Janusz Korczak Communication - Center
» Homepage «

 
Janusz Korczak Biography

[ back ] [ Index ] [ next ]

The Happiest Period

    When the orphanage was asleep, Korczak lived in his garret room as "deliberately" as Thoreau did in his hut on Walden Pond. By shutting himself off in this monastic way from marriage and family, from card games, dinner parties, and balls, he left himself free to concentrate on what were to him the essentials of life. If Thoreau was an "inspector of rainstorms and snowstorms," then Korczak was an observer of the storms that swept across the landscapes of childhood.

    Late one night in 1925 he was sitting at his desk, taking stock. At forty-seven, he was aware of the passage of time, that he was slipping toward the half-century mark-not a respectable age for a child. The fact that his body had betrayed him by growing into an adult shape was one of the strange ironies of his life. For walk as he might among adults in their hypocritical world, resemble them as he might with his "watch and mustache and desk full of drawers," he knew that he was really an impostor.

    The apprentices might be younger, but in some ways they were not as young as he. it was only the years that were on their side. If he could help them return to that earlier period when all their senses were open, if he could penetrate the defenses they erected to shut out the crying child in themselves, then he could make them sensitive to the underlying causes of a youngster's seemingly irrational behavior. But how could he make them young again-or himself?

    He wrote on a piece of paper: When I Am Little Again, and followed it with the same first line with which he had begun King Watt-" And so this is what happened.-" However, this story was not about an imaginary young king, but about a middle-aged teacher, very much like himself, who is lying in bed daydreaming: What if he were a boy again? He'd want to remember everything that he knows now, only he wouldn't want anyone to find out that he had once been a grownup. If children only knew how unhappy adults are, they'd never want to grow up: adults have much less freedom than children, and many more responsibilities and sorrows; if they don't cry anymore, it's because there's nothing worth crying about. And here the teacher sighs deeply.

    The room suddenly becomes dark. He sees an incandescent ball float into the room, becoming smaller and smaller until it lands on his head. It is a tiny man, no larger than his finger, with a long white beard and a tallred hat. He carries a lantern in one hand.
    "You called me with the Sigh of Longing." the elf says. "What is it you wish?"
    "I wish to be little again."
    Immediately the elf swings his lantern around, blinding him for a moment, mumbles something, and is gone.

    The teacher wakes the next morning in the house of his childhood. His mother is preparing breakfast for him before he leaves for school. He is a boy again, but with a difference-he still has his adult memories.
    It is awkward at first, having to fool everyone into thinking that he is experiencing childhood for the first time. He has to pretend that he doesn't know how to read and write. He feels foolish when he finds himself banging a metal sign with his hand and whistling like a train. But soon the old magic of childhood becomes natural-he recovers his clear thin voice, and enjoys barking like a dog and crowing like a cock. Once again, running is like galloping on a horse- racing with the wind. When he wakes the next morning to the "white, transparent, blinding joy" of snow, he remembers that when he was a grownup, looking at newly fallen snow, he was already anticipating the slush that would follow, the damp overshoes, and the difficulty of getting coal.

    When I Am Little Again is vintage Korczak, taking the reader through the playgrounds and minefields of childhood. "A child has a different clock, a different calendar, measures time differently," the teacher turned child declares. "His day is divided into brief seconds and long centuries. Children and grownups disturb one another. It would be nice if people could alternate being big and little-like summer and winter, day and night. Then children and grownups would understand each other.

    This imaginative device is ideal for Korczak the writer and Korczak the educator. In the dual role of boy/man he can jump back and forth in the life cycle, explaining each side to the other. The middle-aged teacher has not been a child more than a few hours when he sheds his first tears. He realizes he has forgotten the slights and injustices he felt as a boy. A real child has never been an adult and doesn't understand why he irritates his parents and teachers, but the make-believe child who is really an adult sees quite clearly how things look from both sides. And so, after a series of misunderstandings with both adults and his young peers, the author has the boy/man implore the elf to return him once again to his grownup form as a teacher.

    Because this book was written for both children and adults, Korczak wrote a separate preface for each. in the one for children he is the close friend, explaining that they will not find the usual adventure story, but rather a psychological tale about how a person thinks and feels inside. In the preface for adults, he is the didactic educator: "You are mistaken if you think we have to lower ourselves to communicate with children. On the contrary, we have to reach up to their feelings, stretch, stand on our tiptoes."

    The nineteen-twenties were Korczak's most prolific period. "If one could say to the sun: stop, it would probably be at this time of life," he would write in the Ghetto Diary, recalling those years when the world was still the world he had known, all intact. Warsaw was still Warsaw, a cosmopolitan yet cozy city. "My city, my street, the store where I regularly shop, my tailor, and most important ofall-my workshop." Equally beloved was the Vistula River, which ran through his city, changing in color and shape with the seasons, along whose shores he had strolled alone or with friends as a boy and a man:
    "I love you, gray Vistula. I would not exchange you for the proud Thames, the turbulent Niagara, or the magical canges. Those others, perhaps a hundred times more beautiful, would speak to me in a language which I could not understand."

    In the fall of 1926 the Jewish children of Warsaw found out about an exciting new project in Korczak's workshop, through a letter addressed to them in their parents' newspaper, Our Review, a Zionist Polish-language daily.
    "To My Future Readers," it began, and went on to announce a newspaper for children, the Little Review, which would appear as a supplement every Friday. Janusz Korczak, the writer of the letter-who identified himself as the author of King Matt the First-explained how the idea for the newspaper had come to him: "When I stopped being a doctor, I didn't know what to do with myself, so I started writing books. But writing books takes a long time, and I don't have enough patience.

    It takes a lot of paper, too, and your hand aches. SoIthought maybe it's better to start a newspaper, because then the readers will help you. I cannot do it alone."

    He needs their assistance, he tells them. They must all become correspondents and send articles and letters regularly to the office at 7 Nowolipki, "a big building with a garden nearby, and an antenna on the roof which picks up news from all over the world." They were to write about the things that made them both happy and sad, and the problems that they needed help with. There would be twelve telephones for anyone who wanted to call in a story, an editor for boys and another for girls, and "an old one with spectacles to help see that everything gets done." The purpose of the paper, he explained, was "to defend children."

    Those who didn't know how to write could come in and dictate to an editor. No one was to feel shy or fear being laughed at. Articles would be published on all kinds of topics: soccer, movies, trips, politics. The morning edition for younger children would have lots of pictures, and contests with prizes of Swiss chocolates and toys. There would be feature stories on pets, childhood illnesses, or hobbies, interviews with children who were doing unusual things, and a weekly serial, the first of which would be the diary of an orphan. The afternoon edition would take up more serious subjects, with prizes of books, watches, and movie tickets. The paper would be "nonpolitical and nonpartisan."

    What Korczak did not tell his future readers was that this was an old dream coming true. He regarded a children's press as the "ABC of life." "Children are a sizable social class, have a large number of professional and family problems, needs, desires, and doubts," he had written in the Polish Courier the year before. When Our Review offered him a supplement in the Friday issue, he could not refuse.

    The response surprised everyone. In the first few weeks, hundreds of letters from children all over Poland poured into the office of the Little Review.
    "There were nice and cheerful letters about birthdays and holidays, and sad and serious letters filled with dreams, troubles, and complaints," Korczak reported to his readers. One boy complained that his father had not kept his promise to give him a bicycle ifhe got good grades, and another that he was being ridiculed in class because of a special smock his mother made him wear over his clothes. To the boy who reported being slapped by his mother and father for sliding on the carpet, Korczak wrote: "Parents hit when they have problems and they're short of patience. Tell them not to hit you immediately, but to warn you that if you don't do as you are told, they will hit you in half an hour. That will give them time to calm down."

    Korczak sent his young reporters to investigate the validity of the letters, and wrote editorials about how bad it was to give false promises to children and to be insensitive to their needs. Parents found it was embarrassing to have their child's letter in print for all the neighbors to see and gossip about. Before long, the boy with the smock wrote that he didn't have to wear it anymore, and others reported similar progress. Nothing was too trivial to be printed in those first years of the paper. One child told of being shaken by the death of a chicken, another of seeing a small dog run over by a train. In his weekly response to letters, Korczak recalled having nightmares for weeks as a boy after seeing a cat run over. He even gave a brief account of how he and his sister buried his dead canary.

    "We were crying when we came back from that cemetery and the cage was empty. And later on I saw many terrible things, how people and animals suffer. Now I don't cry anymore, but I'm very, very sad. Sometimes grownups laugh when a child cries. They shouldn't do that. A child hasn't seen much suffering, and isn't used to it." Although Korczak neglected to mention that the burial of his canary led to the traumatic realization that he was a Jew, the Little Review did have a special column of letters from children reporting on anti-Semitism. A boy wrote: ."I am the only Jewish child in my class, and I feel like a stranger, an outsider." One girl complained that some nasty classmates used a Jewish variation of her name; another girl reported that some bullies always shouted at her:
    "Jews, go to Palestine!" Korczak responded to these children:
    "I know how it used to be, how it is, and how it should be. Our paper will devote many articles to this subject. We can't promise that we'll solve the problem or have quick remedies, because we know it is a difficult and painful issue. But if a paper for children has a duty to defend children, then a paper for Jewish children has a duty to defend those who suffer for being born Jews."

    In the afternoon edition of the paper, Korczak wrote articles on politics for the older children. Having promised that they would not be "boring or have the kind of long difficult words that adults use," he tried to explain, in language they could understand, how Jozef Pilsudski, weary of the constant change of governments, had come out of his three-year retirement and staged a coup in May of 1926. Korczak, who admired Pilsudski for his fair treatment of all minority groups, including the Jews, hoped that, with Pilsudski at the helm again, Poland would become more stable.

    Because Korczak saw the newspaper as more therapeutic than literary, he was not bothered by bad grammar or misspellings. His young reporters were encouraged to write about their own experiences rather than compose poetry or fiction. Korczak the doctor wanted to give children a healthy outlet for expressing the grievances bottled up inside them; Korczak the educator wanted to gather more data on children's perceptions of their lives. The children wrote openly about their feelings because they saw the paper as a publication that spoke directly to them and through which they could speak to each other. The sales of the adult paper, Our Review, soared as parents bought both the morning and afternoon editions for their family.

    Shortly after the Little Review came into being, fourteen-year-old Maja Zellinger submitted an article describing what she had seen while sailing down the Vistula on a boat with her younger brother. She was surprised to receive a letter from Janusz Korczak asking if he could come to visit. When he appeared at her house, she was disappointed to see how ordinary-looking he was, with his beard and round glasses, but she accepted his invitation to become the "official secretary" of the paper.

    Maja was ill at ease at first because Korczak didn't give her any directions. If she asked a question, he would say.
    "I don't know" or "You~ll see." He read everything that came into the office, underlining some parts with a blue pencil or writing.
    "What to do?" in the margins. He seemed to be paying no attention to what anyone else was doing, but Maja was aware that he saw everything. He spoke slowly, and did not pass out compliments or flatter anyone. She felt honored when he assigned her to investigate the home situations of children with problems, or to counsel those who came into the office.

    When letters began to arrive from very poor children, Korczak es- tablished a special fund for them. As with all new projects, he went himself to verify the situation described in the first few letters, before turning the task over to Maja. "The paper will allot you some money each week," he told her. "Read through the letters and check into how many really need help."
    "But how will I know?" she asked.
    "You'll know"
    Soon she was traveling all oVer Poland, dispensing aid to needy children and writing an annual report of the cases she handled. Within a year, the Little Review grew from two pages to four, and had two thousand correspondents across the country. It sponsored sports competitions, hosted four movie showings a year, and held an annual conference.

    Jozef Balcerak, then eleven, managed to sneak his way into a conference at the newspaper by using his camera to pass as a reporter. He was astonished to find himself listening to a heated discussion about whether the letter of Iza of Lwowska Street describing how her father pulled out her loose tooth was too insignificant to be printed. Korczak supported it, explaining that everything a child wrote about was important. It was the first time Balcerak had ever heard an adult say that a child was a person to be respected and understood.

    He began writing stories for the paper with an eagerness he didn't know he had in him. But the day came when he had to admit to Korczak that he had run out of ideas.
    "Nonsense," Korczak replied. "Do you have a desk in your room?"
    "Yes, but only one drawer is mine."
    "Is it neat?"
    "No, it's a mess. Mom's always after me."
    "Well, then dump the contents on the floor and sort through them. Everything has a history, so all you have to do is write the stories connected to them."

    And that was how Balcerak came up with the idea for his series Stories from a Drawer. Korczak' s voice was low and soft when he spoke to his reporters, Balcerak recalls. He would lean forward, as if he were whispering a secret.

    His hands would be busy with his cigarette, but ifhe thought of something, he would pull a pencil and pad out of his pocket and jot it down. He often peered over his glasses when he was questioning someone, and if they became steamed, he would painstakingly clean them with his handkerchief After Korczak had been given permission to read Balcerak's secret diary and learned that the boy needed a winter coat, he suggested putting him on the staff so that he could be paid like the other reporters. "Come to the orphanage on Saturday at eleven, before the reading of the newspaper, and Madame Stefa will give you something," he said. (Stefa was the business manager of this project-as of everything else.) Balcerak saw Korczak as "a man not ofthis earth, but ofanother dimension." He thought the Little Review was "the most democratic paper in the world"; anyone could write for it.

    Alexander Ramati, who became the chief correspondent from Brest Litovsk at the age of nine, has no doubt that this experience influenced bis becoming a writer. He felt very important traveling by train to Warsaw a few times a year to meet with the senior editor. The editorial room was always crowded with children of all sizes who were writing, singing, or playing games. A printer who dropped by once asked him: "What do we have here-a clinic, a club, or a bazaar?"

    The brass plate on the door of Korczak's little cubicle was inscribed: OFFICE HOURS, THURSDAY 7-9. Ramati would find the doctor in his old gray suit working at his cluttered desk. "His voice was always kind, but sometimes abrupt," Ramati recalls. "He was like your father, punctual, glancing at his watch if you were late. But he gave you the feeling he was talking to a colleague, which your father did not."

    Leon Harari was fifteen when he applied for a job one Thursday afternoon at five. He was amazed when Korczak told hirn to open his mouth, examined his teeth, and suggested he buy a toothbrush. That was the beginning of Harari's long stint on the paper writing articles about poor street children who had to use their wits to survive.

    "We used Korczak as our Wailing Wall," he recalls.
    "We found our real father in him. We were from poor homes and our parents were overworked. There were eight kids in my family. My father came home and went to sleep. But Korczak would talk to us, understand us. Sometimes his face was that of a dreaming child, and other times, worried and drawn. He always wore the same old gray suit. I never saw him dressed like a tailor's dummy.'"

    The Little Review attracted a few non-Jewish reporters. Kazimierz Debnicki came to the paper when he was fourteen. He was a rebellious boy who had been thrown out of so many schools that he had a "wolf' s ticket, " which meant a bad record that followed him around. He was accused of causing one teacher's heart attack because he sat with his arms folded for two hours, refusing to do his painting assignment. Through the influence of his father's brother a bishop, he was accepted into a conservative gymnasium that, among other things, prided itself on not admitting Jewish students.

    When his biology teacher criticized him for slouching in his seat "like a Jew" he became so incensed that he went horne and wrote an article, "The Teacher Who Teaches Prejudice." He was sensitive to the issue because he knew that his deceased mother had Jewish origins. His father praised the article and suggested he offer it to Janusz Korczak's Little Review. He warned his son that going into the Jewish quarter would be like entering a foreign country. not only did the people wear different clothes and speak a different language, but Jewish povertv smelled different from Polish poverty because of the spices in the food.

    The only wall around the Jewish quarter then was the wall of custom, but once he passed beyond it, Debnicki's "great adventure" began. After his article was accepted by one of the young editors, he was advised to go to the Orphans Horne and introduce himself to Dr. Korczak. He managed to find 92 Krochmalna and called out to a child playing under a chestnut tree in the courtyard: "Listen, little girl, where can I find the doctor?" She looked at him as if he were a "rotten egg," and shouted, "Go find him yourself!"

    Only much later, after he had joined the Little Review staff, did Debnicki muster the courage to ask Korczak why the girl had been so rude. "Because you treated her badly," Korczak replied when he heard the details. "Why did you say 'little girl'? You should have addressed her as "My very distinguished and gentle lady" and she would have laughed because you'd said something clever. Or you might have tried 'My beautiful young mademoiselle' and you'd have found a woman in her. But you said 'little girl,' so how could she treat you otherwise?"

    Every Thursday evening after their editorial meeting, Korczak took the staff to the sausage shop around the corner. Seated at one of the few tables in this narrow restaurant, they ordered sausages and rolls with mustard. The boys drank tea, and sometimes Korczak asked for a beer. The children felt there were no barriers with Korczak. He was like "an island in the ocean" in that he was free of family attachments and was always available to them.

    One Thursday night when Korczak and ten of his reporters went to the sausage shop to celebrate the repair of a light that had been out of order, he lifted his glass in a toast:
    "I feel that all of the correspondents of the Little Review are here with us tonight, even those who have gone abroad. We are like the headquarters of a large youth army." Every three months the Little Review rewarded its most prolific writers with a private showing of a Hollywood movie in a theater owned by the father of one of the reporters. Korczak's favorites were those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but over the years he was also drawn to romantic adventure stories about children, such as Treasure Island and The Prince and the Pauper. He felt these films had educational as well as entertainment value. What child with an alcoholic father wouldn't be moved watching little Jackie Cooper running after Wallace Beery, a has been prizefighter, defeated by drink, in The Champ. It was a scene that certainly moved Korczak:
    "I have witnessed three wars," he would say.

    "I've seen wounded people whose limbs were shot off, whose bellies were split open, whose intestines were hanging out. But, believe me, the worst thing one can see is a drunkard hitting his defenseless child, or a child running after his drunken father, pleading: "Daddy, Daddy, please come home . . ." He saw The Champ as a perfect vehicle for teachers to open up this painful topic in class and encourage students to express how they felt. "The child is ashamed of his drunken father, as if he, poor one, is guilty," Korczak wrote.
    "He is ashamed that he is hungry, his family so poor. He may even make light of his torn shoes and frayed clothes in order to hide the deep sadness in his heart."

    Sometimes, after Korczak had seen a film he liked, he would stay for a second showing to observe the reactions of the young audience. He was particularly intrigued when a three-year-old sitting quietly with his mother suddenly rose and cried out: "A doggie! Oh, a doggie!" Not having noticed the dog himself, he stayed for still another showing to see if it was there. He was fascinated to discover that the dog appeared for just a few seconds in the corner of the screen while the dramatic action was focused in the center. The child could not understand the plot of the film, yet had managed to find something of interest to himself.

    Not only did Korczak choose the films sponsored by the Little Review; he often acted as ticket taker. Zygmunt Kora, the boy who had been upset by the death of a chicken, never forgot the thrill of receiving an invitation to come to Warsaw for a showing of The Nibelungen at the Apollo Theater on Marszalkowska Street.

    "I arrived early and strolled about, holding the postcard in my hand as an identification badge," Kora remembers.
    "An older man came up to me and introduced himself as Janusz Korczak. He took off my cap, kissed me on the forehead, and we began to chat as if we'd always known each other. When he learned how poor my family was, he arranged for me to be paid enough as a correspondent to continue my schooling. "

    It was a joke in Warsaw that the Little Review was a good paper with bad writers, but it disturbed Korczak when people attacked it for encouraging bad spelling and abominable grammar. "Children will become scribblers rather than develop a literary style, " one critic declared. "Scribbling is not dangerous, only illiteracy," Korczak responded.
    "Scribbling is a healthy phenomenon in a cultured society." Then, expressing that familiar beliefofhis father's generation of maskilim that good Polish was the glue that would hold Jews and Poles together, he added:

    "It is a gratifying and useful task to teach Jewish children to write well in Polish. Thanks to our newspaper whole generations of children will have learned to express themselves in this beautiful language."

    Korczak printed one unusually vicious letter under the heading:
    "Should we Close the Little Review?"
    The critic, who claimed to be concerned with the welfare of all children, accused the paper of "producing big heads on little shoulders, " while putting children into an unhealthy state of nervous excitement until they saw their letter or article printed and all for the sole purpose of compelling them to keep buying the paper. Korczak commented wryly:
    "If the Little Review truly ruins the health of children, wouldn't it be better to terminate its existence?"
    He knew that no one would take him up on this.

    Still, it was not outside criticism that disturbed Korczak so much as what was happening on the paper: the very young reporters were being edged out by teenagers who wrote articles on politics and issues that interested adolescents-like dating and sex. The problems of children with their parents and teachers-problems that interested Korczak-were given little space. In 1930 he asked Igor Newerly to take his place as editor. it was Korczak's style to turn a project over to others once he had launched it-and, in this case, he still planned to write an occasional article and attend conferences and film showings-but some saw his retirement as a protest at the editorial shift. He explained his action to his readers this way:
    "I thought: I am tired. Let the Little Review be run under the eye of a younger, gayer person for now."

    [ back ] [ Index ] [ next ]