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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Heritage

    Henryk had stumbled upon a problem -the Jewish problem- that confronted all Polish Jews at some time in their lives.
    He would learn that his paternal grandfather, Hirsh Goldszmit, after whom he was named, had spent his life trying to solve it. Hirsh died at the age of sixty-nine in 1874, just a few years before his grandson was born, in the provincial town of Hrubieszow, southeast of Lublin.

    Hirsh was a dreamer and a man of action, much as his grandson would be. In the early nineteenth century he joined the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement that encouraged Jews to become part of the secular world. The Jews had been welcomed into Poland by the Polish kings in the Middle Ages, but they had remained isolated in the society. Hirsh and his fellow maskilim tried to convince them that if they cut off their beards and sidelocks, exchanged their long caftans for Western suits, and made Polish rather than Yiddish their primary language, they could still retain their spiritual values. It was an arduous task Centuries of discrimination in the diaspora had made them suspicious of Gentiles and comfortable only among themselves. " Build a fence around the Torah, and don`t get mixed up with anything from the outside " was a popular saying.

    Somehow Hirsh, whose father was a glazier and trader in rabbit skins, managed to leap over the fence and make his way to medical school. After receiving his degree, he married Chana Ejser, two years his junior, and became the first doctor in Hrubieszow's small Jewish hospital. In true Haskalah spirit, Hirsh gave his three sons and two daughters Christian as well as Hebrew names, and as a leader in the Jewish community -whose three thousand Jews made up half the town´s population- he took advantage of any chance to praise ways in which Poles and Jews worked together. Soliciting funds for his small hospital in the regional Hebrew newspaper, Hirsh commended the two rabbis who had gone about like "beggars" collecting donations in spite of advanced age, poor health, and little means of their own, as well as the Gentile on the charity board who "spared no effort" in helping them.

    But Hirsh´s claim that a secular education would not lead one´s children away from their own faith and into the dreaded jaws of conversion was weakened in 1849 when his eldest son, eighteen-year-old Ludwik, converted. Although conversion was not an uncommon occurrence in that impassioned period of Polish uprisings against the Russians, Hirsh himself remained a Jew, continuing to exhaust himself with projects that would build bridges between his people and the Poles.

    It was not only the intransigence ofhis own people that made Hirsh´s task so frustrating, but the fact that a good many Poles did not consider a Jew, no matter how enlightened, a Pole. When Korczak´s father, Jozef, was born in 1844, Hirsh had to go to the Office of Non-Christian Religions with two Jewish witnesses to register him. He took the capmaker and the innkeeper. Four years later, he asked the synagogue caretaker and the ritual slaughterer to testify to the birth of his next boy, Jakub. Rather than converting like their older brother, Jozef and Jakub would carry on their father´s assimilationist mission by dedicating their lives to projects that would lift poor Jews into the mainstream of Polish society.

    When he was a small boy, Jozef went to Hebrew school in Hrubieszow, for the maskilim believed in giving their boys a grounding in Torah before their secular schooling. He was attending a Polish gymnasium in Lublin during the failed uprising of 1863, reciting with the rest of his classmates the patriotic poems of Poland´s three great nineteenth-century Romantic poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasinski-poems he would pass on to his son, along with a yearning for national liberation from the Russians.

    Little of Jozef Goldszmit in his healthy, productive years has come down to us except through his own articles and books. We haven´t even a photograph to divulge whether he was responsible for his son´s fair complexion and baldness as well as his patriotic fervor. In the Ghetto Diary Korczak writes: " I should devote a great deal of space to my father. I tried to put into practice the goals he strove for, and which my grandfather pursued with such pain. " But Korczak was never to fill in his complex feelings about this father who, like him, had literary aspirations as a young man.

    Jozef was twenty when he wrote his first article for the Israelite (a progressive Polish-language bimonthly which had just begun publication), describing his nervousness on arriving in the big city to study law. In those days Warsaw was a bustling tree-lined capital of half a million people, one in six of whom were Jews who, except for a small assimilated circle, lived in squalid poverty. With its Royal Palace, occupied by the Czar's Viceroy, its skyline dominated by the onion-shaped domes of the huge Russian church, and its cobblestone streets teeming with droshkies, wagons, porters, and vendors, Warsaw could easily overwhelm an impressionable newcomer. Seeking a quiet place in which to gather his thoughts, Jozef wandered into the synagogue on Danilowiczowska Street, which, like everything else in this city, seemed grand compared to what he had known in the provinces, only to have loud clanging from the nail factory next door drown out the music and prayers. " Such things should not be allowed to happen in a House of God, " he reported indignantly. It was his first crusade, but not his last.

    Like so many of his generation who had become disillusioned with armed struggle after the failed insurrections against the Czar, Jozef believed that the only way to create a strong Polish nation was to build its economy from within. Wanting the Jewish people to be part ofthis vision, he took time from his law studies to raise money for Polish-language craft schools in both Lublin and W arsaw, where poor Jewish boys and girls could learn skills that would equip them to enter the Polish work force. Both he and his younger brother Jakub, who would follow him in law, wrote articles promoting those schools.

    Jozef also collaborated with Jakub on a series of monographs called Portraits of Famous Jews, in which they hoped to enlighten the public about remarkable Jews of high moral character. (They later expanded this project to include famous Poles.) The first volume was on Moses Montefiore, the exuberant philanthropist and financial advisor to Queen Victoria, who traveled the globe with his carriage, wife, and doctor in tow, distributing large sums of money to poor Jews for hospitals and orphanages, never neglecting to slip something to the sultans and czars of those lands for their own poor.

    " Sir Montefiore is a Jew and he never forgets it. But he is also an Englishman, and an exemplary citizen of his country who fights not with the sword but with the force of virtue, " Jozef expounded in his flowery nineteenth-century Polish. This message was one that both he and his brother would stress in all their writings: it was possible to be both a loyal Jew and a loyal citizen of one´s country. At the age of eighty-four, in failing health, Montefiore had not hesitated to make a strenuous trip to Jerusalem when he heard his fellow Jews were once again in dire need. " Even though the journey is dangerous, nothing will stop me, " Jozef quotes him. " Having devoted my entire life to my people, I will not desert them now. "

    Known as the "Brothers Goldszmit," Jozef and Jakub used writing as a tool to educate and raise both Polish and ]ewish consciousness. They wrote numerous articles on the need to secularize Jewish education and upgrade Jewish orphanages, and even turned their hand to fiction to address burning social issues. One has only to read their stilted novels-Jozef´s on the need for medical planning for poor Jews; Jakub´s on the plight of women driven to prostitution-to understand why their dream of helping to create a genre of books about Jewish life that would become part of Polish literature was doomed to failure.

    The Goldszmit brothers moved easily in the narrow stratum of society made up of Polish and Jewish liberal intelligentsia. Their friends included the most famous Polish writers of that period, many of whom created Jewish characters in their novels with whom Polish readers could empathize. When Jakub became editor of the Polish-language Jewish Kalendar, his Polish friends contributed articles affirming their brotherhood with the Jews. The Kalendar´s purpose, Jakub wrote, was to " enlighten Christians concerning Jews and Judaism and to help bridge the gulf that still keeps the Jews separate. " But Jakub infuriated the wealthy leaders of the small but influential assimilated Jewish community with an article in the Kalendar criticizing their " spiritual poverty ." Labeling them a " class of religious hypocrites who do not believe in anything ," he accused them of shirking their responsibility toward the poor Jewish masses.

    Jozef´s last major publication, in 1871, was his dissertation on Talmudic divorce law, a subject in which he specialized. Praised in an introduction by his Warsaw University law professor for being the first to make this esoteric topic accessible to the Polish people, Jozef was clearly intent on demythologizing the Talmud, which many Poles blamed for the strange and even "evil" behavior of the Jews. Unlike other assimilated Jews who joined the Poles in criticizing the holy book as a backward influence on their people, Jozef gives an erudite overview of Jewish law (quoting both German and Hebrew sources) as it operated in Poland from the eleventh century to the nineteenth.

    There are no records as to when and how Jozef Goldszmit met his wife, Cecylia Gebicka, but it may have been in 1874 when he lectured on Jewish marriage law in Kalisz, an old industrial town in western Poland. He was thirty, and she seventeen. It is probable that Jozef had introductions to the leading Jewish families in Kalisz, among whom was Cecylia´s father, Adolf Gebicki. A successful textile manufacturer active in both Jewish and Polish circles, Adolf, who himselfwas the son ofa doctor, had an assimilated background and moral fervor similar to Jozef´s. (He was even something of a folk hero to the poor Jews of Kalisz whom he saved from homelessness by persuading the Governor to spare their dilapidated tenements marked for demolition.) The following year, when he was fifty-three, Adolf was "felled like an oak and paralyzed" (as his obituary would read). He, his wife Emilia, and his son moved to Warsaw, perhaps to be near his daughter, who was by then either married or engaged to Jozef. When he died two years later, Emilia moved in with the newly married couple.

    Although Korczak wrote with deep affection in the Ghetto Diary of his " Grannie " (the only grandparent he knew, and the only person in his household who "understood" him), he was more reticent about his complex relationship with his mother, whose picture he kept on his desk all his life.
    " My mother. Later about that, " he noted.
    But there was to be no later.

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