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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Crossroads

    "Other orphanages breed criminals, but ours breeds Communists, "
    Korczak used to say in jest.

    His humor masked his serious concern in the early 1930s that many ofthe apprentices were attending underground cell meetings of the illegal Communist party. The sharp increase in unemployment in Poland after the collapse of world economic markets had accelerated anti-Semitic activities by fascist right-wing groups. The young apprentices looked to international Communism, with its call for a brotherhood that transcended religious differences, as a solution to their problems. They slipped Communist literature to the children, who hid it under their pillows. When Stefa received complaints from teachers that the children were bringing political pamphlets to class, both she and Korczak feared that the orphanage would be closed down if Communist activity were reported there.

    Seeking a scapegoat for the crime and prostitution bred by poverty, and fearing the small but vocal Communist movement, the government looked with suspicion on the rootless young people emerging from the orphanages. To counteract the influence ofthe radicals, it organized teams of volunteer orphans who were to return to their former institutions and instill proper values in the younger generation. The fallacy in this plan was that these Circles of Ex-Orphans, as they were called, more often than not took advantage of the opportunity to spread the subversive political ideas that the government was trying to eradicate.

    The Communist agitators in the Circle of Ex-Orphans who returned to Krochmalna, unemployed and bitter, incited the Communist apprentices to be more outspoken with Korczak, whom they labeled a "naive humanist" or an .'enemy of the people."

    "I felt he was a typical bourgeois educator who turned out people who were good, but weak," recalls Bolek Drukier, who had joined the bursa more out of a need for a place to live than from an interest in pedagogy. "in those days I knew what I hated more than what I liked. I was against capitalism and for a culture that benefited the masses. And I believed we had to be aggressive and cruel in the name of our idea."

    Confronted by one apprentice who wanted to know why he was not sympathetic to the Party, Korczak replied: "I respect the idea, but it's like pure rainwater. When it comes down the rainspout of reality, it gets polluted." He was less patient with another apprentice who suggested he read Karl Marx: "I read him before you were born."

    Sometimes he would try to tell them about his own underground activities at the turn of the century " how he had become disillusioned with ideology in general after seeing the violence of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. "In revolutions, as in the rest of life, the clever and calculating continually reach the top, while the naive and trusting are brushed aside," he said. Not only were revolutionary programs "selfrighteous to the point ofboredom," they were "a bloody and tragic attempt to alter and restructure society-a combination of madness, violence, and daring that revealed an abysmal disregard for human dignity."

    It wasn't his intention to change anyone's point of view, believing as he did that one must learn from one's own experiences and trust only one's own perceptions. But Korczak could not keep silent on May 1, 1931, when the ex-orphans encouraged the apprentices to march with them and other Communists under the banner ofthe newly formed Teachers Union. That evening he asked the apprentices to give their first loyalty to the orphanage, which meant not endangering it through their political activities. When the apprentices announced that the union demanded an eight- hour workday at all summer camps. Korczak responded calmly that even if they had a right to make such a demand-which they didn't, because they were not on salary-it was against a teacher's calling to strike. Stefa was less controlled:

    "How can you dare propose a short working day when teachers have worked fourteen hours or more in orphanages without complaint?"

    Hoping to alleviate the tension in the home, Maximilian Cohen, who was then president of the Orphans Aid Society, called a meeting of the ex-orphans, the bursa, and the management to air their differences. Korczak appeared at the session still weak from a nose-and-throat infection as wellas from another bout ofinflammation ofthe eyes. He was saddened to see some of the ex-orphans who had been his favorites being led by a hostile boy who had once received Article 1,000.

    One by one Korczak's attackers rose and delivered their accusations: he ran the orphanage like a scientific laboratory rather than a loving home; he weighed and measured the children like guinea pigs; he lost interest in everyone once they left the orphanage; he hadn't prepared them for a trade to support themselves in the outside world.

    Korczak stood up and tried to defend himselfon each point:
    "It is true that this is a scientific as well as an educational institution, " he began. "But it was my hope that our weight and height charts could serve as a guideline for other orphanages. If their findings did not match ours, they might learn that their children were not being fed the right diet, that their bedrooms were not being kept at the right temperature, or that there was not enough fresh air. As for not training the children for a trade, I felt it was more important for them to learn life skills, rather than vocational ones, in the few years we were able to keep them."

    When some of the ex-orphans tried to interrupt him, he took the offensive. "Do you feel we were wrong to take in small, neglected plants and nurture them until they became strong and healthy, even though we were learning in the process and made mistakes? it,s easy for you to find fault, but a person who is content with himself doesn't blame teachers or parents for the hardships in his life. It's unfair to attack my system at a time when even qualified workers are unable to find employment."

    Most of the apprentices and ex-orphans were placated; only a few diehards muttered that he had not taken their criticism seriously enough and had spoken to them like children. The evening ended with hard feelings after the president of the Orphans Aid Society took an uncompromising stand. He reminded those with ties to the Co??mnmunist party that they weren't old enough yet to run the country, and that in the meantime the Society was in charge of running the orphanage.

    Shortly after that night, Korczak appeared, flushed and trembling, at Igor Newerly's apartment. Newerly, now married to Basha, an apprentice who had grown up in the Jewish orphanage, thought Korczak might have heard bad news about his sister in Paris. Not until he sat down and had coffee was Korczak able to tell them what had happened. During his lecture at the Institute of Pedagogy that afternoon, one of the former apprentices had stood up in the auditorium and denounced him.

    When Korczak tried to reason with him from the podium, the young man had screamed to the audience that Korczak was dangerous and should not be allowed to influence children. Newerly had never seen Korczak so upset.

    Y et Korczak was not one to hold grudges. He would tease his critics:
    "Which lamppost are you going to hang me from after the revolution?"
    He even staged a mock trial in which he played the parts of three Communist functionaries who had once been Janusz Korczak's apprentices and were now assigned to judge him politically. Each wrote a large GUILTY across his file. The first functionary did so because he was afraid it would be discovered that he had worked in Korczak's home, the second after a stiff drink, and the third because he saw Korczak as a reactionary and counterrevolutionary.

    In spite of his differences with his Communist apprentices, Korczak gave Bolek Drukier and others letters of reference when they left to find work. And Stefa was known to bring food packages to the young women when they were jailed for their political activities. Perhaps as an answer to their rebukes and public criticisms of his methods at the orphanage, Korczak published a follow-up study of the children who had graduated during the home's first twenty-one years. After listing their occupations and the countries to which some had emigrated-Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the U. S.A., China, England, France, Belgium, Spain, and Pales- tine-he concluded the report: "I hesitate to point out that, of all the children, three have been convicted of theft, two have become beggars, and two prostitutes.-' (He didn't mention that one of the prostitutes had tried to solicit him on the street before recognizing him.)

    The apprentices who had embraced Zionism as the answer to the Jewish problem were also critical of Korczak-in their case, for not directing the children toward a life in Palestine.

    Korczak's skeptical attitude toward Zionism went back to his days in medical school. While writing travel articles in Switzerland in 1899, he had stopped in "by chance". at the third Zionist Congress in Basel to see a friend who was a delegate. He found the whole atmosphere "bourgeois," he wrote, and the idea of trying to solve the problem of Eastern European Jews in the deserts of the Middle East positively "utopian." He hated the "highfalutin" speeches at the Congress, which made him realize that the only language that interested him was that of the child.

    When he was invited to attend the Jewish National Fund conference in Warsaw in 1925, he refused for the same reasons, although he did acknowledge in his letter that "something very great, very courageous, and very difficult" was taking place. He urged the sponsors to consider if their plan was a "return or an escape, " if it was motivated by their "grief for the past or by longing for the future. " As a man "who walks his own lonely road, " he was offended by their propaganda, although he knew it was necessary to their cause. in his opinion, a Messiah must be born in silence.

    He boycotted the conference, but he did agree to sign the Jewish National Fund's appeal that Jews contribute the equivalent of one day's salary as an expression of their solidarity "with their brethren building a Jewish land." Still he held to his universalist position, writing to a friend in Palestine: "The problem of Man, his past and future on earth, somewhat overshadows the problem of the J ew for me." Christians and Jews were "children ofthe same God." in Palestine, as well as in Poland, "the noblest intentions" were being trampled by hatred and racial strife. (He was referring to the conflict with the Arabs.) Such was the human condition. And always his question: Why?

    Some of Korczak's apprentices had joined the Hashomer Hatzair, the left-wing Zionist organization that was preparing young people for emigration to Palestine. Nineteen-year-old Moshe Zertal, who was in charge of inviting guest speakers, was very nervous as he made his way in dim lamplight over the broken cobblestones on Krochmalna to ask Janusz Korczak to talk on education to their group. "I imagined he would be someone with wings, " Zertal recalls. "I couldn't believe that this man wearing a simple smock over work clothes was the great Dr. Korczak. He looked more like a monk."

    Korczak's reserve, tinged with his usualsuspiciousness toward strangers, did not put Zertal at ease. "Lecture to your group? No. Impossible. You don't need anything I could tell you." The young man wasn't sure whether the doctor meant it seriously or as a joke when he added: "You know more than I do." But Korczak left the door open, as he always did, to test the sincerity ofhis visitors: "If you want to come on Saturday morning for the reading of the orphanage newspaper, you are welcome."

    Zertal was not the first to discover that the way to Korczak was through his children. After attending a few Saturday-morning readings, he mustered enough courage to ask Korczak if some of the orphans could join the Young Pioneers' annual boat excursion to the countryside on Lag B'Omer, a spring holiday that is celebrated with camping trips and bonfires. The doctor not only gave his permission, but arrived at the Vistula dock with the children. Zertal remembers that "he cut quite a figure in his black hat with the wide brim, round glasses, and a cigarette that never left his lips. He seemed the epitome of an intellectual, and a very turn- of-the-century Polish intellectual at that."

    The Hashomer Hatzair tried to make the orphans feel at ease with the hundreds of other Jewish children assembled from all over Warsaw for the overnight camping trip. They were given tents to carry and bags of rice for their backpacks. Korczak stood apart, but his piercing eyes watched as the children, weighed down with their loads, jumped from the steep embankment onto the ship's narrow gangplank. He was the last to board. When two drunken Poles staggered onto the dock and started heckling the children, Korczak spoke to them calmly in a rough Polish much like their own. The men quieted down and went their way.

    On the boat trip home, Zertal noticed the change in Korczak's children. The "special stamp" that was the common badge of orphans-pale faces, short haircuts, drab clothing-was no longer noticeable. Their movements were proud and erect, their clothes brightened with the flowers they had picked, their faces smiling, their cheeks rosy.

    It was only natural that the children would bring the blue-and-white flags of the Young Pioneers into the orphanage with them, as well as the secular Hebrew songs about social justice they had learned. They brought the dream of the homeland, too: before long, a map of Palestine appeared on the bulletin board, and two Hebrew-speaking tables were created in the dining hall.

    Korczak was so impressed with the Lag B'Omer outing that he told everyone he wished children of all religions could participate. Not long after that, as a personal favor to Zertal, by then a trusted friend, he agreed to speak to a group of nervous parents who were reluctant to allow their children to become "Sons of the Desert." Not knowing quite what to expect, Zertal was amazed to hear a stirring and original talk on the importance of the youth movement from this man "who wasn't even a part of it."

    In June of1929, Izaak Eliasberg, who had worked tirelessly for twenty years to keep the orphanage afloat, died. Before his death, Korczak had sat at his bedside, telling him jokes and anecdotes about the orphans to make him laugh. In the eulogy he gave at his friend' s grave, Korczak called him an "enthusiast of responsibility": a man who chose to live not for himself but for others.

    Two years later, in August of 1931, Jakub Mortkowicz, Korczak's publisher, took his life in his apartment in Warsaw. He had just returned from the International Book Fair in Paris depressed about the decline in the publishing field and his mounting debts. Always a man of shifting moods, he locked himself.

    In his room and put a bullet through his brain.
    During the somber period between the loss of his two closest friends, when Poland was reeling both economically and politically from the worldwide economic crisis, Korczak had begun working on his second and last play, Senate of Madrnen, which is set in a madhouse.

    The earlier play, which way?, dealt with the madness of his father; now Korczak used the madhouse itself as a metaphor for society. He was grappling with his old themes again: insanity in the individual and in the world, man's struggle for faith and reason, and the child as the Godchosen redeemer. This time, however, the playwright was in control of the madness. Not only did he give the directorship of the asylum to a good doctor suspiciously like himself; he also resurrected and cured his father, who, when the play opens, has returned voluntarily to do carpentry work, accompanied by his son Janek, who has brought along his building blocks.

    This democratic asylum, similar in spirit to the children's republic, has its own officers and a parliament that meets to judge the guilt of the human race. Who is it that is mad, the play asks: those inside the asylum -the restaurateur who wants to serve laxatives with every meal, the homosexual who thinks people should have to apply for a license to procreate, the would-be murderer who shot a woman because she was rude to him on the tram, the Sad Monk who wrestles all night, like Jacob, with a mysterious stranger, the sadistic colonel with his constant refrain of "Destroy and burn!"-or those outside?

    It might be Pirandello speaking-what is illusion and what is reality? But it is also the voice of a playwright who has not come to terms with having been deserted by a mad father. &Every madman is just a pretender who couldn't cope and took the easy way out," the Jewish merchant says.

    And another character. "Insanity is one of the many masks one wears in life. Like Hamlet-a mad disguise." And a third, revealing that the playwright still fears inheriting his father's illness: "At least the man who has gone mad can be at peace. He doesn't have to be afraid anymore of losing his mind."

    And where is God in this mad world? Perhaps He felt unneeded and has escaped. The idea of God fleeing from human stupidity germinated in the playwright's mind until it took shape as a prologue much in the style of a droll Hasidic tale. The Sad Monk (very like the Sad King) comes downstage to tell little Janek about the time God tried to withdraw from the world. People were so desperate to find Him that they put advertisements in the newspapers offering a reward for information about His whereabouts. There were no fingerprints or photographs, only rumors:
    He had been seen feeding birds; He had been overheard talking to prostitutes. When He was finally discovered by a little girl in a lark's nest, God agreed to appear at the gold-and-marble shrine that had just been erected for Him. He allowed Himself to be dressed in an ermine cloak and driven in an open coach drawn by four white horses through triumphal arches so that everyone could see Him. He stopped His coach once, before an old woman named Faith, who stood pressed against a wall with blind Justice and Hope' muttering:
    "So i've lived to see Him." It seemed that He wanted to stand up, but He merely waved His hand and fell back again on the cushions. The procession was a success, with only a few robberies and one or two people fainting in the crowd. God' s long-awaited message at the shrine had the virtue of brevity-"Love each other, my children!" -but a high official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs found it vague and unclear. That night God rose from His throne, sighed, threw off His heavy ermine cloak and escaped out the side door. It was a scandal! All the money, all the work-in vain! Once again, the chase was on. This time God turned into a blueberry to take a nap, sat in a wagon chatting with the Jewish driver, rode across a field on a wild mouse, wept at a slaughterhouse, and closed himself inside the petals of a lily of the valley. He was standing by a fence watching some children at play when an intelligence agent spotted Him. At that moment, God rose into the air and descended in a shower of pearls which landed in the hearts of the children.

    When the actor Stefan Jaracz, then the Laurence Olivier of Poland, heard a reading of the play at the home of a well-known actress, he had no trouble imagining himself as the Sad Monk. The first rehearsal was held at Jaracz's theater, the Atheneum, located near the Vistula not far from the Old Town. Financed by the railway workers' union, the theater specialized in programs with social content. Korczak sat at a large round table with the actors and read all the parts in a low voice without expression, a succession of cigarettes dangling from his lips.

    "We were all surprised to see Korczak dressed in a shabby jacket and high workman's boots, not like the famous writer we expected." Henryk Szletynski, one ofthe actors, recalls. "Even his glasses had cheap round metalframes. When he took them off, I noticed how red-rimmed his eyes were, as if he hadn't had enough sleep. After the reading, while we were discussing the script, Korczak told us that the only interesting people are madmen and children. When he got up to leave, he already had a fresh cigarette in his hand."

    Most of the cast followed Korczak's suggestion that they visit the mental asylum in Tworki. The patients were outside on the grounds when they arrived. One stood like a statue with his arms outstretched; another, a boy of thirteen, sat rigidly with his head twisted to one side. Stefan Jaracz was so unnerved by the sight of real madmen that he sat without a word on the train back to Warsaw. No one knew that Korczak's father might have been an inmate there.

    Rehearsals were scheduled for eleven each night, when the current production was over and the stage cleared. Jozef Balcerak remembers sitting with Korczak as long as an hour and a half in the empty, dark auditorium, waiting for Stefan Jaracz-a heavy drinker and ladies' man- to arrive a little unsteady on his feet. Korczak left at two in the morning because he had to be up early with the orphans, but Balcerak, who had never seen a rehearsal before, stayed until four.

    On the opening night of the play-October 1, 1931-Korczak sat with igor Newerly in the last row of the balcony, the better to observe the audience. The set was stark: a large papier-mâché globe under a clock with one hand in the shape of a sword. It was a static play in spite of the fact that the madmen had whimsy and wit, but everyone who knew Korczak could recognize him as the despairing Sad Monk when Jaracz came downstage to bless and forgive humankind:
    "Friends, distant and close, well-known and unknown, cousins, sisters, brothers, the weak, the sad, the hungry, and the yearning, you have made mistakes, but not sinned. You didn't know how else to act, but you have not gone astray. I put my warm hand on your tired heads."

    At the end of the performance the audience shouted:
    " Author! Author!" Korczak reluctantly descended from his hiding place in the balcony and took a bow with Jaracz and the cast onstage. Many of Warsaw's intelligentsia had turned out to support Korczak in his first theater production. But in spite of the warm response that evening, the reviews were mixed, most of them preferring the prologue to the play.

    Antoni Slonimski, a poet whose family had converted to Chatolicism, and the most influential theater critic at the time, wrote: "Here we have charming author-Korczak. However, together they have produced an unfortunate concoction. Korczak wants to solve all the questions that plague the modern world in two hours of talk. He speaks a great deal about God, but no one knows whether God is Christian, pagan, or Jewish."

    Another critic, comparing the play to works by Poland' s most eminent dramatists, Zygmunt Krasinski and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, called the characters ""philosophical madmen with cosmic pain, human beings who have taken on the burden of insanity to save millions of their brothers . . . If one could force these madmen to act, to do something, one could have an interesting modern play.-- A right-wing critic, always ready to attack a Jewish playwright, complained:
    "Janusz Korczak (Goldszmit) is saying that most mad people laugh at our society. He criticizes the military, and takes an antigovernment position."
    Warsaw, considered by its denizens a "laughing city," was not in the mood to be amused by philosophical madmen. The play closed after fiftyone performances, and had a short run in Lvov. Asked in a newspaper interview if he wanted to publish the play, Korczak responded that he considered it an unfinished sketch and hoped to work on it further. But Igor Newerly recalls that Korczak was downcast that the public was not receptive to his ideas. Only much later would it become clear that the sanatorium mirrored the world before World War II, and the colonel who advocated burning books and hanging all inventors, idealists, Jews, and parliamentarians without pity resembled the madman who wrote Mein Kampf.

    If writing Senate of Madmen was a way of trying to order a universe slipping out of control, then Rules of Life, which Korczak composed at the same time, was meant to give young people a way of ordering their own world. Written in haste-"I would have torn up the manuscript had I even paused, -the book gives advice on how to deal with the mixed messages one receives from parents, teachers, siblings, and friends. The idea for the book came to him when he received a letter from a boy saying:
    "Kids like me feel very angry and unhappy because we don't know the rules oflife."

    The title was probably inspired by Tolstoy's Rules of Life. Yet the content seems an outgrowth of a work Korczak had just finished, The Child's Right to Respect, in which he explained:
    "The child must be seen as a foreigner who does not understand the language of the street plan, who is ignorant of the laws and customs. Occasionally he likes to go sightseeing on his own; and when up against some difficulty, asks for information and advice. Wanted-a guide to answer questions politely."

    He was now creating that guide. Trust your own perceptions, he tells his young readers. "Each person carries an entire world within himself, and everything exists twice: once the way it is, the other the way he perceives it with his own eyes and feelings."

    You must dream your own dreams but be ready to accept life as it is: "One day is happy, and one day is sad. Sometimes you`re successful, and sometimes you're not. Sometimes the sun is shining, and sometimes it's raining. What can one do?"

    And so, what are the rules of life? he asks. Each person must find out for himself The secret is not to get discouraged about mistakes and to be honest. "He who is sincere, pursues justice, and is considerate of others is the one best loved by everyone."

    A few years later Korczak published another children`s book, Kajtus the Magician, a picaresque adventure story that he dedicated to restless boys who find it difficult to improve themselves. "Life is like a strange dream," Korczak informed them. "But for those who have strong wills and a desire to serve others, the dream can be beautiful-even if the way to the goal is winding, and one`s thoughts confused."

    Kajtus is one of those mischievous boys whom Korczak favored.
    Finding himself suddenly in possession of magic powers, he wreaks havoc by making people walk backwards, changing clocks, creating traffic jams. He has to endure many trials on his way to learning how to use power wisely. The worst ordeal is his imprisonment in the tower of an evil sorcerer's castle. One of the orphans on whom Korczak was testing the chapter grabbed his arm and cried: "It`s horrible!"

    "But fairy tales about sorcerers are always frightening, " Korczak reassured him.
    "Yeah, but this is something else," the boy said with a shudder.
    Because the child had nightmares that night, Korczak crossed out everything that had scared him. The book was published with blank spaces on many pages in that chapter and an explanation of why the spooky parts had been deleted.

    Kajtus's trials are not over even after he escapes the sorcerer's castle:
    he has to be turned into a dog in order to learn humility. When he is worthy of regaining his human shape, he has to witness human suffering in hospitals and prisons in China and Africa. M aking his way to the Land of the Eskimos, Kajtus hears a voice coming from the grave of a fearless one: "Be disciplined, be brave!" He pledges: "I will."

    Kajtus was the last Polish boy to leap from Korczak's imagination: a hero who must learn to dream boldly, but prudently. After this, there would be only Polish Jewish boys-like Hershkele, in The Three Journeys of Hershkele-who dream of the Promised Land.

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