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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Striving for Justice

The court does not fly off the handle.
lt does not shout abuse. lt speaks calmly.

- How to Love a Child

 

    "One court case tells me more about a child than a month of observing him," Korczak would say. He considered the court of peers the cornerstone of his system. While he was away during the war, he had drawn up a Code of Laws that would give the judges guidelines in rendering their verdicts. It was not unlike the Napoleonic Code on which the Polish legal system was based-with the difference that Korczak' s Code stressed forgiveness.

    The Preamble to the Code states Korczak' s philosophy of law. "If anyone has done something bad, it is best to forgive. ifit was done because he did not know, he knows now. If he did it intentionally, he will be more careful in the future . . . But the court must defend the timid against the bullies, the conscientious against the careless and idle."

    Korczak was still hoping to impart the idea of justice, however imperfect, to his young orphans. He wanted them to understand that there are just laws and unjust laws, even as there are just people and unjust people. "The court is not justice, but it should strive for justice," the Preamble continues. "The court is not truth, but its goal is truth." Because justice is dependent on human beings, the most central of whom is the judge, it warns: "Judges may make mistakes. They may punish for acts they themselves are guilty of But it is shameful if a judge consciously hands down an unjust verdict."

    The five judges, chosen each week from among those children who had no court cases pending against them, could cite any of the thousand well, since they were accomplices. The children's court, which met on Saturday mornings there as it did in Warsaw, found them all guilty. But the judges forgave Korczak because his motives were good, and ruled that the boys had already been punished by having missed breakfast that day.

    articles in the Code. Articles 1 to 99, which covered minor infractions, pardoned the defendant outright: "You acted wrongly, but you did not realize it," or "It was the first time and you have promised not to do it again. ,>> Article 100 was the dividing line between forgiveness and censure. It read: "Without granting pardon, the court states that you committed the act with which you are charged." Still, the only punishment was the court's disapproval.

    The articles then jumped in units of one hundred up to 1,000, becoming progressively sterner in their moral judgment. Under articles 200 to 800, the guilty child's name was published in the orphanage newspaper or posted on the bulletin board, or he was deprived of privileges for one week and his family was summoned. Article 900 carried the dire warning that the court had "abandoned hope": the accused had to find a supporter among the children willing to vouch for him. Article 1000, a dreaded verdict, meant expulsion. The guilty party had the right to apply for readmission after three months, but with little hope, for his place would have been taken by another child the day he left.

    Korczak had expected the orphans to be enthusiastic about the new Code, but he found them hesitant to test it. It took a while before the corridors began ringing with "I'll sue you!" A child who felt wronged listed his case on the bulletin board in the dining hall. Stefa, acting as the Court Clerk, entered it in the court ledger. But in the period before the trial the plaintiff's arnger often subsided, and by the time Stefa read the charges in court the child was ready to drop charges. During the first weeks Korczak noted that almost all the plaintiffs forgave the defendants at the hearings, and the judges cited Article l: "Charge is withdrawn."

    As many as a hundred and fifty cases might be heard by the judges during a Saturday-morning court session, with most defendants receiving an article under 100. Hearings were held in the Quiet Room (where children could go during the week to be alone), and the length of the deliberations varied according to the difficulty of the case. Charges were brought for name-calling, pushing, teasing, snatching someone else's possessions, banging doors, leaving the yard without permission, climbing a tree, breaking an inkpot, using abusive language, making faces during prayers, not returning checker and lotto games to their places. The judges might ask the plaintiff "How many times have you done this?" or "What article did you get in your last court case?" before making their verdict.

    Misdemeanors that were punished by an article over 100 were: locking someone out in the courtyard for fun, disturbing others at work, misbehaving during study hour, not washing one's hands, cheating at garnes. In situations where the culprit was unidentified, the case was heard anyway; if the crime disgraced the republic, a black mourning patch was placed on the bulletin board.

    The court was a "psychological drama based on knowledge of child psychology," according to one educator, but Korczak' s critics outside the orphanage insisted that the court would accustom the children to being litigious. Korczak responded that, on the contrary, it would teach them respect for the law and individual rights, and make them appreciate how "inconvenient, detrimental, and senseless" lawsuits are.

    Still, he wasn't prepared for how quickly the worst troublemakers in the orphanage would find the court a nuisance and try to sabotage it.

    They'd boast: "I'm not going to let some young punk be my judge!" and "To hell with the court, I' d rather have my ears pulled or my hands slapped!" The ringleaders who constantly attacked the court were sly enough to realize that they could wriggle out of things more easily without it. They started a campaign demanding that guilty defendants be hung on the spot and threw mock tantrums when the court refused to impose the death penalty. Their behavior had the desired effect. The other children stopped suing each other rather than endure the constant bickering over the court, and the judges began conspiring to acquit the defendants or to deal leniently with them, no matter what their crime. Finally, when one judge hit another who wanted to conduct the trial according to his own conscience, Korczak was forced to acknowledge th at the court, which was intended to "replace irrational arguments with calm thinking," was causing more disorder than order. He even began to suspect that it was harmful to the orphanage. The answers to questionnaires he passed out among the children proved him right:

    "The court is necessary, but it achieves nothing."
    "It is good for some kids, but not for others."
    "Our court may be useful in the future, but not now"
    "Only if the court were different would it be helpful."

    Korczak still believed the court was essential (and that in fifty years all schools would have one), but he had to concede that his orphans weren't ready for it yet. "It is clear that thev would rather be slaves than free, "

    he wrote bitterly in his journal when he suspended the court indefinitely. He noticed that some of the children sighed with relief to be rid of the vigilant watchdog; others, anxious to prove that the court was unnecessary, behaved better than they had before. Although a small group kept asking when the court would be resumed, the majority-"as in all human relationships"-displayed little interest.

    The court reopened four weeks after its suspension, but only when three demands of the children had been met: that they could appeal a decision after three months; that a Judicial Board made up of two judges and one adult, elected by secret ballot for a term of three months, would handle the most difficult cases; and that the children had the right to sue the adult staff. This last stipulation set Korczak' s critics on him again: how could he allow a child to take an adult to court? But Korczak honored the children's demands. "There are always enough tongues to wag, but not enough heads to think," he reassured the members ofhis philanthropic board.

    Korczak even supported the boy who sued his elementary-school teacher for tearing up his drawing. When the teacher sent word that it was beneath her dignity to appear before the court, she was tried in absentia. Korczak went to the school and posted the verdict, Article 300, in the teachers' lounge:
    "The court censures you for acting wrongly"
    The teacher tore the document from the wall, and only when the principal intervened did she send an apology to the boy.

    Korczak made a point of bringing himself to court five times over one six-month period. He confessed to boxing a boy>>s ears, throwing a boy out of the dormitory, putting a child in the corner, insulting a judge, and accusing a girl of stealing. He submitted a written defense for each incident. The judges gave him Article 21 in the first three cases:
    "The court finds that you were entitled to act as you did." In the fourth, he got Article 71: "The court pardons you since you regret your action.>>' And in the last, Article 7. "The court accepts your admission of guilt."

    In one trial, which has passed into legend, the cagey pedagogue was not forgiven. One gloomy, overcast day when he returned to the orphanage, he looked around to gauge the children's mood. Finding Helenka standing off to one side in a small room, too shy to join the other children playing there, he decided to stir things up. Dashing over, he swooped her up to the top of the cupboard, then walked away. He did not so much as turn around when she started screaming, "Let me down! Let me down!"

    The other children, as he had hoped, now became interested in her situation. They started encouraging her to jump. When she refused, they insisted that Korczak help her. At first he wouldn't hear of it, but when they ganged up on him, he walked back to the cupboard and lifted Helenka to the ground. She seemed satisfied, but some of the children began pestering her to sue him. Flattered by all the attention, she did.

    Korczak wrote out a long defense that he presented to the court, but the judges' sympathy went to Helenka, who they felt had been embarrassed and frightened by his rash action. The verdict was Article 100. He was not forgiven. Korczak made a show of being upset, and for some time after that he was called by the nickname Setka (One Hundred). It was rare, but it happened in a few instances that neither Korczak nor the Judicial Board could save a child bent on a destructive course from receiving Article 1,000.

    Abraham Pieklo, whose last name appropriately meant Hell, was a mean, redheaded, freckle-faced boy known as Little Devil. He jeered at sick children, mocked bedwetters, and tormented the handicapped. Deciding to apply shock methods, Korczak hurled names at the troublemaker meant to be as painful as those he inflicted on others: Hell-born, Black Sheep, Pest, Plague. At first the boy talked back, then he ignored the doctor, and finally he took him to court for making him nervous. Everyone was surprised when the court gave Setka another setka for mistreating his accuser. As charming as he was diabolical, Little Devil even managed to soften no-nonsense Stefa when she was bandaging his leg, by asking:
    "How come, when I get hit on the head, it makes a bump instead of a hole?" But Little Devil's sadistic behavior eventually earned him Article 1,000. No one was sad to see him leave, not even Korczak, who felt that the well-being of the community came before any one individual.

    Korczak had done his best to create a just system inside his own republic, but once his children went out to school or to visit their families, they were subject to adult whims in an unjust society.

    One Saturday afternoon Stasiek (the former Israel) returned home to visit his family, with permission from Korczak to bring back his pet wild goldfinch. Stasiek was very excited as he climbed with the cage onto the trolley. Since the car was full, he had to stand on the outside platform, where he was spotted by a policeman boarding at the next stop.

    "Where'd you get the bird, kid?" he asked suspiciously.
    "It's mine!" Stasiek said.
    "It's against the law to keep a wild bird in a cage," the policeman informed him. "I'm going to free it."

    Stasiek started to cry, but the officer dragged him off the tram at the next stop. Grabbing his arm, he took Stasiek to the courtyard behind the police station, where he opened the cage door and let the bird fly away. "Okay, kid, beat it," the policeman ordered.

    When Stasiek didn't move, he took him by the arm again and led him to the orphanage. It was like the day the boy had first arrived with his mother: there was Stefa in the courtyard shouting at him.

    "What' s going on-a policeman with a cage?"
    The officer told her that he had found the boy with a wild bird and had freed it.
    "You did us a favor," Stefa said. "He's been a troublemaker here right from the start."

    The policeman stood at attention and saluted her. Just then a male voice came from the garret window above the courtyard:
    "Wait a minute, please!" Stefa left. Stasiek started crying.
    "Who's that?" asked the policeman.
    "Dr. Janusz Korczak," Stasiek said proudly.

    The policeman looked very uncomfortable as Korczak approached and asked what had happened.
    "This kid was keeping a wild bird against the law, so I let it go."

    Korczak looked at the officer sternly. "Which law? You're talking about laws for adults, but they don't apply to children. There are other laws and other courts for them. You, as a representative of the government, should know that. I was going to teach the boy how to set the bird free himself Now with one rash act you've spoiled everything."

    Stasiek was thrilled to see the policeman scolded by the doctor. The officer was very apologetic, mumbled something about making it up to the boy, and rushed off Half an hour later he returned with a paper bag. inside was another goldfinch from the bird market. Korczak and Stasiek put the new bird in the cage and placed it by a window in one of the rooms, where Stasiek was to take care of it.

    "Do you think that bird is singing in his cage?" Korczak asked, as they watched it thrashing about. "He is really crying. There is an ancient Polish law in Latin that I want you to learn by heart:
    Neminem captivabimus nisi jure victum. I'll tell you what it means when you are able to repeat it twenty-five times."

    After three days Stasiek was able to recite his Latin sentence. Korczak translated the old law. "We will imprison no one who has not been lawfully sentenced to lose his freedom." And he added:

    "Just think, that law applied to people who were able to defend themselves. Your bird is innocent and defenseless. His conscience is clear as a diamond. He has no forms of pleasure, like movies or bicycles. His freedom is his only happiness. And you took it away"'

    "But you said you had a canary once," Stasiek reminded him.

    "Yes, I had a canary, but it's not the same," Korczak explained.
    "A canary is domesticated like a cat or dog. if it's freed, it cannot find friends or food. Those people who brought canaries here over five hundred years ago committed a crime. We can't change that reality. But I have a plan. This goldfinch has suffered for a long time. Let's go up to the roof and free him now. Later we can buy another bird, keep him for two weeks, and then free him, too. We can keep doing this. You can earn the money by writing articles f or our newspaper"'

    Stasiek was quite emotional as he opened the cage door, especially when the bird just peered at hirn from his perch without moving. He felt an enormous sense of satisfaction when it suddenly darted through the opening and flew away. He and Korczak repeated this ritual with a bullfinch, a linnet, and a chaffinch before Stasiek decided he would like a canary. When he couldn't find one he could afford in the bird market, Korczak suggested that he buy two pigeons instead and make a coop for them under the eaves. From that time on, pigeons flew freely in and out of their roost at the orphanage.

    Stasiek was to discover that learning to free birds was easier than freeing himself of the bad habits he had picked up on the streets. He was constantly brought to court by someone for using bad language, fighting, or breaking rules. That summer at Little Rose, he let himselfbe persuaded by f our older bov s to steal f ruit with them from a farmer's garden. They were all caught and brought before the children's court. The other boys got Article 300, with its strong admonishment: "The court rules that you acted wrongly." But because of his previous bad record, Stasiek received the perilous Article 900: "The court requires that you find someone to vouch for you within the next two days. Otherwise, you will be expelled." The judgment was published in the court gazette.

    The boy who promised to testify in his behalf backed out, and Stasiek suspected that Stefa was behind it, especiallv when she sent a message to his mother to come for him immediately. He couldn't appeal to Korczak, who was then back in Warsaw, where he went a few times a week to lecture and arrange for supplies. Stasiek's mother, a strong-willed woman who ran a candy store, wept and pleaded in vain with Stefa to let Stasiek stay. Stasiek had given up hope, but his mother turned to him after they had left the camp grounds and said: "Wait here. I'll try to find Dr. Korczak in Warsaw. Don't move from under this tree."

    After a few hours his mother returned with the doctor, who arranged for Stasiek to have another chance to find a supporter and improve his behavior. Stasiek tried his best to avoid trouble, but his fists were too fast. When he was again sued for fighting, Stefa declared that he had violated his probation and had to leave. This time his mother couldn't turn to Korczak, who had left Warsaw for a few weeks to do some writing at a country inn. And so Stasiek was expelled. He would never forgive Stefa, who he felt was behind his downfall.

    Most children stayed their full seven years in the orphanage.
    "I take a child from his home at seven and return him to his home," Korczak would say when it came time for one of his fledglings to leave the orphanage after finishing the seventh grade of elementary school.

    It was a very different child who emerged from Korczak' s cocoon at the age of fourteen-one who spoke fluent Polish, and was unprepared for the daily injustices in the world outside. Stefa and Korczak did what they could for the departing youngster setting out on that "long journey called life." After a parent or relative was called in to discuss the child's future, he was given some extra clothing to tide him over, a commemorative postcard, and the farewell message that Korczak delivered to all his children:
    Unfortunately, we can give you nothing but these few poor words. We cannot give you love of your fellowman, because there is no love without forgiveness, and to forgive is something everyone must learn to do on his own. We can give you but one thing: the longing for a better life, which may not exist now but will some day-the life of Truth and Justice. Perhaps this longing will lead you to God, Motherland, and love. Farewell, do not forget.

    Some children forgot, and disappeared "like the wind." But the majority felt very attached to the home in which they had been raised with such care. A lucky few were able to stay on as helpers, or were allowed to take lunch at the orphanage, but the others could only pay a visit on Saturday mornings to listen to Korczak read the orphanage newspaper and to talk to Stefa, who they knew would always be there, ready to hear their troubles and to give them advice. They were painfully aware that a new child was sleeping in their bed. As one said:
    "in a real family, a bed that was yours is always there for you."

    They felt not only abandoned but unprepared to cope in the outside world. Occasionally Stefa or Korczak was able to arrange an apprenticeship to a barber or carpenter, but most had to leave without knowing what the future held. The girls tried to find jobs as governesses, housekeepers, or baby-sitters. The boys usually ended up as messengers or store clerks; one of Stefa' s favorites could find work only in a slaughterhouse. "I remember how homesick I was," Itzhak Belfer, recalls. "In the evenings I would walk by the house just to see the lights inside. Some of us tried to rent a room together so that we wouldn~t be alone."

    When Johann Nutkiewicz left the Orphans Home on a Friday afternoon in 1929, a fourth of the population was unemployed, and anti- Semitism was on the rise. He had almost no family. His father had died of tuberculosis before he went into the orphanage, and his mother had committed suicide while he was there. At Stefa's prodding, his married sister had reluctantly agreed to take him in until he found some kind of employment, but she worked until seven every evening. Johann had no choice but to wander around the unfamiliar city until she came home.

    "Finally I found a park bench by the river and fell asleep," he recalls.
    "I felt someone poking me roughly, and heard a policeman say, "Hey, Jew boy, what are you doing here? Don't you know it' s against the law to sleep on public benches?" I explained the situation, but the policeman was unmoved: "Either you get up and go, or I take you straight to reform school."

    "I had been nursed on beautiful values until then, and now here I was in the cruel world. I just sat there thinking: This is something different now-reality."
    Reality wasn't much better when he arrived at seven at the small room his sister shared with her husband. On hearing his request to wash his hands and face, his sister retorted:
    "Don't think you can act like a little prince here. if you try to wash now, you~ll wake my landlady and get us thrown out."
    This was the second blow that day, and others were to follow. After he was fired from his job at a box factory because he had insisted the owner pay him his two zlotys at the end of the week, as they bad agreed, his sister yelled: "Don't talk about fairness! You~d better start learning what other boys your age have known all their lives about the kind of world we live in."

    Johann began to understand that not only was he different, he was also more vulnerable because of the "hothouse" environment in which he had been raised. Comparing experiences with other children who had been in the home, he realized that all of them were unaggressive, had little desire to compete with others if it meant "elbowing" them out, and had idealistic expectations of people they encountered as well as of themselves. He was certain that without the values he had received from Korczak and Stefa, he would never have known that there could be justice in the world.

    Korczak' s belief that all children should be protected by just laws extended beyond the walls of his miniature world. The stooped figure of the eminent pedagogue in his old gray suit became a familiar sight at the Juvenile District Court where he worked as a consultant once a week.

    The magistrates of the court were impressed not only by Korczak' s earnest dedication to delinquent children, but by his casual attitude about payment. He never sent a bill, while all the other consultants could be relied upon to make an immediate beeline to the bookkeeping office. The only problem was that this famous educator seemed to place the welfare of the accused above that of the court. Once, when Korczak refused to interrogate a tired and hungry young offender until the child had been given something to eat and a few days' rest, the magistrate impatiently brought in another doctor who had no such scruples.

    Always on the side of the poor slum children-arrested, for the most part, for petty thefts-he tried to prevent their being sentenced to Warsaw's grim detention center for minors. "The delinquent child is still a child' " he wrote. "He is a child who has not given up yet, but does not know who he is. A punitive sentence could adversely influence his future sense ofhimselfand his behavior. Because it is society that has failed him and made him behave this way, the court should condemn not the criminal but the social structure."

    Korczak held to this view even in a murder case in 1927 when he defended Stanislaw Lampisz, a student who shot and killed his high- school principal. It was hard to say which was considered more sensational: the crime, or Dr. Janusz Korczak's testimony at the trial.

    Korczak, who had spent a great deal of time examining Lampisz in prison, spoke for more than half an hour. He asked the jurors to see the boy as a loner who had come from a small village to live with his aunt while he attended high school in Warsaw. His only friend was a girl in his class. He had been looking forward to graduation, but a few days before the event, he had committed a minor offense at school for which he was suspended and ordered by the principal, Dr. Lipka, to have his head shaved. Lampisz had panicked. If that happened, he'd lose his room at his aunt's house, and his girlfriend as well-he'd have to return home in disgrace. Lampisz appealed to Lipka to change his punishment, but the principal, unwilling to respond to the young man's stress, refused.

    Feeling that his world was shattered, Lampisz decided to commit suicide. He drank some vodka and was crossing a bridge over the Vistula with a gun, looking for a place to kill himself, when he chanced to run into Lipka. He tried to kiss the principal's hand, thinking to plead his cause one last time, but Lipka pulled away. Lampisz then grabbed the gun to shoot himself, but shot the principal instead. Turning the gun on himself, Lampisz fell to the ground, expecting to die. A policeman found the two men lying on the bridge and rushed them to the hospital. When Lampisz, whose wound proved superficial, learned that the principal was dead, he expressed his regret at what he had done, saying he wished it were he who had died.

    "I cannot see any crime here, " Korczak concluded. "Lipka died like a chemist who carelessly concocts a solution which explodes. He died like a surgeon who gets a blood infection during an operation. And, please remember, when Lampisz shot Lipka, he was at that same moment shooting himself."

    The court adjourned for a brief period at noon, after which the two judges gave the verdict. Guilty. Because of Korczak's moving defense, many were surprised at the severity of the sentence: five years in a high- security prison for hardened criminals.

    Korczak may have been ahead of his time in offering psychological testimony for the defense in a murder trial-and faulting the victim in the process-but he saw Lampisz as the victim in this case: a child brutalized by an uncaring adult. In his view, Lipka, as a school principal, had the responsibility to try to understand why his student was so troubled and to reach out to him. By taking this extreme stand, Korczak was demonstrating yet again his passionate belief in the right of the child to be heard and respected by the adults who have authority over them.

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