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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Old Doctor

    Korczak may have gone to Palestine for the "thoughts" that would be born to him there, but as the ship plowed its way toward Greece on the first leg home, he was still thinking of his new friends. Waking suddenly just before dawn on the first day out, he felt impelled to go up on deck and begin a letter to them. It was not the marvelously alive and impatient foam that held him in thrall on this starless night, he wrote, but the smoke rising from their bakery, the silhouette of Mount Gilboa where their dead lay, and the green of Lake Kinerett.

    Back in Warsaw, he was so determined not to cut the thread that bound them, he set aside one day a month for correspondence, addressing as many as thirty envelopes at a time, though seldom filling them all. In a letter to the Simchonis' little daughter, Mia, Korczak described the busy schedule that made his "weeks fly by'" On Monday, he examined children in juvenile court; Tuesday and Wednesday, he lectured at pedagogic institutes; Thursday through Friday noon, he was at Our Home in Bielany; Friday afternoon through Saturday, he was at the Orphans Home; Sunday, he allott .ed to writing.

    To an adult friend he wrote, "I am so tightly programmed here, how could I even consider a different life in a different land?" -as if an excuse were necessary. Even as he urged Stefan Jaracz and other friends to go and see this "courageous and sincere experiment" for themselves, he knew he had yet to evaluate the whole experience. .'I have been waiting for a moment of total silence to conclude what my stay in Palestine gave me," he told one of his correspondents. The task is difficult, and I keep wondering: Was I sincere in my feelings?"

    That moment of "total silence" had to wait: shortly after he returned to Warsaw, Korczak was offered his own radio show. He couldn't refuse. Ever since he had adapted some of his stories for radio in the late twenties he had been fascinated by its educational possibilities. Here was the chance to reach thousands of children at a time, instead of just one hundred.

    "Radio will never replace the book, " he told an interviewer, "but it is a new language." Radio had made it possible for nothing eVer to be lost, immortal".

    fur everything to become ". , yet this new medium also brought awesome responsibilities in its ability to steal "into the home, into the intimate areas of life, and into the human heart."

    Korczak's friends in children's programming had been able to arrange his show on the condition that he assume yet another pseudonym to placate higher officials who did not want to be accused of allowing a Jewish educator to shape the minds of Polish children. (it was already common knowledge by then that Janusz Korczak was a pseudonym for Henryk Goldszmit.) Korczak deliberated for a while, and then made the pragmatic decision that it was better to influence people anonymously than not at all. He agreed to call himself the "Old Doctor " which he ironically referred to as his underground name.

    Before long the warm, intimate voice of the Old Doctor became famous in Poland. People hurried home from their offices on Thursday afternoons to be on time for the fifteen-minute program. In contrast to the formal tone of other broadcasters, the wry and compassionate voice of the Old Doctor made each listener feel he was being spoken to personally.

    Korczak's radio style was similar to that of his writing: the usual rules of syntax were dropped, and words and ideas juxtaposed in creative disarray until, like a magician, he pulled everything together at the end. the originality of his method was so provocative that one listener, tuning in to the middle of the show, called the station to complain that the speaker sounded drunk.

    Whenever he needed a convincing pig's snort or cock's crow, Korczak would ask his orphans to try out for the part. During auditions, the two homes sounded like barnyards. Adam Dembinski, a Jewish orphan, recalls being chosen to go down to the studio along with a Gentile boy, who was a r's apprentice: "My job was to bark like a dog. I gave a lud bark, and got five zlotys. it was wonderful"

    The Old Doctor's fans never knew what to expect when they tuned in: he might be interviewing young patients in a hospital or poor orphans in a summer camp; he might be ruminating about children and airplanes, analyzing children's relationships to adults and each other, or speculating about current events. Or he might simply tell a fairy tale. The proper timing of "Puss in Boots" proved such a difficult challenge that he devoted three shows to it in the fall of 1935 before he was satisfied.

    "If I'm with a group of children i can always pace myself, I know instinctively when they are going to laugh, cry, or ask questions," he admitted to an interviewer. "But alone there in that little room with the clock ticking away, I worry if I am talking clearly enough and when the music is scheduled to come in. As soon as the red light says "Speak, I feel like someone who doesn't know how to swim being pushed into the water. It's the same panic you feel in war when someone levels a gun at you, or when you're about to go down on a sinking ship."

    The analogy to a sinking ship was one that Polish Jews would use often from the mid-thirties on. A wave of fear had gone through Poland's many ethnic communities (the Jews were the second-largest minority after the Ukrainians) when in September of 1934 the government abrogated the minorities treaty, which had guaranteed them equal rights. As long as Jozef Pilsudski, officially only the Minister of War and inspector General of the Armed Forces, unofficially ruled the country, they had felt safe. The Marshal had become increasingly repressive and disillusioned with the Poles, aptitude for democracy in his later years, shocking many by establishing a special camp for his political enemies after the assassination o f the Minister of the Interior. but he had never abandoned his vision of Poland as a multinational federation. When on May 12, 1935, Pilsudski succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of sixty-seven, a great number of Jews feared that the future of Polish Jewry would be buried with him.

    Many rabbis were among the mourners in the funeral procession that escorted Pilsudski's embalmed body, dressed in full uniform, from St. John's Cathedral, where it lay in state for two days. It was then taken on a railway flatcar with an honor guard of generals past hundreds of thousands of Poles who lined the two hundred miles of track to Cracow. A hundred Jewish delegations from every part of Poland attended the funeral at Wawel Castle, the historic burial place of Polish kings.

    Korczak had never met Pilsudski (years before, for lack of time, he had turned down a request to write his biography), but wanting to pay homage to him, he prepared a tender script, "A Pole Does Not Cry," for his next broadcast. It was true that Polish heroes were not supposed to cry, he planned to tell his listeners, but did they know that their beloved Jozef Pilsudski actually cried twice in his life-once when his army was surrounded by Cossacks in Lvov, and again when his favorite chestnut mare died. The Old Doctor wanted to comfort his audience with the knowledge that Pilsudski, like all courageous leaders, was human too and capable ofweeping, even as they were now at his death. But the censors, who had come to power with the nationalization of radio the year before, rejected this portrayal of Pilsudski as a man of tears. In spite of the appeals of a number of Korczak's influential friends, the Old Doctor was forced to replace the script with one innocuously titled " A Story about Children."

    Korczak decided to take some of his orphans to the unveiling of the Marshal's memorial in Cracow when he heard that the railroad was offering four free children's tickets to every adult traveling there during the month of July. Shimon Agassi, one of the four lucky Jewish orphans chosen to go, remembers that they slept the night before at the apartment Korczak shared with his sister. They stayed up late, packing foodstuffs and giggling over Korczak's silly contingency plans for the various things that might happen to them. Ifthey couldn't find seats together, one ofthe boys was to dash into Korczak's compartment moaning that he had just been bitten by a rabid dog. The occupants would flee to avoid him, and they would have the entire compartment to themselves. However' on the train the next morning, the boy chosen for the role burst out laughing in the middle of his story, and none of the passengers were fooled. The children had to take turns sitting in the one seat next to Korczak. They passed the time playing with a portable chessboard and helping Korczak roll his cigarettes. The six-hour trip south through the flat green fields of the Polish countryside to the old royal city flew by quickly.

    Korczak picked a room at random from a list at the station information desk and off they went by tram. Depositing their bags at the boarding house, they proceeded to a restaurant, where for the first time in their lives the four orphans were allowed to choose their own food. They ordered all kinds of dishes, but not meatballs, which they knew only too well from the orphanage leftovers. The next day they walked the cobblestone streets of the lovely Renaissance city that had once been the capital, visiting the Municipal Museum, the square where Kosciuszko had taken an oath to free his people from the partitioning powers, the statue of the great romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, and then Wawel Castle, where Jozef Pilsudski was buried alongside the Polish kings. At the ceremony for the unveiling of the memorial, the children finally understood why Korczak had brought a large stone from the orphanage yard when he motioned them to join him in placing it by the monument.

    A few hours before they were to return by train to Warsaw, Korczak took his young companions to the airport. There, with the same straight face he had managed to keep on the train during the abortive rabid-dog scheme, he asked the man at the counter for four free tickets for the children accompanying him. Informed that this was impossible, Korczak replied innocently that since the airline, like the railroad, was owned by the government, he felt the same offer should hold for both. The clerk consulted a few other employees, who went into a huddle with still others, but the answer that came back was no. Korczak and the children were still laughing when they jumped onto the last train to Warsaw that night.

    After Madame Pilsudska intervened for him at the radio station, Korczak was permitted to read "A Pole Does Not Cry". Over the air on December 5 of that year. But right-wing newspapers had uncovered the identity of the Old Doctor and now accused him of being part of a Jewish plot to ruin Polish children. Soon after, the Old Doctor was informed that the show scheduled for December 26 would be canceled because of special holiday programming that week. Humiliated by this last-minute directive-the station was obviously reluctant to put a Jew on the air during the Christmas season-Korczak reminded his superiors that his contract was not binding after the end of February. His threat was clear, but futile. In spite of his popularity. the Old Doctor's contract was not renewed. Following his last broadcast on February 27, 1936, the Old Doctor disappeared from the lives of his loyal fans as mysteriously as he had appeared.

    Although he tried to hide his pain over what was happening at the radio station-and in all of Poland, for that matter-Korczak confided his anguish and self-doubts in his letters to Joseph Arnon. On February 7, 1936, shortly before his program was terminated, he wrote: "When you are overtaken by a feeling of numbness, when you see yourself as superfluous and your whole life as useless, when you feel like hiding in a secret corner to contemplate things for the last time, when you feel like no longer existing-then From somewhere a kind word reaches you, a friendly echo from the past. You change your mind impatiently. What nonsense!And then you hesitate: 'Perhaps after all! . . . ' Every person wants to contribute one more thing! You write that I am wrong about having failed. My failure lies in the fact that all that brought me joy in the past has turned into crushing toil, everything that seemed worthwhile and feasible now produces doubt, apprehension, shame. What little I've achieved seems unimportant. I took a vow to uphold the child and to defend his rights, but all that I can do is offer a prayer or wishful blessing to support his insecure steps."

    Arnon was still urging Korczak to emigrate to Palestine, and he was still deliberating on it: "Where is there a more suitable place to defend (in words) the small and weak, if not the land of israel? That is why I am filled with yearning. But, to my sorrow, I am bound (and overloaded) here by my real work, which is at the point of decline." Yet, in closing, Korczak assured Arnon that he would consider coming to Palestine if he could be certain that he wouldn't be "a burden on the country."

    Stefa was in Palestine visiting Feiga and her new husband (a teacher who had emigrated from Russia) during the difficult period that Korczak's show went off the air. By April, when Stefa was scheduled to return, Korczak found himself waiting impatiently. But he didn't hear from her on the day she was due back, nor the day after. It wasn't like her not to be in touch with him. He asked a number of people if they'd seen her; no one had.

    " Stefa doesn't seem to have arrived yet," he told Natalia Wislicka, who, together with her philanthropist husband, had become a confidant over the years. It was not unusual for Korczak to come by for a chat in between engagements, or to have a quiet dinner in their home. "I don't know what could have happened to her."

    While they were having tea in the garden, Natalia's young son, Aged, kept running out of his room to check that she was still there. "It's a sign he really loves you," Korczak commented. "It's not love-it's the fear of loss," she said, with a shrug. "Well, what is love but fear of loss?" he replied.

    It was fear of loss that Natalia Wislicka detected in his voice when he complained about not hearing from Stefa. For the first time she realized how successfully he masked his deep attachment to Stefa from her. A few days later Stefa finally appeared, explaining that she had been exhausted by her trip, which took seven days and seven sleepless nights with a stopover in Athens; she'd gone directly to her brother's home, taken a bath, slept for twenty-four hours, and then given herself another three days before facing the orphanage again.

    Stefa was already planning an exhibit at the orphanage of the colorful scarfs, straw pen-cases, olive-wood rulers, seashells, and other treasures she had brought back. As she and Korczak pored over the photo album the kibbutz had presented to her on her departure, she began to speak of Palestine as a future for both of them. She was amazed that he was so open to her suggestions, although he questioned how the orphanage could survive with both of them away. She began exploring the options with him, and wrote excitedly to Feiga in one letter about his idea that they rotate trips, alternating six months in Palestine with six months in Poland, so that one of them would always be on call for the Orphans Home.

    "Things are becoming more agitated every day on both the national and the religious front, " Stefa added in that letter, alluding to the Jewish labor strikes protesting the government's anti-Semitic policies. "The evil permeating the atmosphere here is worse than the economic crisis. And there doesn't seem to be anything one can do."

    When Korczak agreed to go to Palestine for six weeks that summer of 1936 as a prelude to a more extended stay, Stefa again took paper and pen to notify Feiga. This time Korczak jocularly added in his own precise handwriting at the bottom of her letter: "I already speak Hebrew-Netzyan Hetzyan [Excellently]. Shalom, Korczak."

    Korczak flew from Athens to Palestine on his second trip. As enthusiastic about aviation as about radio and film, he had been one of the first in Warsaw to take sightseeing excursions by plane in the late twenties.

    "It makes you realize how small man is in the universe when you look down on him from up there, " he would tell his friends. Now, looking down on the coast near Haifa, he was struck that this was "where exile ends." Once again he was "privileged to live to see the Promised Land, " and once again he was mystified by the emotional hold it had on him. As Korczak's skepticism receded on this second trip, he was able to acknowledge that Palestine was a promised land in more ways than one:
    it promised a place where people who were Jews could live and work without stigma and dislocation, promised sun and healthy growth for children, promised the security of a genuine community. But this time he became even more aware of the promises it had made to the Arabs, who saw it as their land. If Palestine was to be the solution to the Jewish question, he understood, as did Martin Buber and others, that the Arab question had to be solved. When he heard that a new port was being created in Tel Aviv because the Arabs were protesting against Jews working in Jaffa, Korczak had startled his friends with: "But what about the Arab children?" Would they go hungry if the Jaffa port were closed?

    Palestine was unusually tense that summer after a year of Arab rioting across the country. Just before his arrival, marauding bands of Arabs had set fire to Ein Harod's wheat fields, cut down the grapefruit trees, and shot at the settlers from the top of the mountain. Korczak was surprised to find that the kibbutz looked like an armed stockade. He volunteered to take his turn standing guard duty at night and was insulted when he was refused.

    "Don't you know that I'm a Polish officer who has served in three wars?" he asked his hosts. When that bit of information didn't alter their decision, he related his theory of chance: one should face danger head on, with the attitude that fate might have your number, but then again it might not. He was willing to take that chance. But the kibbutzniks were not willing to risk losing their special guest.
    Korczak was more successful in testing his theory a few days later while visiting one of his former orphans, Moses Sadek, in Haifa. When Sadek urged him not to return to the kibbutz the following day because there were rumors of shooting along the bus route, Korczak responded:
    "Who says that tomorrow when I go the Arabs will start shooting? And if they do, who says it will be on my road? And if it is, who says it will be at my bus? And if it is, who says they'll hit anyone? And if they do, who says it will be me?" Having rendered Sadek speechless, Korczak declared: "Since there Me so few risks, I'm going."

    Though they refused to permit him to perform guard duty, Korczak urged the kibbutzniks to allow the older children to share this dangerous task with them, just as they shared the food shortages and exhausting manual labor. "You shouldn't wrap the children in cotton, " Korczak said. "The struggle to create a life here is their destiny." He spent less time at Ein Harod on this trip, making a conscious effort to lecture at other kibbutzim so that he could broaden his observations. Everyone noticed that the doctor seemed more at ease with himself, no longer smiling in a self-deprecatory way when he spoke the few sentences he had mastered in Hebrew before his interpreter took over.

    He was particularly interested in the moshavim, those agricultural settlements based on free enterprise, where he could see the initiative of the individual farmer on his own plot of land. The transformation of the young men and women he had known into people of the soil was a constant source of amazement, although he saw it as more a spiritual than a physical change. The success of one of his orphans who had never received warmth from his mother was especially gratifying to him. Korczak thought the boy would be handicapped all his life, but he had obviously found a constructive outlet for his emotions here. It made Korczak realize that a specialist cannot predict a child's ultimate destiny; a place like Palestine had liberated this orphan's hidden potential in ways that he could never have imagined back in Warsaw.

    He had a desire to keep moving on this trip, as if some premonition told him that he would not be given a chance again. When he met Hillman, a mechanic from Siberia who was a "veteran wanderer, " he was tempted to "grab a knapsack" and ask if they could hike through the whole country together. Out of this might come a Hobinson Crusoe-like book for children-only the hero would be an "Eretz Yisrael Robinson."

    He even imagined hiking in the mountains with "old Gilson," a kibbutz friend, as his guide. Every great deed occurred in the mountains-Ararat, Sinai, and now Mount Scopus (the site of Hebrew University), he wrote Arnon. He had the solution to the Arab-Jewish problem: "Let the Arabs keep the fertile valleys and the sea, and the mountains will sustain the Jews."

    Some of Korczak's rapture must have spilled over into his letters to Stefa, for he told a friend wryly. "Because of my enthusiasm, Stefa is afraid I may never return-but I think she will come here before me, and stay forever."

    Whenever possible, Korczak avoided meeting officials. He refused to visit Tel Aviv, which he felt did not represent the dream of Palestine. He considered it an "unhealthy" city, controlled by "ambitious tricksters." Jerusalem attracted him most-Jerusalem with its timelessness, its pink light reflecting off the limestone buildings set against the Judean hills. He felt at home in this city where it was natural for one to have dreams of ascending to heaven. He explored the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter of the Old City, mingling with Orthodox Jews, who looked not too different from the poor Jews at the other end of Krochmalna but who lived in even worse squalor. He could not forget the medieval conditions at one of the Orthodox Jewish orphanages that he visited in that "city of grace."

    Despite warnings that it was dangerous, Korczak wandered through all of Jerusalem, visiting sites sacred to Christianity, especially those connected with the life of Jesus. Bible in hand, he might one day stroll with Franciscan monks in an effort to re-create the world of Jesus, and On another walk beyond Dung Gate and the Wailing Wall so that he could look out on the Arab village of Silwan, which was once the city of David, whose life he was also trying to re-create.

    Korczak spent his last few days in Palestine with his Young Pioneer friend Moshe Zertal, who had emigrated a few years before. From the last letter he had received from Korczak: "I am an old man, not creating anymore, just observing from the sidelines" Zertal had not known what to expect. He was relieved to see the doctor looking younger than ever, as if Palestine agreed with him. The two men checked into a small hotel in Haifa, then strolled leisurely through the city as they waited for the ship that would take Korczak to Greece, the first stop on his journey home. Korczak was amazed when Zertal suggested they leave the small package he was carrying in a store and come back for it later. He couldn't believe the package would still be there. Although he was perspiring from the heat and clearly fatigued, Korczak was his old humorous, ironic self Spotting a FOR RENT sign on one of the houses near the sea, he couldn't resist a little fun and knocked on the door. Using Zertalas his bemused interpreter, he pretended to be a new immigrant in search of a room, questioning the landlady carefully about the routine of the household, checking out the bathroom, and examining the porch.

    After they retreated to the beach, they "laughed like children," but Zertal understood that Korczak had been trying to imagine an alternative way of life there. As they sat in silence, listening to the voices of children playing nearby and watching the waves breaking on the shore, Zertal wondered if Korczak would ever return to test that life for himself.

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