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Janusz Korczak Biography

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If I bad the means, I wouldlike to spend halfa year in Palestine
in order to contemplate what has been, and half a year in Poland
in order to preserve what remains.

-Letter to Joseph Arnon, 1933


    Stefa's thoughts were filled with Palestine in 1929 because her favorite apprentice, Feiga Lipshitz, was emigrating there to live on a kibbutz. Tempted to go along for a few months to help her get settled, Stefa trained a few teachers to take over the myriad details of her work. She even prepared for the possibility that something might happen to her in the Holy Land by tacking a note to the inside of her closet door:
    "Children, after I die, don't cry, and go to school. I donate my body to science. "

    At the last minute, she decided not to accompany Feiga because her mother's condition had worsened. By a strange coincidence, Feiga's first letter from Palestine arrived the day Stefa's mother died. "I would have been very miserable if I had left with you," she wrote Feiga. "You know how much a mother means. But now I am free to make plans. My brother and sister don't need me, and the orphanage can manage very well in my absence. "

    The death of her mother left Stefa emotionally drained and with a heightened sense of her own mortality. "I have the courage to tell myself that forty-four is the beginning of old age," she wrote Feiga. "I am exhausted, and my nerves are still frayed from the war. I have to get some calmer work. I'm tired, and lonely. " As if it were unrelated to her fatigue, Stefa added casually: "The Doctor is holed away upstairs-as a matter of fact, he's writing a new book. It's not easy without him."

    Stefa could not know how troubled Feiga would be by the letter announcing her visit. Kibbutz Ein Harod, which had been founded in the north by three hundred young Russian Zionists eight years earlier, was much more primitive and dangerous than Feiga had expected. She could not imagine Stefa in that barren terrain, exposed to the relentless sun and sporadic Arab attacks.

    Those original founders had thought it romantic to settle by the spring (harod in Hebrew) in the Valley of Jezreel, where Gideon had once camped before slaying the Midianites. But they found themselves in a malarial swamp where they were perfect targets for bands of Arabs coming over the Gilboa Mountains. Within a year, more than a hundred of them had died from disease, or suicide, or in armed skirmishes. Those who had not given up and returned home had chosen another spot halfway up the hillside facing Mount Gilboa, where they built two fortress-like concrete buildings to protect their children.

    After procuring tractors, the young settlers had planted eucalyptus trees to drain the swamps, pine and cedar groves on the mountains to block the winds, and a citrus grove in the Valley of Jezreel to support themselves. By the time Feiga arrived, the original tents were being replaced with spartan wooden cabins that had only the bare necessities. Feiga confided to Stefa in her letters that life was so strenuous there were times she didn't have the strength to work with the children.

    "Your feelings of discouragement will pass, " Stefa had hastened to reassure her, and described her own suffering during the war when she had to shoulder the full burden of the orphanage. "Later I didn't know if I had done the right thing by staying," Stefa wrote, "but I had so many responsibilities by then, I had no time to think."

    For two years Feiga managed to dissuade Stefa from undertaking a trip to Palestine, but in late 1931 Stefa sent off a letter. "I am coming! " She arrived on the kibbutz "s tenth anniversary.

    Feiga's fears about her friend's stamina proved unfounded. Stefa, who had been through so much in her life, was not one to be undone by rugged living conditions. The first night of her visit, Feiga searched frantically for a spoon for her tea, which was taken Russian-style with jam, only to find that Stefa, resourceful as ever, had used the other end of her tin knife. "You didn't think I could manage, did you?" cried the triumphant Stefa.

    For the three months that she was there, Stefa worked in the Children's Houses where the young were cared for from birth while their mothers labored as equal partners with the men in the fields. She was full of practical suggestions, such as advising the kibbutz to lower the height of the washbasins in the bathrooms, and to sew loops on both ends of the towels to make hanging them up easier for impatient little ones.

    Sometimes she and Feiga worked shifts together, and sometimes they alternated, the two of them teaching others Korczak's pedagogical ideas. Stefa returned to Poland a new woman. Her face was tanned and radiant. She was amazed that in three months away "one could depart so far from one's everyday life. " That summer at camp she wore short-sleeved white blouses with a few buttons open at the throat. She smiled more, appeared at peace with herself, and was almost playful with the children. But she was preoccupied with returning to Palestine and Feiga, if she could obtain a visa.

    In the fall, when the children were in school, Stefa started taking Hebrew lessons in preparation for her return trip, and spoke endlessly to Korczak about the kibbutz's experimental education system. Nothing would do but that he go and see the Children' s Houses for himself and give the kibbutzniks, as they were called, some much needed advice. Korczak listened politely, but he was not looking for a new homeland.

    He already had one. He had said as much in his correspondence with Ester Budko, a former apprentice, who had settled in a kibbutz in the late twenties. "Palestine is still a legend to the children, " he wrote-and, he might have added, to himself as well. Those who spoke to him of emigrating seemed embittered and filled with longings-rebels, as opposed to those who were resigned to life in Poland. The difficulties that the ‚migr‚s experienced in adapting to their new life only confirmed his suspicion that bitter disappointment as well as youthful illusion were connected with that land-that it was too late for Europeans to try to recover a lost past:
    "We have acclimated ourselves to a land of pines and snow, physically and mentally. The effort required to tie together the two ends that were broken two thousand years ago is enormous. " He himself had too little time left to "sacrifice " the ten years it would take to adjust not only physically but spiritually to the new conditions.

    Stefa scoffed at Korczak's argument that without Hebrew he wouldn't be able to communicate with the children. He could concentrate on the infants, she said, and use sign language with the toddlers. When he countered that he wouldn't be able to speak to adults either, she reminded him that most of the settlers were Russian or Polish immigrants. in response to his claim that there was nothing he could contribute anyway, she cited the stream of visitors from various kibbutzim who were always stopping by the orphanage to consult with him. And it was true-so many kibbutzniks came and went all the time that Korczak often quipped that Warsaw was turning into a suburb of Palestine.

    It may have been Stefa's influence, or his own increasing pain at seeing the orphans taunted and beaten up as they made their way through Christian neighborhoods, that prompted Korczak to write in late 1932 to Joseph Arnon, the former apprentice, who had emigrated to Palestine:
    "If there is one country where the child is honestly given a chance to express his dreams and fears, his longings and perplexities-it might well be Palestine. A monument should be erected there to the unknown orphan. "

    And he added, "I have not given up hope that I shall be able to spend the last years left to me in Palestine, and from there long for Poland . . . Longing strengthens and deepens the soul."
    The following spring, a journey to Palestine was still no more than a vague possibility. "If fate were to decree that I go to Palestine, I would not be going to the people, but to the thoughts that would be born to me there, " he wrote to Arnon. "What would Mount Sinai tell me? Or the Jordan? The tomb of Jesus, the university, the cave of the Maccabees, the Galilee? I would be reliving two thousand years of European history, of Polish history, of Jewish wanderings. . . . The world is not in need of labor and oranges, but of a new faith. Faith in the child who is the source of all hope. "

    In the fall of1933, upset by "cheap gossip" in a right-wing newspaper that he would be going to Palestine, Korczak decided to leave as quickly as possible during the winter.

    Stefa lost no time in getting a letter off to Ein Harod: "Please consider having Dr. Korczak stay with you for a few weeks. He would like to work in the nursery, with the newborns, or with older infants, and is willing to do whatever work is required of him. What he doesn't know, he'll learn on the spot. He'd prefer not to be assigned to the Children's Houses since he is unable to speak the language. He wants to learn about kibbutz life, and all that he asks for in return is a bed, a table, and a chair. He is even willing to wash floors. "

    The reply came back as expected: the kibbutz would be honored to have Dr. Janusz Korczak as its guest.
    Korczak did make a change in his life at that time, but one unrelated to Palestine. He moved out of the Orphans Home and into the apartment of his sister Anna at No. 8 Zlota Street, on the edge of the Jewish quarter. Ml felt tired, old, and superfluous in th e orphanage, and that is why I left, or to be more precise, I was driven away' " he wrote to Arnon. "You will find it difficult to understand and I shall not try to explain again. "It had obviously been a wrenching decision." All I have left are my thoughts, and faith in the future, which I doubt whether I shall live to see. "

    It was not only the conflicts in the Orphans Home that caused his despair: "We are in the midst of a hundred years, war, still in the Dark Ages, " he continued. "Unbelievable injustice is being done to the human race, and especially the child . . . For years I have been observing sensitive children, watching their helplessness, and their silent sadness, and the frantic insolence of homo rapax as well." It seemed that "everything fine and delicate was being indiscriminately destroyed, that sheep were being torn to pieces by wolves." He admitted to "trying to flee from the world of thoughts " by losing himself in work: he sought relief in cutting hair and washing heads, but found even this no longer effective.

    During this period when he was fluctuating between hope and despair, Korczak was deeply absorbed in a new project. For the past year he had been supervising a temporary experimental school he had set up for the first- and second-graders in Our Home who could not find places in the overcrowded public schools in Bielany. Dispensing with school bells, assigned seating, and other conventional rituals that regulated a child's day, Korczak created a progressive curriculum in which each child was treated as an individual, given the freedom to choose his own activity and to stay at it as long as he wished, be it reading, math, arts and crafts, or music. There were no grades, just points that were added up like a game score. Once a week the children took trips with their teachers to factories or farms to see how things were made or grown. Although Korczak didn't teach at the school, he stopped in during the week when he had time to tell stories and to observe.

    Korczak's spirits were lifted at the end of1933 when he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta, a decoration given only to a select few for their contribution to Polish society. The ceremony was conducted in the dining hall of the Krochmalna Street orphanage with great solemnity by the Minister of Social Affairs, Dr. Stefan Hubnicki, before an invited audience of prominent health officials and press. The Minister, who had been a classmate of Korczak's at medical school, had no sooner begun reminiscing about his colleague's outstanding work with poor slum children than Korczak walked out of the room. The surprised dignitaries had no way of knowing if this was another example of Korczak's well-known eccentricity or a deliberate insult. Reappearing only after he heard the polite applause at the close of the Minister's speech, Korczak apologized. He explained that he could not listen to so much praise because he did not deserve it. He would accept the distinguished award of the Polish Republic, not as a personal tribute, but as a command to work harder. The Minister embraced him warmly.

    The trip to Palestine was still unscheduled but Korczak was reading about ancient Greece and Rome and studying the Bible in preparation for it. "One cannot focus on just one generation ofchildren in that ancient land, " he wrote Arnon, "one has to span centuries." When Arnon, who had been waiting impatiently for Korczak's arrival, asked if he was hesitant because of the unstable conditions in Palestine, Korczak answered by return post that his doubts were not dependent upon outside circumstances, but were rather within him. At fifty-six, he was "too old to rush around the world without a purpose or merely to satisfy his normal human curiosity." He had to mull over what he would tell the settlers about Poland, and what he wanted to bring back to the people here. "i am not idle, or indifferent. it is just that this is my clime, where I grew up. I am acquainted with the traditions of the people. I know the language proficiently-there everything will be strange and difficult. " But he assured Arnon that he would see him by the middle of August, unless he had to postpone the trip again.

    As summer approached, Stefa managed to pin Korczak down to a definite date: he would travel to Palestine during the month of July, a time when the children were at camp and he had no teaching responsibilities. However, just before departure, he insisted that he could spare only three weeks.

    "The purpose of a man's journey can be the search for himself or for God," Korczak would write toward the end of his life. When he found himselfon the ship sailing from Athens to Palestine, he still could not have said what his real purpose was. Adolf Hitler was now the Chancellor of Germany, and a few months earlier the Polish-German nonaggression pact had been signed. Hitler's emissary Joseph Goebbels hadjust received the red-carpet treatment in Warsaw. Korczak knew that the situation of the Jews in Poland could only worsen: was this trip he was making an "escape, " as he had once wondered about those early Zionists, or a "return? "

    He arrived in Haifa on July 24, 1934, two days after his fifty-sixth birthday. David Simchoni, whose wife worked with Feiga in the Children's Houses, had been selected by the kibbutz to be his host and to meet the boat. While the two men were waiting for the bus to Ein Harod, they walked about the old quarter of Haifa. Korczak was full of energy and curiosity in spite of the heat, and could not resist buying Oriental sweetmeats from the Arab vendors. After a taste, he gave what was left to an Arab boy passing by.

    Korczak placed his well-marked Bible on his lap and checked historical spots as the bus made its way north from Haifa, past Mount Carmel and on into the Valley of Jezreel. Trying to maintain his objectivity as flowering orchards and plowed fields appeared through the window, he jotted in his notebook: "So what? Haven't similar things been achieved in the Australian desert? What about Holland's struggle with the encroaching sea, or Japan's with volcanic eruptions? They only have swamps and mosquitoes to contend with here. "

    He was tired when they arrived at the kibbutz late in the afternoon, but deeply moved by the exuberant welcome he was given by the pioneers. His first question upon seeing his tiny room was: "How can you offer such fine accommodations to visitors without making them pay?">

    > When he was advised to shed his coat and tie if he wanted to return to Warsaw alive, he quipped: "But if I take them off, what will remain of Korczak? " He soon removed them. At first he couldn't understand why everyone was wearing shorts rather than protecting their legs from the burning sun, but he had to admit how comfortable he felt when he rolled up his pants.

    Early the next morning, Simchoni was alarmed not to find Korczak in his room. He looked all over the kibbutz, searched the Children's Houses, and finally discovered him in the kitchen, peeling potatoes with some of the elderly parents of kibbutz members. Korczak explained that the smell offreshly baked bread, which filled his room at dawn, had taken him back to his childhood home next to a bakery. He had gone to chat with the baker and then, hearing the pots and pans begin to rattle, had joined the kitchen crew.

    Dismissing Simchoni's protestations that he needed his rest, Korczak said, "I want to earn my keep. " But Korczak had ulterior motives in gravitating to those old potato peelers who could speak to him in Polish or Russian while they worked. He listened to their anecdotes about kibbutz life, but he was also aware of what was left unspoken. From such facetious comments as "What kind of country is this that doesn't have raspberries?" or "My one dream is to eat a plate of strawberries before I die!" he could calculate the emotional price of transplanting oneself to this "old-new homeland. " "Yes, it is a difficult country, " the kitchen crew would say. "But our children like it here. "

    As Stefa suspected, Korczak couldn't help being fascinated by the kibbutz, which, like his own children's republic, replaced the conventional family unit with a responsible community that stressed socialjustice, the importance of the child, and the dignity of human labor. He was amazed to see the Jew in the role of the peasant, toiling under the relentless sun to bring forth olive and grape arbors and acres of potatoes and corn from the inhospitable soil. "Jewish brains are resting, " he observed. "Here the saw and ax have replaced European intellectual snobbery."

    As he watched the children helping adults in the fields, Korczak could see that they moved differently from his orphans in Warsaw, who cringed at the invectives and stones hurled at them. These children, who had grown up with "the heat of the sun in their soul" and the "burning wind in their blood," belonged to this land in a 'biological sense' that their parents, with their roots in other soil, did not. They were a new breed, these Sabras, tough and resilient as the native cactus after which they were named.

    Korczak prowled about the Children's Houses "with the enthusiasm of a young detective on his first case," asking endless questions of the caretakers, but he was shy with the children because of the language barrier. To ease the situation, he soon devised strategies for making nonverbal contact. Entering one classroom, he shouted:
    "Sheket!" ("Silence" in Hebrew) which he had memorized for the occasion. "Sheket!" The children were surprised, but then, seeing his mischievous smile, they realized it was a joke. This amusing stranger walked up and down the aisles while they were drawing, using his pen to add buttons to a jacket, lengthen a cat's tail, give horns to a goat. The children were comfortable with him; one boy offered Korczak his artwork as a souvenir.

    The seven-year-olds in another class had been prepared in advance by their teachers that a guest as famous as the British High Commissioner was coming to have lunch with them. Twenty-seven pairs of eyes watched in trepidation as Korczak entered and took his assigned place at the teachers' table. Twenty-seven young bodies sat stiffly, hardly daring to breathe. Wanting to stir things up a bit, Korczak motioned to a boy near him to turn around, and then stole his plate of meatballs. The boy immediately suspected his neighbor, and soon voices as well as fists were raised. Just as a fight was about to break out' Korczak, with masterful timing, produced the missing plate. It broke the tension: twenty-seven children burst out laughing, and were at ease from then on.

    Every other night, tired as they were, members of the kibbutz would gather in the dining hall to hear the famous educator from Warsaw lecture On the child. He stood before them, slightly stooped, his short-sleeved shirt open at the throat, his fair skin mottled from the sun, insisting mOdestly through bis H ebrew interpreter that, as a stranger to their language and customs, he could not give them answers to the many questions they had asked him since his arrival. He could offer only suggestions based on his own experience.

    His talks covered his usual subjects: children's sleep patterns, heredity, nutrition, types of children, learning disabilities, childhood sexuality, and the task of the educator. The necessity of respect for the child was such an insistent refrain that years later the kibbutzniks would say that Korczak left them with five commandments: Love the child, not just yOur own. Observe the child. Do not pressure the child. Be honest with yourself in order to be honest with the child. Know yourself so that you do not take advantage of a defenseless child.

    No matter how late it grew, some parents stayed behind to ask questions about the best way to run the Children's Houses. Ein Harod was one of the few kibbutzim to have its children sleep at home, rather than in the Children's Houses, after they reached the first grade. But still unresolved was the question of who should be assigned to care for the children's groups during the day. specially trained educators, or any women who volunteered. Feiga maintained that only professionals should be in charge of the children. What did the doctor think?

    Korczak responded that, ideally, men as well as women should work in the Children's Houses (an idea never followed up), but that it was best tO train a few experts in child care, rather than bewilder the youngsters with the cultural bias of each individual caretaker. It was also essential to coordinate the rules in the parental home with those in the Children's Houses, so that the child did not become confused.

    Unable to resist a little mischief, he left his most important advice - a dose of humor for every problem-in a letter to the kibbutz to be read after his departure:
    Knowing that you are dissatisfied that the children are always late to school, let me propose five solutions:
    l) Put a rOOster in a coop in every room. When he crows, the children will awake on time. If not, I suggest:
    2) Firing a cannon. But if' after waking, the children walk so slowly that they are still late, I suggest:
    3) Spraying them with cold water from an airplane. But if they enjoy that too much' I suggest:
    4) Writing down the names of those who are late. But if the children don't care' since everyone knows anyway, I suggest:
    5) Putting a notice in a big city newspaper. But the children may say "Who cares, nobody knows us! " And so on.

    If these proposals do not meet with your approval, I suggest that someone propose something better.
    I give my consent to exhibiting this letter on the bulletin board on condition that the kibbutz members add the following statement: We are always on time, and want our children to follow our example.

    During his brief three weeks at Ein Harod, Korczak often sat with his Bible in the late afternoon under the newly planted palm trees, waiting for the rare breeze to blow in over the mountains from Haifa. He knew that Mount Gilboa had been arid from the time David had cursed it: Saul had fallen on his sword there in grief that Jonathan had been slain by the Philistines. David (whose childhood he planned to write about) had lamented:
    "Fallen, fallen are the men of war; and their armor left in the field. " Ancient history was now intertwined with the present; many of the early kibbutz settlers had fallen on that very same ground.

    Just before dawn one morning, Korczak groped his way by flashlight for two miles across the stony hillside to the kibbutz graveyard. The cobbler, who accompanied him, pointed out the monuments erected for Joseph Trumpeldor and others who had become legendary heroes in battles with the Arabs. Korczak was disturbed to see that most of the dead lay in anonymity. "It's a distortion of justice that some should be remembered and others not," he said. He scooped up some soil from that graveyard of forgotten pioneers to carry back to Poland.

    Toward the end of his stay, when Simchoni offered to guide him around Palestine, Korczak refused. "It's more important to get a thorough knowledge of life here," he said. "I can always buy picture postcards of Tel Aviv for people who are interested in that city. " But he did agree to a tour ofthe Jordan Valley and the Galilee. He was fascinated by Nazareth and spent some time interviewing an old Polish priest he found living in Tiberias. Only a few hours remained for Jerusalem, but time enough for him to wander through the narrow alleyways, and stop by the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and to know that if he was ever to return to Palestine it would be to this old, eternal city, rather than to the kibbutz.

    As he packed to leave Ein Harod, Korczak refused to take the bedsheets, scissors, and razor he had brought with him. it was his way of leaving some gifts for the Simchoni family, little knowing that they would treat them like relics. "You are sleeping on the sheets that Korczak slept on," Simchoni would tell guests. "Look, here are Korczak's scissors." Joseph Arnon, who had to travel from another kibbutz, arranged to see Korczak off in Haifa. "Who knows, I may come back if I can collect a thousand zloty's, " Korczak confided to him. "But for now, what do you think I should tell everyone in Warsaw about Palestine? "

    Arnon answered without hesitation: "Tell the Poles that this country is by no means a hell for those Jews they told 'Go to Palestine!' And tell the Jews that a new world is being built here, that it' s worthwhile for them to take a risk. "

    "Joseph, I can't tell them such things," Korczak replied.
    "I can speak only about what I have seen. "

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