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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Not Every Truth
Can Be Blown on a Trumpet

    It is possible that Stefa's request to be called Madame Stefa had nothing to do with Maryna Falska being known as Madame Maryna. Yet she must have been on Stefa's mind in 1928, because that was the year the new building that Korczak had helped Maryna design for Our Home became ready for occupancy.

    Maryna had attracted a powerful patron in Aleksandra Pilsudska, the second wife of Jozef Pilsudski. This resourceful woman (known for her courage in the prewar underground) had chosen social work as an arena where she would not create any "ambiguous situations" for her husband. Dissatisfied with the inadequate quarters in Pruszkow, she began raising money to build a large, modern facility for the orphans in a wooded suburb of Warsaw known as Bielany. Her excellent connections made it possible for her to acquire a state concession for a small shop selling liquor and tobacco, whose proceeds would go to Our Home. She also helped Maryna organize an annual charity ball, which, not surprisingly, was well attended.

    Maryna was still the intensely private and formal person whom Korczak had met in Kiev. Like Stefa, she continued to wear only black, a style of dress that many women of their generation had chosen to commemorate the failed uprising of 1863 and had not discarded once independence had been won. Although these two women so dedicated to social welfare had much in common-including their attachment to Korczak -they seldom saw each other.

    One of the few occasions they were together was the opening ceremony of Our Home, at which Aleksandra Pilsudska presided. it was a big event in Warsaw The press called the sprawling building the "Children's Palace," because it had running water, electricity, and other amenities that were unheard of in most orphanages at that time. Designed in the shape of an airplane, it had two residence wings which fanned out at right angles from the central administrative building, and easily accommodated 120 children, ranging in age from four to fourteen.

    The right-wing anti-Semitic newspapers labeled Our Home "a new nest of Masonry and potential Communism erected in the heart of the capital," and decried the lack of a chapel. "Well, it's Korczak," one jour- nalist wrote. "What else can you expect when a Jew runs the board?" Few people knew that Korczak had tried to persuade Maryna to include a chapel in the original plans. He had set aside a room in his Jewish orphanage where children could go before breakfast to say kaddish or other prayers for their parents, because he believed that all children need to express their grief and talk with God. He often sat with the children in the room, a yarmulke on his head, a prayer book on his lap, his eyes closed in silent meditation. But there was nothing he could do to persuade Maryna, who had boycotted her own husband's funeral on atheistic principles, to yield on the chapel.

    Maryna had a staff-one might call it another "regiment ofwomen"- to do much of what Stefa took care of herself Many of them were loyal friends who had known Maryna in Kiev. Karolina Peretiakowicz (Miss Kara), whose mother had the girls' school there, was her administrative assistant-a warm, motherly woman whom the children adored; Maria Podwysocka (Miss Maria) was in charge of finances.

    "We were close, but Maryna kept her distance even with us," recalls Eugenka, another colleague from Kiev. "She would answer our professional questions but never shared her personal thoughts. Just once, at the beginning of the war when she was depressed, did she confide to me that there were moments she could feel the presence of her dead husband and friends, and that those ghosts were more real to her than living people."

    Maryna's schedule was much like Stefa's. Up at five-thirty or six every morning, she never deviated from her routine. At seven she was in the kitchen supervising the children's breakfast, and was always at the door to see them off to school, checking buttons. collars, school bags.

    After inspecting all the rooms, she went to her office to plan menus with the cook and organize work details. At two, when the children returned for lunch, Maryna always sat at the same place at the head of the horseshoe-shaped table where she could see everything. (The door to her office on the main floor had a glass pane through which she could observe the children passing by.) Between three and five every afternoon Maryna retired to her room, where it was understood that she was not to be disturbed.

    At five o'clock on Fridays she presided over what the orphans called the "Hour of Guilt.~~ Anyone who had committed an offense that week was to come to her room to sign a book that she kept there for that purpose. She did not invite anyone to the orphanage, but on Friday nights she went to the home of relatives, where she received old friends. On Saturday evenings after she and the children had their baths, she took bets against bad behavior in a ledger, much as Korczak did, and dispensed milk chocolates, after which she told stories by the fire.

    Maryna spoke in low, measured tones, as ifweighing each word. She inspired both love and fear in the orphans and apprentices. She had only to glance at whatever they were doing, and she knew what they were thinking. "She wasn't forgiving like Korczak, " Igor Newerly recalled.

    "With Maryna, there was no hope. She held everyone responsible for their actions. If you were late, you were not excused. If she didn't like you, she made your life miserable. She was a tough woman." Maria Taboryska, one ofthe orphans, remembers that Maryna's blue eyes peered out of her pale face "like pieces of ice," but that she was capable of such caring gestures as reaching out to brush back a lock of a girl's hair when they passed in the hall. Only one boy, whom she always called by her pet name for him, Lomulek, was able to get close to her. He was clearly her favorite. But if he was naughty, she could reduce him to tears by calling him by his last name.

    Maryna sometimes took walks with the older boys and girls through the forest behind the orphanage. They were amazed to see her roll a cigarette, since she never smoked in their company at home. She would reminisce about her former political activities, including the periods she spent in prison and exile, and would advise them never to be afraid of difficulties in life.

    igor Newerly, recalling the year he taught carpentry in Our Home, said: "Maryna would walk through the world of children in her black dress with its stiff collar and white starched cuffs, encased as if in armor against the outside world, against herself, like a nun in her habit, like a woman judge in her robes. She would smile kindly at the children who came to her with their small yet very real problems, but the smile did not look comfortable in the corners ofher severe, narrow mouth. She had moments of uninhibited merriment-but she lacked a sense of humor. Her sharp, concentrated gaze would notice things unobserved by us, though she wasn't articulate like Korczak. She was the loneliest, most isolated person I have ever met."

    Newerly recalls that when he stayed up late one night in the carpentry shop finishing a chest as an Easter gift for the house, Maryna became infuriated that he went to bed before sweeping up. She cleaned the room herself and was so hostile to him after that that he was forced to move out. it wasn't until a year later, when he stopped by to see the children on a day when Korczak was there, that she was willing to offer her hand and shake his as a friend once again.

    The children of Our Home would wait for Korczak by the windows or down at the gate. A boy might want to sell a loose tooth; an older girl might need his help in getting permission to go to a real beauty parlor for her next haircut; others might just want to have a piggyback ride, or to look in his pockets for the candy he always carried. Some weeks Korczak came early to talk with Maryna and the staff, bragging that he had walked all the way to Bielany to save tram fare. He would sit on the front stoop to rest, recounting how he had also saved money by reading all the newspapers in a small coffee shop on the corner of Marszalkowska Street, which was on the way.

    "I won't wish you good health," he would tell the caretaker, Wladyslaw Cichosz, who always waited for him as eagerly as the children.

    "Be a little ill, go to bed, you work too hard." And he would add, "I don't mean seriously ill, just a cold or something." The children would hang on Korczak with the same glee as the children he had left behind on Krochmalna. He made jokes while he examined them, and with mock gallantry would kiss the hands of the youngest girls. He liked to tease them with questions like: "Have you ever seen a cow with a green tail?" He never tired of telling friends about the girl who answered: "And you? Have you ever seen a cake with a herring inside?" Although he stayed only one night a week at Our Home, he always appeared on holidays such as May Day and Easter. On Christmas Eve he danced with them around the tree.

    Once when a child asked him why he had no wife, he replied he had three: "Madame Maryna, Madame Stefa, and Miss Kara." But not all of the women on the staff at Our Home felt comfortable with Korczak. "I respected him, but it is difficult to say i liked him," Eugenka said. "He was certainly unusual. When he asked me questions, I felt I had to answer cleverly. "

    Maria Podwysocka was reluctant to take walks with Korczak because he had a disconcerting way of digging into his pocket to oblige every beggar who approached them. "Why must you give money to these people?" she once had the courage to ask. "They probably have more than you do."

    "They may" he replied. "But then again there may be one who does not have as much."

    Maria never questioned Korczak's aims, and would rise to his defense if anyone else did. When a mutual friend suggested that Korczak was not preparing his orphans to face the real world, she replied indignantly. "You understand nothing. The doctor knows very well that the world is unjust; that's why he has created an oasis of goodness. He wants to raise children who will be incapable of doing evil, and who will fight it with virtue." After Our Home moved to Bielany, there was room for twenty apprentices.

    Like their counterparts at Krochmalna, they had been eager to work with the eminent Janusz Korczak, but they, too, were confused by bis unpredictable behavior. Stanislaw Rogolowski remembers that when he was being interviewed by Maryna Falska in her office, a "small man with a beard" sat writing in a notebook at a far table. Trying to impress the directress, Rogolowski was emphasizing bis interest in working with troubled children when the bearded man pushed back his chair and shouted: "There are special institutions for that!" On his way out of the office, Rogolowski learned from one of the children that the man who had exploded at him was none other than the famous Dr. Korczak. He was amazed when he was accepted into the bursa.

    The new apprentices at Our Home were also given very little orientation.
    "You either stayed afloat or went under," Henrietta Kedzierska commented, recalling her disappointment in the "slim, inconspicuous elderly man in a gray smock" who shook hands with her group, glanced indifferently from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and went on his way. Madame Maryna spoke only a few words about what they were expected to do with the children before turning them over to an experienced apprentice to show them around. They were informed that after the children were in bed on Thursday nights they would have their seminar with Dr. Korczak.

    "Whenever the doctor ran out of his office, he was immediately surrounded by children flocking to him like chickens to a mother hen, " Henrietta noted in her private diary. " And that grump laughed with them, listened to their nonsensical chatter with great interest, while he didn't have even a few minutes to spare for the new apprentices." She hoped he would finally make the members of her group feel welcome when they joined the Thursday-night seminar, but "not a chance." He was completely indifferent to them, continuing a topic from the previous week as if they weren't there. That night she noted in her diary. "The so-called philosopher is a real crackpot." Besides helping the third-graders with their homework, Henrietta was assigned to polish the corridor outside the dormitories on the third floor after it had been washed by someone else. Equipped with a cloth and a broom, she was rushing down the hall to attack her job when she encountered Korczak. Feeling self-conscious, she started sweeping the floor. He stopped, watched her for a few moments, and asked: "New?" "A new broom-or new person?" she retorted quickly.

    "Person," he replied, equally flip.
    Afraid that her sharp tongue would get her into trouble, Henrietta tried to sound polite:
    "New person."
    But she added boldly: "However, since yesterday, she's lost in this jungle."
    She didn't know that the hearty laugh Korczak gave in response meant he was up to mischief "Well, what have we here?" he asked gaily.
    "Have you ever in all your long life polished floors before?" "Yes, " she replied, still feeling bold, "but the rooms were like matchboxes compared to these."

    She felt ill at ease again as he examined her hands with their brightly painted nails. Whatever he was thinking was hidden by his pleasant "Since you are in training here, I will teach you how this work should be done. To begin with, your piece of cloth is much too small to polish this large corridor. It would be better to use a blanket."

    He suggested that she take one from her bed, being sure to remove its cover. He folded the blanket she gave him lengthwise and told her to sit on one end while he grabbed the other and pulled. She rode "as if on a sleigh" back and forth a few times until the corridor shone like a mirror. When they finished, the blanket he handed her looked like an old rag.

    A wicked expression came over Korczak's face as he exclaimed in mock horror: "Well, well, this is how the new staff respects an institution's property! In ten minutes a new blanket becomes a dishrag! How shocking!
    Disgraceful! I will inform the administrator in charge immediately!"
    "But you told me to do it," Henrietta protested weakly. Now he seemed genuinely angry. "What an innocent baby you are! What a smart aleck! There's always someone else to blame." And he rushed down the hall.

    Henrietta was left standing there, completely bewildered. She resigned herself to being in Korczak's bad graces. But during the next Thursday-night seminar, he seemed to have forgotten the incident as he addressed the complaints of some apprentices about being unfairly sued by the children.

    "So they sue you and take you to court," he said. "You ask why. You insist you are innocent. You blame others, not yourself." His voice was growing agitated. "You cannot make a fool out of a wise man. One needs courage to refuse." The other apprentices couldn't follow Korczak's digression, but Hen- rietta understood that his remarks were directed at her. She realized that he had tested her to see how far she would go in blind obedience to authority. She had failed the test, but gained some wisdom. In the future she would think before she acted, and rely on her own judgment.

    Like Stefa, Maryna communicated with the apprentices through their journals. She was capable of filling many pages when she felt strongly on a subject. In 1929 Stanislaw Zemis wrote of how furious he had been at the boys for using swear words at Scout camp. After he reprimanded them, they had asked for time to improve and were making progress, but now back in Bielany, they were cursing again. Could Madame Maryna please speak to them about this?

    "It's not easy for me to answer you, " Maryna replied in his journal. "I can't recall hearing the girls swear. I think they're afraid of me, so they don't quarrel in my presence. But Pan Doctor, whose room is next to the boys' dormitory, notes their swearing, and says nothing. Naturally the boys think he accepts it. Since I've started staying in the dormitory with the boys until they go to sleep, their behavior has improved. I tell them sternly to keep their things in order and not to use bad words. However, on the one night I skipped going there, I found that the boys had blocked the toilet door with a broom. It means that the boys, like the girls, are afraid of me and behave differently when I'm around. They know I'll react. One should react. Pan Doctor's habit of being just an observer doesn't change the behavior of bullies like Oleg who lord it over the weaker ones."

    Maryna crossed out another page of comments, perhaps because she realized they were too critical of Korczak. Although she had written a booklet only the year before on the educational practices of Our Home (which were based on Korczak' s self-government system) with a laudatory introduction by him, she was becoming increasingly impatient with his refusal to confront the more aggressive boys. She didn't agree that one should wait patiently until a troublemaker had come around to accepting the necessity of being a good citizen of the home. In fact, she disapproved of many of Korczak's ideas: that children should vote on each other and the staff (she would soon discontinue this practice and award the children merits for good behavior) and that children should be permitted to take adults to court. The apprentices often heard her quarreling with Korczak on these issues. More than once she threatened to resign and turn the orphanage over to him. "We thought he was soft-hearted, " one said, referring to the way Korczak would try to placate Maryna. Yet the apprentices also noticed that Korczak did not modify any of his strategies with the children.

    Stanislaw Rogolowski remembers how surprised he was at Korczak's reticence in answering some of the questions the apprentices posed. "Instead of giving a definite answer, he would say "I don't know," or "Maybe," or "I can't answer because I've never been able to solve it." Or.

    "I could offer an interpretation, but I don't know if it would be adequate."
    If he were pressed, he might say:
    "Not every truth can be blown on a trumpet."

    Yet there were seminars when Korczak surprised everyone with a definite, unqualified response. One of the apprentices confessed to losing his temper when a difficult boy challenged him with: "You wouldn't dare hit me! You know Pan Doctor would throw you out in the cold!" Grabbing the child by the collar, the apprentice had snapped: "I won't spank you, but I'll fix you so you'll never have the nerve to behave like this again." And he dragged the boy down the stairs to the basement, threatening to lock him in there where he could yell and curse all he wanted at the rats. It had the desired effect. The boy became docile immediately, and was compliant from then on.

    Everyone waited for what Korczak would say. The doctor seemed to shrink before their eyes, his head disappearing into his shoulders as he spoke in a strange whisper, as if to himself: " A mischievous child is naughty because he is unhappy. Nervous. Your duty as a teacher is to find out what is bothering him. Perhaps he has a toothache and is afraid to admit it because you~ll insist on calling the dentist. Perhaps he has a temperature and doesn't want to tell for fear he won't be allowed to go to tomorrow's movie. Perhaps he had a bad night because he was thinking of his mother who is dead, or living far from here. Perhaps he dreamed of her and woke up crying. Perhaps he was certain that nobody loves him. And you, the teacher, are the one he uses to get even for all those injustices, for his lost mother. Far away, sad, poor, angry, bitter-but still his own mother.

    You are strong, healthy, smiling-but a stranger. The mischievous child doesn't know that you really care about him, that you are trying to protect him from a cold world filled with evil. He doesn't understand that you have to protect the other children, who trust and need you, from his pranks. He doesn't realize that he is harming himself as well as you. But you know. So into that dark cellar with him! Scare the brat out of his wits! Perhaps you really hope he gets hurt. A wrong for a wrong!"

    Korczak was still whispering to himself: "There are many terrible things in this world, but the worst is when a child is afraid of his father, mother, or teacher. He fears them, instead of loving and trusting them." Now Korczak's voice was full of hurt and bitterness. He closed his eyes. Minutes ofuncomfortable silence followed. No one knew what to do. Was Korczak thinking? Crying? Sleeping? The apprentice who had confessed wished he hadn't. But Korczak had not fallen asleep. Suddenly he cried out: "od, please forgive him for scaring the poor child!" And without saying good night, he got up from bis chair and left the room.

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