found no such solace. After his father's death, he had felt suicidal, and now once again he considered this solution. "When my sister returned from Paris, I suggested to her that we should commit suicide together," he would write. "I could find no place for myself in the world or in life."
His sister seems to have been less than enthusiastic about the idea. "The plan did not materialize because of differences of opinion" was Korczak's sardonic explanation. But he began a lifelong practice ofkeeping mercuric chloride and morphine pills in the back of his drawer, taking them out only when he visited his mother's grave (which was situated in a remote area of the Jewish cemetery allocated for typhus victims). It is possible that he swallowed some of the pills during one of those early visits. "There is nothing more loathsome than an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, " he wrote. "This sort of plan should be fully worked out so as to insure certainty of success." And with a gallows humor that has the ring of authenticity, he concluded: "Having once tried the delights and joys of committing suicide, a man lives to an advanced old age without the temptation to try again."
While he was feverish with typhus, he had had a "vision." He was giving a speech about war and hunger, orphans and misery, somewhere in America, with an interpreter rapidly translating his Polish into English. Suddenly his voice broke. There was silence. From deep in the hall, a cry was heard. Regina, an orphan who had married and come to America, was running toward him. She halted in front of the dais, throwing her watch onto the platform, as she cried out: "For you-everything!" There followed a shower of banknotes, gold, and silver. People began tossing their rings, bracelets, necklaces. Boys from the Orphans Home ran onto the stage and stuffed everything into mattresses. The audience, deeply moved, cheered, applauded, wept.
Hovering close to death, Korczak was still intent on bringing his
orphans "unlimited material wealth." Even then, he knew that he was
not free to commit suicide as long as there were children who needed
These "daydreams"which Korczak would work on when in stress before falling asleep were like stories in process. When he was most powerless, they gave him power. In one, he had found the magic word, and was the Ruler of Light. But lest taking on such authority was a form of hubris, he would fall asleep agonizing: "Why me? There are others younger, wiser, more suitable for this mission. Let me remain with the children. I am not a sociologist. I'll mess everything up, disgrace both the enterprise and myself."
When even the daydreams didn't work, he turned to God. He had never been an observant Jew, but he had always been a man of faith. The God that Korczak believed in, like Spinoza' s, was a free spirit, a mystical force that flowed through the universe. "it does not surprise me that God has no beginning and no end, because I see Him as unending Harmony", he had once written. "The stars, the very universe, inform me about the existence of the Creator, not the priest. I have found my own kind of faith: there is a God. The human mind cannot know what He is like.
Behave decently, and do good. Pray, not to ask things of God but so as not to forget Him, because one should see Him everywhere." Now, in his grief, Korczak felt abandoned by this God he had trusted. Unable to grasp the meaning of his mother' s death, or why she had to die rather than him, he composed a book of prayers, Alone with God: Prayers for Those who Don't Pray >> in which he poured out his sorrow and sense of abandonment. As Martin Buber has pointed out, people who talk with God in this intimate way are very close to Him.
There are eighteen prayers in all, many written for others in need.
A new mother asks God not to take away the baby He has given her; a
boy bargains with God -"I'll pray if you make my father give me a bicycle
"To My Beloved Mama and Papa: We have parted for a moment in order to meet again . . . From the stones of your anguish and pain and those of our ancestors, I want to raise a high tower to shelter others. Thank you for teaching me to hear the whispers of the dead and the living. Thank you for helping me learn the secret of life in the beautiful hour of death."
Poland was in desperate need of a special prayer in the summer of 1920 when the Russians went on the offensive in the Polish-Soviet war. Forced to evacuate Kiev, which it had taken in May, the Polish Army was pursued by the notorious General Mikhail Tukhachevsky back across its own borders right up to the suburbs of W arsaw. It looked to all the world as if Poland was doomed. However, Jozef Pilsudski, who until then had led a charmed life- surviving Siberia, escaping from Imperial Russian insane asylums and prisons, and even pulling off a daring raid on the Czar's train, relieving it of its cache of gold and silver-had a few more lives left. When the Bolsheviks were at the gates of Warsaw on August 16, 1920, Pilsudski outwitted them by severing their rear lines in a counterattack from the south, and within two days completely encircling them. Taken by surprise in what has come to be known as the Miracle of the Vistula, the Russians fled in total confusion back to their own borders.
Poland was saved. Warsaw was spared.