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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Hard Truth of Moses

Learn to know life, little Moses, because it is difficult, my child.


    "0ne needs time to absorb an experience until he understands not only with his head, but with his heart," Korczak told an audience in a talk on his Palestine trip at the institute of Judaic Sciences in early October.

    In seemingly unrelated vignettes, much in the style of the Old Doctor, he spoke of watching an Arab mother and son saunter nonchalantly into a Jewish village at six in the morning with two donkeys and four dogs to draw water from a well, "as if the area had been theirs in the past and would be in the future"; of his surprise at the uniform price of bus tickets no matter what the distance between cities; of the nuisance of mosquitoes (he counted forty bites his first night); of the disparity in living standards from one region to another, some settlers enjoying fruits, vegetables, and beautiful flowers, while others were starving; of his disappointment on learning that the black spots he found on the stones he collected were tar from paved roads rather than the blood of the fallen. Like all other places, Palestine had its good and its bad features, he said, cautioning his audience not to think they could escape their problems by going there, because life is difficult everywhere.

    "The doctor gave a wonderful lecture," Stefa wrote Feiga, "though it's a pity he had to read it. He was very excited. I shall send it to you." Those who had attended Korczak's lecture to hear a political analysis of what was happening in Palestine must have been disappointed. Only once did the famous educator touch on the political situation: "Palestine is like a long rope, one end of which is held by the Jews, and the other by the Arabs," he said. "They both pull, in the process coming closer and closer. But just when they are about to touch, a third party appears and cuts the rope. And then the whole thing starts over again."

    The same analogy could have been drawn about the Poles and the Jews, whose relationship was continuing to deteriorate with the acceleration of fascist influences from the Third Reich. The Nuremberg Laws, which in 1935 had declared the Jews an inferior race, further encouraged Polish extreme-nationalist groups (like the National Radical Camp and the All-Polish Youth) to push for economic boycotts of Jewish businesses and for segregated seats at the university (known as ghetto benches) for Jewish students.

    The right-wing press used Korczak's talk on Palestine as an excuse to vilify him in a series of articles that once again identified the Old Doctor as Janusz Korczak, the so-called Pole, who was really Henryk Goldszmit, the Jew. Why had Korczak decided to go to Palestine? the papers wanted to know. Why was he allowed to educate Polish children?

    If Korczak was saddened by the viciousness of the press attacks on his Palestine trip, he was devastated by what awaited him at the next meeting of the board of Our Home in Bielany. To this day little has been said publicly about what happened that afternoon in the late fall of 1936 to make Korczak resign from his work with Maryna Falska. Their fundamental differences in educational philosophy are cited as the cause.

    Korczak wanted to give the children the security of being raised in a family atmosphere, while Maryna, more ideological in her approach, believed that Our Home should serve the needs of the progressive working class. Over Korczak's objections, she had opened the library and playground to the neighborhood children, and given space to community projects.

    Maryna could never have been accused of anti-Semitism-she was once about to expel an orphan for making an offensive remark when Korczak intervened-but she was known to be under criticism from anti- Semitic groups for allowing a Jew to educate Polish children. She had remained silent that fateful day when a member of the board confronted Korczak with: "Are you a Zionist?"

    Korczak had looked at the group in disbelief He walked out of the room, feeling betrayed that those with whom he had worked for so many years should ask him in effect: Are you loyal to Palestine rather than to Poland? Most of the board accepted Korczak's resignation with a philosophical shrug-as assimilated as he was, he was still a Jew. To prevent a scandal, his name was not dropped from the board roster. The orphans were told only that Pan Doctor would not be able to come around as often as before.

    In her memoir written after the war, Madame Pilsudska discreetly omitted anti-Semitism as the reason for Korczak's break with the orphanage:
    "Some of his methods seemed strange to us. For instance, Dr. Korczak would ask the children their opinions of the young teachers, and base his own judgment on what they said. The staff lost all authority with the children, which resulted in chaos. So we had to part with Dr. Korczak the educator, with the greatest regret. However, he still remained a member of the board."

    Korczak not only lost his radio program and his affiliation with the Polish orphanage that year; he also lost his consulting post at the juvenile court. One of the lawyers who witnessed his dismissal was to write years later. "i still cannot forgive myself for my silence at that time. Those officials who represented Polish law and justice informed Korczak: "No Jew can be in charge of our juvenile offenders."

    The loss of so much that gave meaning to both his professional and personal life revived the anguish of Korczak's earlier childhood losses. "I have never felt closely attached to life-it just flowed by me," he wrote Ester Budko. "Since my youth I have felt myselfboth old and superfluous. Is it any wonder that this feeling has become more intense now? I am not counting the days, but the hours left to me. The trip to Palestine was probably my last effort. And now nothing." Alternating as he always did between hope and despair, Korczak added: "i believe in humanity's future. If I had kept an innocent faith in God, I would probably pray for the salvation of this world where children are the first to suffer. The child will have the leading role in man's spiritual renewal-it was my intention to play some part in it, but I didn't know how."

    Palestine could not be his own personal salvation, Korczak told another correspondent, because he did not have "forty years to spend in the desert." Yet he remained ambivalent about emigrating.

    "The doctor is so depressed that he is indifferent to everything around him," Stefa wrote to Feiga. "imagine, he wanted to go to Jerusalem this month. Just take off suddenly. Don't mention this to anyone because people who don't know him may get the wrong idea. He intended to live in Jerusalem rather than on the kibbutz. He is miserable, and makes others miserable."

    The indecision of their lives-hers and Korczak's-was too much for Stefa. At the age of fifty, she decided to take Feiga' s advice to leave Poland. On November 4, 1936, she requested her to ask the kibbutz if she could become a member. if the answer was affirmative, could they help her apply for papers? She knew it would take some time, but she wanted to set things in motion-now.

    Stefa's resolution seems to have deepened Korczak's depressed state, but it may have been that same "fear of loss" he had experienced over her absence earlier that eventually propelled him into action. On March 29, 1937, he confided to a friend in Jerusalem: " After a depression of a few months, I have finally made my decision to spend my last years in Palestine. I will go first to Jerusalem to study Hebrew in preparation for living on a kibbutz. The only family I have here is my sister, who is able to support herself as a translator. But since I have so little saved up, I wonder if it will be possible for me to manage there." Korczak was quite definite: he would be leaving within the month because he was no longer able to bear "the insecure situation in Poland."

    On March 30 he wrote more letters to Palestine. Congratulating Moshe Zertal on the birth of his baby -"It is good that you have a child"- Korczak revealed his doubts about his decision to spend his life serving children and defending their rights, rather than marrying and having children of his own. Now that he had failed to protect his orphans against the onslaught of anti-Semitism or to put enough food on their table, he saw how naive he had been. They (the dark forces) had power, while he had only justice on his side. When he watched his orphans hurrying down the street to school, he was overwhelmed by his inability to protect them from attacks by children who threw rocks and beat them up. He felt "responsible for all the evil done to them."

    He tried to hold on to his faith-"Despite everything, I do believe in the future of humankind" the Jews, the land of Israel,-but the present reality had to be seen in a more universal perspective. While taking a compulsory course for physicians on gas warfare, he was reminded of "the Middle Ages-plague and disease-fear of the end of the world. "

    Now there was gas and fear of world war. "Even if our rockets reach the moon, even if we go further and further in splitting the atom and discover the secrets of the living cell, will there still not be something beyond those mysteries?" But always he arrived where he had started: grappling with his ambivalence about emigrating to Palestine. "I'm not trying to save myself but my thoughts, " he wrote. He could not easily cut himself off from contact with Polish reality. "I shall be awake for every call and every sound. I want to link what was with what is. I cannot be otherwise." He intended to leave as soon as he decided whether to apply for a tourist visa or a residence permit, and had solved the problem of money. He had only a thousand zlotys to his name, but he wasn't going to let that bother him. "Only the small things disturb." The most difficult part had been making the decision, and that done, he was impatient to come. "I would like to be in Jerusalem tomorrow, sitting alone in my small, narrow room with a Bible, some study books, a Hebrew dictionary, paper and pencil-so that I can say: a new page, the last chapter."

    In another letter he wrote: "I called for respect for the child, but someone has rightly asked me who respects adults these days. Maybe I am deluding myself that it will be easier to call for justice from Palestine, or at least for pity" And then he added, alluding to the Japanese war against China, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War: "China, Ethiopia, Spain, these are the stations of my misery." In his letter to friends at Ein Harod, Korczak explained that only his lack of Hebrew prevented him from settling immediately in the kibbutz.

    Once he had mastered the language in Jerusalem, breathed some fresh air, stretched his bones, and regained his sense of humor, he would come to them. But he added with a mystical turn of thought, as if he had a premonition that this would never be: "it may not sound comprehensible, but I believe that if I don't come as a weary, tortured old man to share what is left of my talents, I shall come to you as a child again, starting his life wanderings anew."

    Only to Arnon did he admit his lack of conviction about "permanent settlement" in Palestine. He would have to adapt himself to a different life, climate, language, and surroundings. "When you are sixty, it is impossible to approach it any other way, it is forbidden. A man is responsible to his own spirit, to his own mode of thought-that is his workshop."

    What gave him comfort was that he was finally going. "I have asked myself: Is it too late? No. Had I gone earlier I would have felt like a deserter. One has to remain at his post until the very last moment."

    This "last pilgrimage" on which he was embarking carried an ethical burden as heavy as the one he was putting down. He saw the Jews as having a "moral responsibility" to aid the oppressed races of China, South Africa, America, and india. Palestine should become a second League of Nations. Just as Geneva served as a parliament to oversee such mundane affairs as war, world health, and education, so Jerusalem should represent the rights of the individual to a spiritual life.

    He was to depart in May, yet took no action, writing Zertal that conscience did not permit him to leave the children at that moment. With his usual irony he wrote the poet Zerubavel Gilead that one reason he still hesitated to come to Palestine was the language. "I'm old. My teeth are falling out, and so is my hair. This Hebrew of yours is a tough nut to crack. It requires young, strong teeth."

    Like Julian Tuwim, the Polish-Jewish poet, he felt that the Polish language was his "homeland." One's mother tongue was "not a set of rules and moral precepts, but the very air which one's soul inhales."

    Instead ofpreparing for his departure that summer, Korczak arranged to spend June and July in the Polish mountains, "to remind me of the ones in Palestine. " There on a remote farm he would have time to think and write. His conflicting needs-to stay in Poland and struggle for what he believed; to retreat to Palestine into a life of quiet meditation-were reflected in the two slim volumes he produced, one on Louis Pasteur, the other on Moses.

    "The lives of great men are like legends-difficult, but beautiful," he wrote in the Pasteur book, which he intended as the first in a series of mini-biographies whose subjects would include Pestalozzi, Leonardo da Vinci, Pilsudski, Fabre, Ruskin, Mendel, Waclaw Nalkowski, and Jan Dawid. (It was a project similar in spirit to the one his father and uncle had undertaken seventy years before.)

    Korczak clearly identified with Pasteur, "whose beautiful life was spent in the struggle for truth," and whose attitude toward children was so much like his own. "When I approach a child, I have two feelings- affection for what he is today, and respect for what he can become," Pasteur had written. He taught the world many of the same things that Korczak taught his children: to wash their hands, drink boiled water, open the windows to let in good fresh air. He dared to say "I don't know" while doing his experiments, and never gave up, even when he was the most discouraged.

    Korczak dedicated the Pasteur book to his sister, Anna Lui, but he told friends that he had written it for children living in a time when the "Hitler madness" had seized power over everything decent. He wanted them to know there were people in the world who devoted their lives to enriching the human condition.

    If Korczak had looked to Pasteur, the scientist-healer who stubbornly went his own lonely way against all opposition, for strength to endure in those difficult times, he looked to "the hard truth of Moses" the lawgiver for spiritual strength. The book on Moses was to be the first in another series he planned to write, this one on the early years of biblical heroes. David, Solomon, and Jeremiah were on his list, as well as Jesus, but it is not surprising that he chose to begin with Moses, the foundling who had been forced to dwell among strangers until he eventually made his way back to his own people.

    Like Freud, Korczak wrote his book on Moses toward the end of his life. His purpose was not to question Moses, origins, as Freud bad, but, like a good storyteller, to ask the questions that would fill in the pieces omitted in the original tale. Why did Moses' mother decide to hide him after three months, rather than after two or four? What did his mother and father say to each other before he was born, and after?

    One can understand Moses, although he lived four thousand years before, because he is no different from children today, Korczak told his readers. If we can recall our own childhoods, we can become Moses, and if we recall our experiences as adults, we can begin to understand how Moses" parents made that most difficult ofdecisions: to give up their baby Korczak saw Moses as a child living in terrifying times, under a death sentence. He saw him lost in the bulrushes, then found and reared in the enemy' s palace. He saw him dreaming nostalgically of his lost home, having nightmares. He knew children, and so he knew Moses-because Moses was a child before he was a lawgiver, and had experienced the universal emotions of childhood.

    " As he sleeps," Korczak wrote of Moses, "he does not know that his mother will have him put on the riverbank. . . . He does not know that the sea will part before him, and that he will become a leader, also a lawgiver. He does not know that he will complain to God in the desert -'Why did you dislike me so much that you gave me the burden of an entire people? . . . I cannot carry it all because it is too much for me. Please kill me."

    When Korczak returned to Warsaw with his two manuscripts that August, it was as if his spirits had been lifted by his communion with Pasteur and Moses. For the rest of the year he made "feeble attempts" to reach Palestine. Money and language were still the stumbling blocks, he wrote Joseph Arnon, but he also had to "cleanse" himself from within, exclude everything temporal from his thoughts, and relive all that he had ever experienced "through the silence within silence." There were times he felt his head was "bursting. " At other times he heard a stern accusation:
    "You cannot leave the world the way it is." Again his thoughts returned to the child he did not have: "Fate has so ordained that everything I have done has been for the benefit of an orphanage, not of a family. Is this why it is so difficult for me now? . This too is an endless subject. " He apologizes for his "wild" thoughts. He should be writing about his encounters with Zertal, about Stefa, about concrete day-to-day affairs. Yet he still imagines that someday in a letter such as this he will chance upon the "magic word that will create a shelter for homeless humanity."

    On November 4, 1937 the Polish Academy of Literature awarded Janusz Korczak the Golden Laurel for outstanding literary achievement. It was gratifying to know that he was still valued as a Polish writer. He felt this same sense of connectedness to Polish culture and history the following month when he spoke at the funeral of Andrzej Strug, a leading socialist and a novelist friend from Flying University days. Strug's funeral was attended by thousands of the political left whose struggle in the underground socialist movement against the czarist empire was immortalized in his book Underground People.

    "The times were cruel. gloomy, and dangerous in a different way when Nalkowski died," Korczak began his graveside eulogy for Strug. "Our first reaction then was-what now?" Paraphrasing the words that the protagonist in Underground People had said over the grave of his fallen comrade, Korczak continued: "Why did he leave us like orphans? He went calmly to sleep when we needed him most. He shouldn't have. What about us?"

    It would be more difficult now that this man who had "kept vigilance with his thoughts, his breath, and the pulse of his blood" was gone. The world would be a "colder place" without him.

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