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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Spirit of King Matt

    With the end of the Polish-Soviet War, Korczak was demobilized and reunited with his own little "urchins." The distance he had traveled from them had not been far, but he felt very changed. He, too, was an orphan now. "Children imagine that a grownup doesn't need a mother," he would tell his young readers. "Oh, how many times does a grownup long for his mother or father, who, it seems to him, are the only ones who would listen to him and, if need be, forgive him and feel sorry for him."

    In the past, discipline had sustained him, and now Korczak used that strength to go on with his life. He moved into the garret room on the fourth floor of the orphanage on Krochmalna, and lived like a monk in his book-lined room, writing on his father's massive oak desk, sleeping on a narrow iron cot, and visited by wild sparrows who came in through a transom in the window, and an "introverted" female mouse named Penetration who lived under the cupboard. The death of his mother and the rebirth of his nation seem to have released King Matt, the imaginary child slumbering inside him. By day he was the doctor ministering to a hundred Jewish orphans and a hundred Polish ones, but at night, when he climbed up to the attic, he was the writer, designing a fantasy kingdom surrounded-as Poland had been- by three greedy neighbors.

    ~~And so this is what happened," begins King Matt the First, a timeless parable about a child-king who dreams of creating a utopian society with just laws for both children and adults. it is a daydream, like the one Henryk Goldszmit had when he was young and wanted to reform the world. So deeply did Korczak identify with this young king who (like his creator) would not live to see his dreams come true that he used his own picture as a child for the frontispiece of the book, with this explanation to his young readers:

    When I was the little boy you see in the photograph, I wanted to do all the things that are in this book. But I forgot to, and now I'm old. I no longer have the time or the strength to go to war or travel to the land of the cannibals. I have included this photograph because it's important what I looked like when I truly wanted to be a king, and not when I was writing about King Matt. I think it's better to show pictures of what kings, travelers, and writers looked like before they grew up, or grew old, because otherwise it might seem that they knew everything from the start and were never young themselves. And then children will think they can't be statesmen, travelers, and writers, which wouldn't be true.

    The child in the photograph-about ten years old-is the age of most of Korczak's fictional heroes. Sitting stiffly on a bench next to a potted plant, in a long Lord Fauntleroy jacket and high stiff white collar with a bow, he looks, not at us, but out past the camera into some distant space ofhis own-a far gaze that Korczak would take with him through life. He is both there and not there. One hand rests lightly in his lap; the other grips the corner of the bench as if the boy is waiting to take off the moment the signal comes.

    This is the same boy who used to go on excursions with his family to the seventeenth-century palace of Wilanow, where the Polish kings summered during the golden age when Poland was a proud, independent kingdom whose borders stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and almost to the gates of Moscow. Transported not merely beyond the city limits of Warsaw, but beyond time itself, he could feel the "cold beauty" of the stately furniture in the palace and the "ghostly presence" of the kings moving about. Perhaps it was then that he and King Matt had merged into one.

    King Matt the First has been called Korczak' s Emile. Opening with the death of the old king, which follows on the death of the queen, it traces M att' s moral development from an innocent, trusting orphan who can neither read nor write, to an idealistic young reformer who must learn the disparity between dream and realitv before he can rule either his country or himself Though it can be read as a romance about a high- spirited young king' s adventures, the book is essentially a philosophical treatise about spiritual and worldly power.

    Matt' s sudden ascension to the throne when his father dies (not unlike Henryk's sense of being catapulted into adulthood by the death of his father) is meant to be no less confusing than Alice's fall into Wonderland: Matt is confronted by a bewildering array of grownups rushing about in much the same dither as the White Rabbit, and by a society not too different from the infant Polish Republic, where rival parties proliferated, cabinets came and went, and governments rose and fell in dizzying succession.

    As Matt tries to make sense of it all, the author cannot resist poking fun at the muddle to be found at the center of official circles. His satirical eye misses nothing. The young ruler learns that diplomacy means lying all the time so that your enemy has no idea of what you're really doing, and that a cabinet crisis is nothing more than a fight among the ministers.

    Though he lives in a mythic kingdom, Matt struggles with bitter reality, confronting the same questions that plagued Marshal Pilsudski and the ministers of the newly elected government of Poland: How do you raise money to repair trains, build factories, replace broken windows, supply an army? How do you set up schools, medical facilities, and adequate social services?

    Even more important for Matt, who is, after all, a child, are questions that involve the welfare of children. How do you give them self-respect and teach them to be free? How do you fight the poverty, injustice, disease, and hunger that affect them? When Matt becomes ill trying to remedy everything at once, his old family doctor tells him that people have been trying to solve these problems for a long time, but as yet no one has come up with a lasting solution.

    Korczak sends Matt off to fight incognito as a plain soldier with his friend Felek, a palace guard's son, when his country is invaded. Matt experiences the harsh reality of war. "Oh, how hard it is to be a king and fight a war " Matt tells himsef "All i thought about was leaving the capital on a white horse while people threw flowers at me. I wasn't thinking how many people would be killed."

    Korczak also has Matt travel to the land of the cannibals, where he learns that savages (although certainly not noble) can be in some respects more civilized than so-called civilized people. The cannibal king, Bum Drum, and his daughter, Klu Klu, a dauntless tomboy, prove to be Matt's most loyal friends.

    The author is ironic but not cynical. Matt never becomes bitter, just a little sad when things go wrong, like the Sad King in one of the three bordering countries. The Sad King, who plays his violin as if the very strings were weeping, sounds much like the old family doctor (who in turn sounds much like Janusz Korczak) as he shows Matt his parliament -"a bit like a theater, and a bit like a church"-and relates the dark side of being a reformer:

    Listen, Matt. My grandfather gave his people freedom, but it didn't turn out well. He was assassinated. And people ended up even more unhappy than before. My father built a great monument to freedom . . . but what does that matter when there are still wars, still poor people, still unhappy people. I ordered that great parliament building built. And nothing changed. Everything's still the same.

    Still, the Sad King doesn't want to discourage his little guest. "You know, Matt, we always did the wrong thing by making reforms for adults. Try doing it with children' maybe you'll succeed."

    The Sad King's idea that children might behave more wisely than adults if given a voice in government is a romantic one, but the side of Korczak that is the old doctor knows that one needs experience to do anything successfully-the one thing children do not have. Deciding to make himself king of the children, Matt builds a parliament for them, as well as one for adults. The two buildings are identical except that in the children' s parliament the door handles and chairs are lower, as are the windows, so that the delegates can look outside when they get bored.

    However, it takes only a few sessions of their bickering and fighting for Matt to discover that children can behave as unreasonably as grownups. A journalist, in reality a spy for one of the three kings (and meant to represent the treacherous adult world), brings about the downfall of Matt's kingdom by persuading Felek, who has become the Prime Minister of Children, that his young constituents can do things better than adults.

    The Children's Parliament orders all the grownups to go back to school while children take over their jobs. This leads to much merry confusion, but eventually to the destruction of all the vital forces of the land: the trains stop running, the phones are out oforder, shops are closed, factories shut down, military supplies depleted. Taking advantage of the internal chaos, the enemy king invades Matt's country.

    By the time Matt sends the adults back to work and the children back to school and rebuilds his armed forces, it is too late, but Matt is determined to go down fighting. "Victory or death!" he tells his followers. When they are overrun, he consoles Klu Klu, who, along with Felek and a few others, has retreated with him for a last stand in the lion house:
    "Don't cry, we'll die a beautiful death." He is in control ofhis own destiny as long as he can choose the spirit with which he will die. Even this is denied him when he is captured with sleeping gas and wakes to find himself in prison. Told that he has been sentenced to death by firing squad, he does not know that the Sad King has managed to convince the other two kings to grant him a last-minute reprieve.

    The book ends with Matt being marched in gold chains down the streets of his kingdom to his supposed execution, an eerie foreshadowing of what was to happen to his creator. "It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. Everyone had come out to see their king one last time. Many people had tears in their eyes. But Matt did not see those tears . . . He was looking at the sky, the sun."

    Matt holds his head high to prove that he has more strength of character than the enemy. "True heroes show themselves in adversity" he tells himself He refuses the blindfold: to die "beautifully" is still his only wish. But in these last moments he can't help being curious about the kind of funeral he will be given. Instead of expressing gratitude, Matt is furious when he is granted the reprieve and sentenced to exile on a desert island, much like Napoleon before him.

    The second volume, King Matt on the Desert Island, is a more sober book than the first, concerned with Matt's spiritual development. He escapes from the train taking him to the ship, but decides to go to the island voluntarily when he realizes that war may break out because of him. "I am willing to go because this time it will not be as a prisoner or a slave, but of my own free will," Matt declares, further expressing Korczak's philosophy that one is not a prisoner if one chooses one's own way Alone on the island except for his guards, his canary, and his mother's picture, Matt now has time to organize his jumbled thoughts and discipline his mind. His favorite guard Walenty sounds much like the original Walenty as he shuffles about with such asides as ."Life is bitter." Matt thinks about both life and death while throwing stones into the sea. After his canarv dies, he digs a grave under a palm tree on a hilltop, and ponders whether to place a wooden cross on it, much as Henryk Goldszmit once did. He then digs two more graves for his mother and father, whom he plans to move there. Sometimes he rows out to the lighthouse to play with Ala and Alo, two small orphans rescued by the one-armed lighthouse keeper when they were cast ashore during a storm. Like his author, Matt finds solace in the company of children. One day, while roaming about the center ofhis island, Matt discovers a stone tower on top of a hill. He watches as one of the stones moves, revealing seven ladders inside, one on top of the other, each with seven rungs that become increasingly wider spaced. A man wearing a long gray robe tied with a rope slides, as if flying, down the ladder. This "old wanderer with a long beard" looks at him even more sadly than the Sad King. Matt doesn't know how the thought comes to him: "This is a reformer who did not succeed."

    Soon after Walenty is replaced by a sadistic guard, Matt escapes from the island with the same free spirit with which he came. He returns to his palace just long enough to persuade the young king to call off the war, even thanking this former enemy for giving him an opportunity to experience exile and to train his will. He then gives up his throne so that his people may elect a president in his place.

    Much like his author, Matt renounces wealth for a modest life of service to others. He takes a job in a factory-to show his solidarity with the poor exploited workers and shame the factory owners into providing better conditions. At night, he either goes to school or sits in his attic room writing fairy tales for children. His peaceful regimen is interrupted by Felek, who, demoralized by his loss of power, appears unkempt and surly at Matt's door. Matt takes him in and arranges a job at the factory for him. But when Matt tries to break up a fight Felek has started with the factory manager, he is accidentally pushed into one of the machines.

    Mortally wounded, he survives long enough to forgive Felek and ask him to return with Klu Klu to her country and work for a better world. Matt is buried alongside his canary in the cemetery on the high hill on his desert island. Ala and Alo bring flowers, and wild canaries sing over his grave. Like a true Polish romantic hero, torn between a life of action and one of spiritual transformation, Matt has won morally, even though he dies, for he has inspired others to continue his struggle.

    King Matt the First is the story of "the eternal tragedy of every noble reformer." Reading the book today, one realizes that the sad and skeptical author had no illusion that he would fare much better than Matt, but the book takes on an added dimension of prophetic power now that Korczak's life has come to represent a victory of the spirit. Yet, in spite of its deep pessimism, one can also see Matt's story as a human comedy, played with humor, warmth, and compassion for the human condition.

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