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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Long Live the Herring!

Don't try to become a teacher overnight with psychological bookkeeping
in your heart and educationaltheory in your head.

- How to Love a Child

 

    In the mid-twenties, when it became clear to Stefa and Korczak that they needed help in taking care of the children, Korczak thought of offering room and board and a weekly seminar to student teachers in exchange for their part-time services.

    The orphanage was soon besieged by applicants eager to work with the famous Janusz Korczak. Some had already taken his courses on child psychology at one of the two pedagogical institutes in Warsaw where he taught. His method ofteaching, like his strategy with children, was known to be idiosyncratic. He titled the first lecture of one seminar "The Heart of the Child" and held it in the X-ray room of the Children' s Hospital. The students were surprised to see Korczak enter with a small boy clutching his hand. Without a word, Korczak took off the child's shirt, placed him behind the fluoroscope, and turned off the overhead light. Everyone could see the boy' s heart beating rapidly on the screen.

    "Don't ever forget this sight," Korczak told them. "Before you raise a hand to a child, before you administer any kind of punishment, remember what his frightened heart looks like." And then, heading for the door, with the boy's hand once again in his, he added, "That is all for today."

    Korczak did not use textbooks in his seminars or give tests. Homework might be nothing more than writing up a childhood memory. Students were amazed to find that most of the experiences that had stayed with them were sad, and usually involved a parent or teacher who had not responded to what they were feeling. By calling forth the vulnerable child in each of his students, Korczak was able to help them understand one ofhis basic premises: adults are insensitive to the suffering of children.

    Feiga Lipshitz, who at seventeen had just arrived in Warsaw from a small town in Russia, never forgot the excitement with which her roommates jumped out of bed on the days of his seminar, shouting "Today we have Korczak!" They would rush to be on time: latecomers had to listen from outside. When Korczak announced that he was looking for three student teachers to work as counselors at the Little Rose summer camp and, if they qualified, to become part of the training unit in his orphanage, Feiga summoned the courage to ask for an interview. She was disappointed to find Stefa rather than Korczak waiting for her. However, Stefa was immediately drawn to this younger woman who looked almost like a child in her long braids-indeed, resembled Esterka Weintraub, the orphan who died of typhus during the war-and accepted her without hesitation.

    The arduous task of selecting the right apprentices for the bursa, as the training unit was called, was not made easier by the fact that Korczak and Stefa differed in their criteria. Stefa, who did most of the screening, was impressed by well-dressed young people who were rhapsodical in their love for children, whereas Korczak paid no attention to an applicant's appearance and was impatient with "flighty romantics," who, he believed, would flee as soon as they were exposed to the hard realities of working with deprived children. Pedagogic love, he said, was not an empty sentiment, but a true giving of the self. In his view, old nannies and construction workers were often better pedagogues than a doctor of psychology. Asked if he could spot a future educator, Korczak replied that he might not be able to predict who would make a good one, but he could certainly tell who would not. (This talent was shared by one of the orphans, Neska, who always knew during a camp season which counselors would be voted on by the children to move into the bursa on Krochmalna. "You won't see her in the winter," Neska would say Or: "He won't be back with us next year")

    Training to be an educator under Korczak was not easy. (He preferred the word educator to teacher. a teacher was someone paid by the hour to drill something into the child, while an educator drew something out.) He demanded a commitment as deep as his own. His eyes, sometimes alarming in their intensity, could mask his true feelings, challenging the students to decide if he was serious or joking-not a simple task with a man whose form of irony was to say the opposite of what he really meant.

    The apprentices were thrown without orientation into the daily routine of the orphanage from the moment they moved in. They soon learned that the rules of the republic were intended to serve the children, not the adults. They were given the same work duties as the orphansmopping floors, peeling potatoes, washing windows-because Korczak expected an educator to be able to do everything that was asked of a child. They had to accept being voted on by the children, and, hardest of all, being taken to court by them.

    Ida Merzan, who was from a small town near Hrubieszow in eastern Poland, remembers being shown by one of the apprentices to the room she would share with a few others and being warned not to be late to meals. Then she was left on her own. "It was really difficult those first few days" she said. "I was embarrassed when Korczak kept blocking my way-sometimes playfully, sometimes angrily-whenever I passed him in the hall. I didn't know what he meant or wanted. Later I learned that I had been breaking a rule, because the hall traffic on that floor was oneway, but no one had bothered to tell me."

    When she entered the dining room her first night, the children were already seated at their tables for eight, with a teacher at each end. "I looked around helplessly," she recalled, "but Stefa just indicated with her hand a place at the ninth table. I could hear laughter when I passed Korczak's table, but he didn't look up. Later I noticed that the children who were assigned to be waiters didn't bump into each other because the traffic was regulated there also: those who served went down one row of tables, those who cleared down another." Misha Wroblewski, an apprentice who came from Minsk, also remembers being confused his first day in the home. Told that he could do anything he wanted with the children after they returned from school, he organized a race with two teams. Bewildered by the heated banter between the opposing sides, he didn't know what to do when two boys began a fistfight. Noticing that the other children were sitting down to watch, he joined them. The two combatants soon tired, their blows trailing off into name-calling. Just as Misha was getting up to resume the race, a gong sounded calling the children to supper. They immediately scattered to wash their hands. Seeing Korczak watching from the doorway, Misha was sure he had lost his chance to train with the famous educator.

    Korczak said nothing to Misha until ten that evening, when it was the custom for the apprentices to gather "under the stairs" in the back hall for a snack and coffee. "You know, it was wonderful, it was perfect," Korczak said, taking him aside. "But tell me, why did you let the boys disrupt the race with their fight? Why didn't you intervene?"

    Misha felt himself flush because he didn't know what the doctor meant or how to answer. He decided to be honest: "I didn't stop them because I was as tired as the rest of the kids and was glad to sit down. And I knew the boys wouldn't kill each other."

    Korczak scratched his bald head, then patted the spot absently in a characteristic gesture, as if lost in thought.
    "When one is close in age to children, he is able to feel as they do," he said softly, almost to himself "Children know better than we when they've had enough. You were right not to stop the boys. If a fight breaks out spontaneously, it's best not to intervene as long as the children are evenly matched and aren't harming each other. Stopping it only forces children to continue it later in another place."

    "Not interrupting the fight was my first educational coup," Misha recalls. "And it brought about my first conversation with the doctor. He told me that men make better kindergarten teachers than women because they're willing to let children fly at each other at the appropriate time." Yet, as focused as Korczak had been during that exchange, Misha would learn how absentminded the doctor could be when he was working on a book: sometimes he would repeatedly greet Misha with a hearty handshake when they passed in the hall as if it were the first time they had encountered each other that day.

    Joseph Arnon was eighteen when he discovered Korczak' s pedagogic writings in a library in Lvov and wrote to ask if he might train with him. Although the cordial return letter inviting him to visit the orphanage was noncommittal, Arnon packed a bag and set off for Warsaw. Arriving at the orphanage, he encountered a large woman in black who asked brusquely if Korczak was expecting him and ordered him to wait in a small room adjoining her office near the front door. When Korczak came rushing by a half hour later with a group of children, Arnon was surprised to discover that he was the man in the green smock whom he had passed in the courtyard.

    "He shook hands with me and led me into the little storeroom at the far end of the dining hall," Arnon has recalled. "We sat down at the small table there, and then he just looked at me with his intense blue eyes, saying nothing. I was wondering what to do when he began bombarding me with questions: Why did I choose to be a teacher? Why not something else? What did I want to do here? I can't remember exactly what I replied, but Korczak smiled and asked me to take off my shirt. I couldn't believe it. He was going to give me a medical examination. He put his cold ear against my chest, listened to my heart and lungs, and asked about my childhood diseases. I felt I was in a clinic. When he was finished and my shirt was back on, he said: >Well, let's see how it all works out.< I was amazed. I had expected a deep conversation about education and the child. But this was so-ordinary."

    Arnon then received the unsettling news that before a final decision could be made he would have to be interviewed by Stefa. His spirits were considerably dampened when he stepped into the office of the large woman in black. Did he have any money? she wanted to know; there was no salary. Did he realize all that would be demanded of him? Would he keep the rules of the home?

    Arnon agreed to all of Stefa's conditions, only to be told that he would have to wait a month to be notified one way or the other. He had naively expected to begin immediately, and was now forced to find a temporary room. To his relief, he received his acceptance in only two weeks-Stefa's policy was to make most people wait for an answer so that they would appreciate getting in-but it took much longer than that before he felt comfortable with Stefa.

    Like the other apprentices, he was initially confused when Korczak left it to him to decide his activity with the children. Eventually he chose to teach Hebrew to those whose relatives hoped to emigrate to Palestine. He realized that Korczak was deliberately vague with the new apprentices because he believed that it was impossible to teach pedagogics, that "everyone must find his own personal way to the child."

    Arnon was fascinated that Korczak looked for nonrational reasons behind a child' s behavior, and often reached a child by means of fantasy. The orphans were allowed to choose the portions of food they wanted, but could not leave any of it on their plates, so Arnon was nonplussed when Halinka, a seven-year-old girl at his table, refused to eat the crusts of her bread. Passing by at the end of a meal, Korczak would ask for the crusts and pop them into his mouth, a clownish antic that amused the other children. Later he took Arnon aside to inquire why he thought Halinka, who was usually well behaved, rejected the crusts. Trying to impress Korczak, Arnon began speculating on possible reasons, but Korczak dismissed them all. "You know, this girl may be endowing them with some special mystical powers," he told Arnon. "Let's pursue that possibility ."

    Korczak cajoled Halinka into confiding that she was afraid witches lived in the crusts. Her grandmother had told her so. He had to persuade her otherwise, but in a way that didn't contradict her grandmother, the only person she had left in the world. "No, Halinka, witches do not live in these crusts," he assured her. "They would never dine in such a humble place as ours. Witches eat caviar in castles in the mountains, very far from here, or in royal palaces like the ones our kings used to reside in. So now you can eat all your bread."

    Although he played the seemingly detached observer, Korczak had a way of voicing an opinion when least expected. Once he came up behind an apprentice in the courtyard who was patting one child's head while talking to another. "Young lady" he said, "that is not a dog you are petting, but a person." Another time, after watching a new apprentice comply with a boy's request to untie his shoelace, he asked: "Tell me, my dear, do you plan to make education your career or just a temporary pastime?" Then he stooped down and gave her a practical lesson on how to teach a child to untie his own shoelaces. He was really teaching her how to make a child self-reliant. "I'll remove splinters from your tongues or your behinds," was his constant refrain to the children, "but never out of any place where you can do it by yourselves."

    Yanka Zuk still remembers Korczak materializing out of nowhere as she was supervising a group of eighty children cooped up in a side room while the dining hall was being cleaned. She was having fun racing about with them when she saw Korczak moving toward her without a word, making it necessary for her to back up to avoid a collision. After maneu- vering her into the narrow space between two cupboards, he stood with his hands In his pockets, his eyes full of mischief, and said: "Now stand quietly, my little one. Just observe. What do you see?"

    When she didn't answer, he continued in the same sardonic vein: "Isn't it amazing that eighty children can play in such a small space without fighting or hitting one another? When you remain still like this, you have an opportunity to notice what is going on."

    He watched her watching the children interact with each other for about five minutes before he let her From that experience Yanka learned firsthand that the art of observing was an essential part ofher training as an educator. Ifthe children asked for help or advice, one could give it; otherwise, one should not interfere with their natural play. "The truth about children is not to be found in books, but in life," Korczak would tell her. Yanka was also to learn that beneath Korczak' s gruff exterior was a warmth that would surface once someone had gained his trust, that even his temper was part of his pedagogical strategy. "Run, run, run!" he would shout at her as she dashed by him down the hall. "How much longer are you going to exhaust yourself this way? You have to be able to work for the next thirtyfive years!" But his seeming impatience with the apprentices was often no more than a theatrical act. "When I'm shouting at you, try to observe if I am only shouting with my mouth-the tongue and throat-or if I'm shouting from the heart," he wrote one of them years later. "Observe if I'm really angry, or just pretending. It's because I love you that I feel I have to scold."

    Many of the apprentices came to think of Korczak as an erratic com- bination of father and adviser. Others were annoyed that he had the patience of an angel with the orphans but not with them. As young adults they belonged to an age group that he felt lacked trust and sincerity - unlike young children, who were open and honest. it bothered him that, no matter how much he and Stefa scolded, some of the apprentices still came late to meals and returned to the orphanage after hours. More than once he had the late-risers locked out of the dining room. An even worse fate befell them when they returned after curfew-10:00 on weeknights, 11:30 on weekends. Misha never forgot the terrible moment of finding Stefa waiting at the door. "She didn't have to say anything. Just her look was enough."

    Korczak acknowledged that the bursa was like a monastery. It was not he and Stefa who required such strict conditions, but "faceless ne- cessity, life itself," he told them. "We'd like to give you more. We know that you yearn to take part in Warsaw life. But if you stay out late, you'll be too tired the next day to keep up with the relentless energy of the children."

    Korczak might lose his patience occasionally, but he seldom lost his sense of humor. In a skit he wrote entitled "The Bursa Suffers," he has one apprentice complain: "I thought Korczak would be young and hand- some. That we'd talk. If I got sick, he'd sit On my bed and read to me from his books. That wouldn't be improper because he's a doctor. But he's old and bald. I thought he'd be full of poetry. But he just prays and cleans his shoes."

    Igor Newerly was Korczak' s private secretary for two years before he moved into the orphanage to teach carpentry in 1928. As the son of a Russian army officer and a Polish woman of aristocratic origin, Newerly had lived in both Poland and Russia before coming to Warsaw at the age Of twenty-three. He learned secretarial skills to support himself, and was grateful when a family friend introduced him to Korczak. For two hours each morning he took dictation for Korczak's private letters, articles, and stories; harboring a dream to become a writer himself, he valued watching KOrczak meticulously prune each sentence down to its barest essentials. But one morning, feeling depressed over a love affair that had just ended, Newerly remained in bed, wondering if he should kill himself or leave for Abyssinia. He didn't even bother to notify Korczak that he wouldn't be at work that day, and it never occurred to him that Korczak might be worried and come by. Late that afternoon, still in his pajamas, he was horrified to find Korczak at his door, asking, "What's wrong, are you ill?" Newerly had no sooner said yes than he remembered that his boss was a medical doctor. Korczak felt his pulse, did a cursory examination, and then asked sympathetically, "What's bothering you?" When Newerly told him about his broken heart, Korczak replied: "There' s only one sOlution-to go to a monastery."

    "A monastery?" Newerly repeated.
    "Yes, the orphanage," said Korczak. "In the long run it's the same thing. You can regulate your life with gongs and schedules. And you can take classes at a university"
    "I haven't the money to study," Newerly admitted.
    "You'll receive free room and board, as well as 150 zlotys in exchange for teaching the children something," Korczak replied.
    "But I'm not a teacher. I have no skills."
    "What do you like to do?"
    "Work with my hands. I'm a jack-of-all-trades."
    "Very well, then," Korczak said, "you can set up a carpentry shop. We need one." "But"-Newerly didn't know how to phrase it. He wasn't Jewish and he wasn't sure how he would fit into the orphanage. "But what if a child speaks to me in Yiddish?" Korczak laughed. "You know the children speak Polish in the home. And, for that matter, I don't know Yiddish either.& Newerly still wasn't sure it was the answer to his problems. "But what if the children don't like me?"
    "We'll know soon enough," Korczak told him. "After three months, the children vote on each new teacher. It's their decision who stays in the home."

    But, of course, it was someone else's decision, too. "You'd better drop in and have a talk with Stefa as soon as possible," Korczak added.

    Newerly remembered how apprehensive he had been of Stefa when he first became Korczak' s secretary. They had had little to do with each other; if he thought of her at all, it was as a huge column supporting the entire house. But the interview went well. When Stefa laughed at a joke he had the inspiration to tell her, he saw that her face, though still not attractive, was actually pleasant. She was not as formidable as he had feared. He moved into the orphanage within a few days and enrolled in a course in sociology with Korczak's old friend and cellmate, Ludwik Krzywicki, at the Polish Free University. He had a hard time getting used to all the "monastery" rules, especially arriving for breakfast on time, but eventually bought himself an alarm clock. He set up a carpentry shop on the little balcony over the dining hall, and, like all apprentices, he was nervous when it came time for the children to vote on him. To his great relief, he received a majority of pluses-which meant he was one of the most popular teachers in the house.

    The apprentices were instructed to keep a daily record of observations of the children in their care and to include any questions they themselves might have. Stefa went over the journals every night, writing answers in the margins. Korczak looked through their questions before the bursa seminars that were held each Friday night at nine, jotting down topics he wanted to refer to on small pieces of paper he carried in his pocket.

    Those apprentices who hoped the famous educator would dazzle them with academic brilliance were disappointed by Korczak' s low-key style. He would enter the room quietly, often lost in his own thoughts. Taking his seat at a small table, he would look attentively at the group, pull out a small piece of paper, and begin talking. He spoke extemporaneously, weaving in incidents from his own experience so freely that sometimes the thread of his thought disappeared from view until he unexpectedly retrieved it at the end of the seminar. He might devote a whole evening to one special point in a journal, or he might continue the discussion of the week before.

    "To whom do Laibush's ears belong?" Korczak asked in one seminar. Yanka Zuk's face, as well as her ears, turned red as Korczak proceeded to read a note from the school nurse complaining that nine-year-old Laibush had dirty ears. Laibush, a sad child whose grandmother, his only living relative, had just died, was one of Yanka's charges. Even though a dormitory monitor saw to it that all the children washed each morning, it was her responsibility to check that he was neat and clean, dressed warmly, and took his sandwich with him when he went to school.

    "Where did we make our mistake?" Korczak continued. "Ifeveryone did his job here, what went wrong? During the course ofthe day, Laibush passed through many hands. Were his ears dirty when he left home, or did they become dirty in school?"

    The discussion became a philosophical inquiry into who was respon- sible for Laibush's ears, rather than who was to blame. How had Laibush's ears escaped everyone's scrutiny? . The next day Yanka overheard Korczak still talking animatedly to Stefa about Laibush's dirty ears. Korczak prided himself on precision in everything-even the maintenance of ears. Ida Merzan remembers that he would not let the apprentices use vague words like "frequently," "seldom," "many," or "little." He would ask: "Exactly how many times did he hit that boy?" Or: "How long did he cry?" If an apprentice could not remember the first time, he always remembered after that.

    Still, Korczak could be reassuring when his students were overly concerned that they had slipped up or failed. "Out of big worries you have to make small ones," he would say. "And out of small worries, you have to make nothing. It's easier that way."

    One Friday night Korczak announced that a tangy piece of salted herring on a dry piece of bread is better than bland pea soup. "It is better to strive and suffer than to have everything and be bored. A difficult life, even with its suffering, has the tang of herring."

    Stefa sat, as always, at the back of the room, looking through the apprentices' journals. At ten o'clock she glanced at her watch and an- nounced: "We've been talking for about an hour. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. We'd better end now." Taking Stefa's weekly cue, Korczak ended the session with: "Long live the herring!"

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