Janusz Korczak Biography
One Hundred ChildrenA hundred children, a hundred individuals who are people-
not people-to-be, not people oftomorrow, but people now, right
- How to Love a Child
"Because if he couldn't prevent children from breaking the palace windows with their balls, how could he hope to control them at the battlefront?" Korczak replied.
The children laughed. Not a week passed but some child managed
to hit or throw a ball over the orphanage wall, right through the window
of the silverware factory next door. To make matters worse, the mean
German owner refused to return the balls.
Korczak paused to think about that. The orphans had never seen a black person. In all of Warsaw at that time there was only one: the chauffeur of a diplomat, who had brought the man back from his last post abroad.
"Children are black in Klu Klu' s part of the world," he told them, "just as the children I saw in China were yellow. But it doesn't make any difference what color you are. Klu Klu was much smarter than a lot of the white children in Matt's kingdom-and she remained faithful to him when he was attacked by others."
Whenever he came to the end of a chapter, the educator would stop reading, in spite of the children' s pleas that he continue. Then the writer would return to his garret room with the manuscript to revise whatever hadn't held their interest, or to work on a new book. Soon the orphans would hear about little Jack, an American boy who set up a co-op store in his school. Jack's empire was much smaller than Matt's, but he, too, had to learn about adult affairs such as handling money and keeping accounts. When his business went bankrupt as a result of the incompe- tency of others, Jack also emerged much richer: he had gained self-knowledge -the most important treasure of all.
Before he retired, Korczak liked to prowl about the dormitories taking notes on the children' s sleeping postures for the book he planned to write on children and the night. Sometimes Stefa joined him, but life was no longer as it had been before the war when the two of them attended the orphans sixteen hours a day. Stefa was still the stolid, all-responsible mother on duty at all times, but he had a complicated schedule that included working with Maryna Falska in Pruszkow and part-time lecturing at two pedagogical institutes, as well as his professional and creative writing.
There were one hundred and six beds in the home, fifty allocated for boys, fifty-six for girls. Children were admitted at the age of seven and stayed until the completion of elementary school, which was free and compulsory through the seventh grade. The orphans went to separate government schools for Jewish children (known as "Sabbath schools," because the Sabbath was observed on Saturday rather than Sunday). Lessons were given in Polish and, except for courses on the Jewish religion, the curriculum was much the same as in the Polish schools.
Poland may have been independent, but there was still no shortage of needy Jewish children. Although the Jews were granted equal rights in the constitution and were protected by a minorities treaty, they were affected, as were all Poles, by the depressed economy of their war-devastated country. It didn't help that the government, intent on creating a Polish middle class, had a protectionist policy toward native Polish enterprises and merchants. Barred, in effect, from employment with the civil service, post office, and railways, tens of thousands of impoverished Jewish workers found themselves competing for jobs with impoverished Poles who had migrated from the countryside-a situation that did not enhance Polish-Jewish relations.
Stella Eliasberg was moved to tears when she went with other members of the admissions committee of the Orphans Home to check the applications of destitute Jewish families. She never got used to the dank basement hovels where three or four pale sickly children would be lying on one filthy straw mat, with nothing but thin rags to wear in the coldest winter. She always felt guilty because all the children needed care to survive and they could choose only one from a family.
Even after a child was approved for the home, he or she had to be
checked by a team of psychologists who were under Korczak's instructions
to eliminate the retarded or emotionally disturbed. Like a gardener who
is careful "to avoid weeds that will choke his flowers," Korczak was unwilling
to take a chance on a child who might prove detrimental to the
community. if his own personal anxieties about mental illness influenced
his position, he took care to camouflage them by calling forth those unsolved
mysteries of heredity that were then occupying scientists in the
eugenics movement. It came down to the familiar nature-versus-nurture
question: Was one doomed by bad genes, or could favorable environmental
conditions save one from what was genetically determined? Was
a child nervous because he had inherited this trait from his parents, or
because he was brought up by them ? Why did sound parents have feeble
offspring, and, conversely, why did extraordinary children spring from
ordinary stock? And-this was a question that child-rights advocate Ellen
Key had been asking in Sweden-why didn't society require licenses for
people to have children, just as it required licenses for soft-drink stands?
"We need to stop breeding children thoughtlessly" he wrote.
The psychologists hired by the Orphans Aid Society were in the
uncomfortable position of possibly sealing the fate of a slightly retarded
child. Helena Merenholtz remembers that she and her colleagues were
sometimes so moved by a child' s plight that they falsified their findings:
Although the orphanage received a fixed amount of state assistance,
it was still primarily dependent on its philanthropists, some of whom
infuriated Korczak by asking that a particular child be admitted.
Korczak laid down precise rules about when the philanthropists could visit. They had to leave their carriages (and later their limousines) down the street where the children couldn~t see them. Those benefactors who dropped by unannounced in their formal jackets and high stiff collars to have a look at the famous pedagogue they were supporting were taken aback by the casual green smocks that were Korczak~s usual attire. In a period when it was fashionable to flaunt long titles and affect pompous airs, Korczak mocked society by not taking on any of its affectations - which meant not being a proper adult by its standards.
The children were delighted when some of the philanthropists actually
mistook the doctor for the janitor. One particularly haughty man
asked him to get his coat, and pressed a coin into his hand upon receiving
it. Another philanthropist, encountering him in the courtyard, demanded:
Some philanthropists considered such antics~ no less than his refusal to mix socially, a form of arrogance. But most of them excused Korczak because they could sense that he was devoid of any personal need for power or glory. His closest friends, like the Eliasbergs and the Mortkowiczes, were amused by his pranks and understood that, rather than being aloof, their idiosyncratic friend was actually shy.
New children were admitted at two o'clock on Friday afternoons whenever there was a vacancy. Most of them were seven years of age, but they shared the background and apprehensions of nine-year-old Israel Zyngman, a streetwise ruffian whose widowed mother was unable to stop him from brawling with other boys, hanging on to the back of trams, and cutting school. When his mother informed him that he was going to live at a home run by the famous Dr. Goldszmit, his buddies were sure he was going to prison. "If you see a cop and iron bars on the door, get the hell out as fast as you can," they warned.
He still remembers the day he arrived at 92 Krochmalna with his mother.
Sure enough, there was an iron gate, but no policeman. We walked into the
Courtyard and a large woman dressed all in black comes toward us. I looked at
her face. It had a big black mole. Suddenly I turned from a tough guy into a little
boy hiding behind his mother. This woman, Miss Stefa' asked my mother, "what's
Stefa shrieked, "He still has his hair! You didn't shave his head?"
My mother looked Confused. "I wasn't told to . . ."
The kid tried to convince me to go into the orphanage, but I refused until my mother said she'd come with me. I followed him reluctantly through the front door into the large dining hall, where a lot was going on. But I just stood in the entrance, holding on to my mother for dear ute. A lot of kids made wisecracks as they passed. I didn't like their attitude. I was sure there was something fishy about this place.
Then a man in a long smock came up to us and said he was Dr. Goldszmit. He didn't look so special. To me he was an old man, no big deal. Just like anybody else. He told my mother that he had been expecting us, and then, looking at me, he said, "I've heard about you."
I turned to my mother. "What the hell did he hear about me?" He said that he heard I was being difficult, and had come to see tor himself Then he began talking to my mother without looking at me. But he waS stroking my head tenderly while he spoke. That made a big impression on me. His skin waS soft, and the warmth of his hand felt good to me.
"Follow me," he said. He led us to a small upstairs room, and said,
The doctor said: "We also have a problem because two other boys here have
the name Israel. If one of them does anything bad, how can we know who it
I was dumbfounded.
He took a piece of candy out of his pocket and offered it to me. I didn't want
tto take it. I was more concerned about my hair. I was afraid and unnerved.
""Where's the barbershop?" I asked suspiciously.
"Okay, you can take off my hair," I said.
The first experience of hair cropping was more traumatic for the girls, especially those with beautiful long braids, but it was considered a necessary hygienic measure to prevent the spread of lice, the carrier of typhus, into the home. After the initial cut, children who kept themselves clean were allowed to wear their hair long.
Sara Kramer, whose father had just died, remembers her first talk
with the "barber".
Sara, like most of the new children, found that having her hair cut wasn't too stressful because Korczak made a game of it, as he did of everything. Sometimes he would pretend the first strip was Krochmalna, or an animal, or the letters of the child's name. Though the technique was intended to make the children relax, Korczak regarded the process as seriously as he would a medical procedure. He kept his instruments as clean and sharp as a surgeon' s, and insisted that anyone applying to work in a boarding home should be tested in dismantling and cleaning clippers. He brought the same dedication to hair washing: "It is better to massage with just the thumb, over the forehead, behind the ears, and at the back of the head," he told his students. "That's where dirty soap collects, dries out, and causes fungus infection.
Stasiek and Sara were also weighed on their first day, as they would be every week from then on, the results meticulously recorded on their personal weight charts. Korczak valued the scale as a "sensible, level- headed, unbiased informant and advisor that does not tell lies." Weighing a child was not only a scientific procedure but also a source of pleasure, enabling him to "feel the beauty of growth." It was a time for chatting and joking-one boy even brought his plant to be weighed-but it had the fringe benefit of allowing one to look into the child's eyes, peer down his throat, put an ear or wooden stethoscope to his chest, smell his skin, and sense his mood. Sluggishness in an active child could be the harbinger of an illness.
Nothing concerning children was too trivial for Korczak's attention.
He studied their dirty handkerchiefs, kept track of lost gloves (there was the danger of frostbite), and made a game out of teaching them how to shine their shoes. Speaking directly to the shoes, he explained why he was putting on a particular kind of polish, why he was using a brush, and why he needed the shoes' cooperation. Before he was finished, the child was eager to take over the job himself.
After their Friday afternoon bath, newcomers like Stasiek and Sara received clothes marked with the number that would identify all their possessions. The quality of the garments they were given subsequently would depend upon how they took care ofthem. While Korczak was away at war, Stefa had initiated a dubious-cleanliness scale ranging from one to four. Neat children received the best clothes that had been donated to the home or made in the sewing room, while the careless ones who always tore or stained their clothes were allotted outfits made of coarse material. Doba Borbergow still remembers the thrill she felt on receiving the first dress, undershirt, and underpants she had ever owned: "On Saturday afternoon when I went to visit my family" I kept lifting up my skirt as I walked down the street so that everyone, even the boys, could see my beautiful underpants."
Hanna Dembinska, who had been a tom- boy, remembers just as vividly how demoralized she felt having to go around in dark, ugly jumpers which hung on her like sacks, while the "good girls" paraded about in attractive dresses. (One could change one's category, but because it meant changing oneself, it usually took years.) That night, sitting at the Sabbath dinner table with the white tablecloth and braided challah and strange faces, the new child was comforted by the knowledge that he would see his relatives the following day. It was still the custom for the orphans to return home every Saturday after lunch and remain until seven in the evening. Mothers, grandparents, or other family members usually escorted the children back to the orphanage, but they were allowed upstairs only during Hanukkah and Purim parties and at Passover.
During the first three months the new child was helped to adjust by a "guardian, " another orphan, a few years older, who guided him through the routine of the house, answered any questions, and was responsible for his behavior. Because everyone was busy with school and other activities, the new child and his guardian were encouraged to communicate through writing. Korczak was particularly fond of one such correspondence between a nine-year-old hellion and the twelve-year-old girl assigned to him:
Boy: I talked with R. about how it was at horne. I said my father was a tailor. R's was a shoemaker. And now we are here in a sort of prison because this isn't home. Life isn't worth anything if you don't have a father and mother. I was telling how my father used to send me to buy buttons. R.'s father sent him for nails. And so on. I have forgotten the rest. Guardian: Write more clearly.
Boy: Please advise me . . . during lessons I have bad thoughts. To steal. But I don't want to upset everybody. I try as hard as I can to do better and to think about other things, like traveling to discover a new continent or going to America, working hard, buying a car and riding across the country.
Guardian: You did the right thing in writing to me. We'll have a talk and I'll give you advice. But don't get hurt when I tell you something. Boy: I have already improved. I am friends with G. who is helping me. And I try very hard. But can't I go out more often than once in two weeks? . . . Everyone else does. Grannie asked me to come every week and I am ashamed to say that I'm not allowed.
Guardian: You know very well why you are not allowed to go out as often as the others. I'll ask but I doubt it will work.
By watching out for the new child, the guardian played the role of a caring parent, the first branch of a unique family tree. When a child eventually became a guardian himself, his former guardian would become a grandparent, and then later a great-grandparent. These family units were treated seriously and were photographed together each year.
Although the orphanage was radically progressive in a period when children were beaten and starved in many institutions, it appears highly structured by contemporary standards. Korczak believed that structure was therapeutic for children, as long as they had their freedom within it. The house ran like clockwork: Korczak considered the clock equal in importance to the scale and the thermometer, believing that a person who is careless about time cannot work well.
An alarm rang promptly at six each morning. There was a fifteen- minute grace period for those who needed it. Children who jumped out of bed instantly earned special merit points; the habitually tardy had that noted on their record.
After washing, dressing, and making their beds, the children went downstairs at seven for a breakfast that usually consisted of cocoa, bread, bit, and an occasional egg. On their way out to school they walked by a large basket filled with sandwiches for their midmorning break, to tide them over until they returned for lunch at about two o'clock. They also had to pass inspection by Stefa, who stood in the doorway checking that ears as well as shoes were clean, that shoelaces were tied, and that no buttons were loose or missing.
When the children returned from school, they ate their big meal of the day. soup with a piece of meat, kasha, noodles or potatoes, and a vegetable. Stella Eliasberg was usually down in the kitchen tasting and seasoning the soup herself before it was sent upstairs to the dining room an the dumbwaiter (a wooden shelfon a pulley that as often as not had a stowaway child who couldn't resist the forbidden ride between the two floors). After the tables were cleared, the children did their homework at them, and then went on to their work duties. in the late afternoon there were a variety of activities, including sports, games, and music lessons. Hebrew and Yiddish lessons were offered, at the request of some of the philanthropists, but they were not mandatory.
If he was free, Korczak would look in on what the children were doing. He would ask, "How are you getting along?" or "Why do you look so sad?" in a seemingly casual way. He knew from his own experience that children don't like questions, that they respond with reluctance or cool reserve: "Okay" or "I'm not sad."
He might touch one or another lightly in passing to show his concern, for he also knew that children don't like effusive caresses. If someone looked pale or flushed, he was sure to say: "Show me your tongue." Sometimes he joined the children in a game of jump rope or ring-around-the-rosy, going round and round, singing "Romazia, the nice boy who had a hole in his pocket." When it was his turn to be in the center, he always chose a child who was not popular or who needed encouragement.
He might just sit on a bench with the children in the courtyard, in the shade of one of the chestnut trees, to watch a race or a game. "
I always wanted to be alone with him, " Sabina Damm, who was fatherless, recalled. "But it was impossible, because everyone wanted him. When he sat down I would go around his chair and embrace him from the back - it was the best position. "You're going to choke me!" he would squeal." Sometimes one of the smaller children would climb up onto his lap, caress his goatee, and eventually lean his head against Korczak' s chest and fall asleep. " Don't you think I look like an old tree filled with children playing like birds in my branches?" he would ask. When the games were over, the children would gather around and tease Korczak for holding the sleeping child. "Nanny! Nanny!" they'd call. He'd screw up his face and scold them mockingly. "Shh, don't disturb us. My little cne is tired. Let him rest and build up his energy for tomorrow."
Stefa seldom joined in the games-she was too consumed by daily routine. She was in her mid-thirties now, weathered rather than softened by the years. Her ample figure, upholstered in black, was in perpetual motion. Her large, serious eyes, still her best feature, were the only indicator of the warmth that her brusque manner tried to hide. Her face was as "wide as a yeast cake, with warts sprinkled like raisins over it." Children loved to touch the largest wart on the side ofher nose. it wobbled when she was mad. Sometimes she kissed their hands when they reached for it. They liked to watch her glasses slide down her nose until they stopped-there. She was a strong-willed mother snapping at the heels of her 106 charges, giving occasional slaps along with kisses. When they were mad at her, the children would refuse to eat, knowing she would fret that they might lose weight. A photographer taking her picture discovered that the only way he could get her to smile was to put a child on her lap. Her face became radiant, and he clicked the shutter.