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Janusz Korczak Biography

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When does the loneliness of old age begin?
-Radio talk, 1938


    "There is little of me outside the orphanage," Stefa had written Feiga after Korczak moved into his sister's apartment. For a while she initiated new policies-children were sent out for job training after the fifth or sixth grade, prayers were dropped before breakfast and after dinner-but still everything seemed routine. The young teachers she had trained to take over her work while she was away could manage quite well without her. She no longer felt challenged or needed. And so, in January of 1937, while she was waiting for her visa to Palestine, Stefa decided to give up her position in the orphanage and take a room of her own.

    Temperamentally unable to remain idle, she accepted a part-time arrangement with CENTOS, a social welfare organization that sponsored a hundred and eighty progressive orphanages in Poland. She was to travel three days a week around the country, inspecting their various institutions.

    The advisability of Stefa's cutting herselfofffrom work with children seems to have been questioned by Feiga. Stefa reassured her. "Of course, I will still keep an office on Krochmalna. " She would never give up a place to meet with her "children," who still brought their families to see her every week, just as she would never stop corresponding with those who wrote from all over the world, but she needed space of her own now, needed a change. "I can admit to you in a selfish way that I'm learning to appreciate my modest, quiet, and sunny room. I can be alone at last! No one knocks at my door, no one comes when I do not invite them. I don't have to dispense good advice, make telephone calls, answer questions. I can go to bed when I like, and come home as late as I want.

    I know I will renounce my newly gained freedom after a year or so, but right now, after twenty-five years in harness, I enjoy it immensely."

    Stefa's one-room apartment with kitchen and bath was small and simple, according to Misha Wroblewski, who visited her there. It looked very much like her room at the orphanage, with few personal touches other than her cactus plants. Having tea with Stefa, Misha realized that he had never seen her sit still, had never really talked to her before.

    "How can you bear to leave the orphanage after all this time?" he had asked her. And she had replied in that blunt, straightforward way ofhers: "Look, every few years the children change. After a while, one cannot relate to the new ones as ardently as one did before. And to work without loving them intensely is something one should never do." She did not say what many believed to be closer to the truth: that the home was not the same without Korczak living there.

    Stefa was not committed to CENTOS as she had been to the Orphans Home; she was working only to pay her rent and make enough money to buy necessities and little presents for her "children and grandchildren" until her visa came through. Like Korczak, she had taken very little salary over the years and had almost no savings.

    In spite of her lack of enthusiasm, Stefa was good at her job. She revealed much of her character in the way she evaluated the CENTOS orphanages. She was fair. She never dropped in on a home unexpectedly, but notified the directors in advance that she would be arriving, to give them time to fix up the place if necessary. She was astute. She stayed at each orphanage for a few days, rather than for just a few hours. She observed not only what the children ate but also how they handled their food. If they wolfed it down, she knew they had been hungry the day before. When they left for school, she walked through their dormitories, examining the sheets to estimate how frequently they were washed. The condition of the bathrooms also revealed the quality of the orphanage.

    When Stefa returned to Warsaw, she told stories that revealed her sense of the absurd. In one home a philanthropist had given the girls brooches that another philanthropist disapproved of as frivolous. A sentry had to be posted at the window each day to signal which philanthropist was approaching so that the girls would know whether or not to put on the brooches.

    Stefa always defended the personnel when she could. She saw that their rooms were as cold as the children's and that they were as hungry. But her experiences only increased the disillusionment she had felt with boarding homes ever since returning from Ein Harod. Observing how a child lived in the Children's House, while sharing activities with his family and community, had changed her outlook. She now believed that Poland's orphanages should be transformed into halfway houses that allowed children to have greater contact with their relatives. Ifthat were not possible, the children should be cared for in small, family-size units.

    In her application for membership in the kibbutz, Stefa had written:
    "I am a dishonest person. i have been clearly against boarding homes of our kind for six years, but I have stayed through the law of inertia." She often joked with friends in Warsaw: "Before i die, I want to write one book, Abolish the Boarding Home."

    Stefa was ecstatic to hear that Feiga had given birth to a boy in August. (Years before she had advised Feiga to have a baby even if she never married.) Though her lack of a visa prevented her from rushing to the new mother and baby in Ein Harod, she wrote constantly over the next few months to encourage Feiga, who was suffering from postpartum depression. "You think one goes through this experience without problems," Stefa wrote when the baby was two months old. "I am not surprised your nerves failed you. Only in books are the "blessings" of motherhood and "sacred feelings" so poetic. I happen to know a great many sensitive women who were not able to deal with the shock of having a first child- especially ifthey had been married for five to ten years." But Stefa needed reassuring, too: "And I am certain, my darling, that you will feel less lonely and need me less and less."

    Stefa worried about Ein Harod whenever she read in the Warsaw papers about Arab attacks on Jewish settlements. "I fear you are hiding something from me" or "I feel you are keeping secrets just to spare me". was a constant refrain. "For my peace of mind, write me, even if it is just a postcard." Feiga reacted like a rebellious daughter, withholding letters at times and accusing Stefa of being overbearing. Many of Stefa's letters were prefaced with "And don't you dare be mad at me!" or "You may get mad at me, but . . ." before she revealed some action she had taken, or some gift she had sent. in one package with three blouses, Feiga found a typical note: "I am sure you will not be satisfied with them-the first because of the color, the second because of the style, and the third because of the buttons."

    Stefa could speak of nothing but Feiga's baby to Korczak, although he didn't share her attachment to Feiga-who openly voiced her resentment that Stefa did not get enough credit for the success of the Orphans Home. While she waited for her visa, Stefa often volunteered to babysit for Romcia, the daughter of two bursa members, Roza and Jozef Sztok- man. Born the same month as Feiga's son, Romcia lived with her parents in the garret room that had once been Korczak's study. Her mother, Roza, who had been raised in the orphanage, was in charge of the kitchen. When Romcia was born, the apprentices had called out to each other:
    "We have a baby!" Korczak was fascinated with the child and always took time to play with her on the days he spent at the home. He and Stefa found themselves comparing notes like doting grandparents whenever they got together on what they knew was a most unlikely project. "Don't burst out laughing, but I am teaching the Doctor Hebrew," Stefa reported to Feiga. "I write words out as they sound in Polish, he repeats the sound and jots them down phonetically by his own method."

    In March of1938, when she was losing hope that it would ever come through, Stefa received her certificate ofimmigration to Palestine. It was, she said, the highest Jewish award she had ever been given. She immediately wrote to ask Feiga if she should mark her linens, and how. She couldn't study Hebrew because her head was "spinning" with too many things. And Feiga "shouldn't be mad"-she hadn't requested a room of her own, but just a corner in someone else's place.

    Still, once she had the certificate, Stefa felt uneasy. "It's so difficult to leave the Doctor here," she told Feiga. She was trying to convince him to follow her. "If he had a different character, he could get a plot of land in a moshav from the Jewish National Fund, because he recently became a deputy member. But now he is depressed again and indiffer- ent."

    The imminence of Stefa's departure probably had something to do with Korczak's depression. He warned her that she wasn't used to the relentless heat in Palestine, that at fifty-two she might be too old for such hardships. Stefa's resolution to emigrate faltered. She wrote Feiga: "I am not like your old ladies who come to the land of Israel to die, but I can't help worrying how the weather and other conditions there will affect me."

    Conflicted though she might be, Stefa pulled everything together and arranged for her departure. She quit her post at CENTOS, promised to write all her children at the Orphans Home and agreed to send articles about her life in Palestine to the Little Review, where she had worked briefly as an editor with Newerly after Korczak resigned. It was especially difficult for her to part with little Romcia, but she had Feiga's infant son waiting for her. The actual moment of departure was what she dreaded most. "I am afraid of goodbyes and embarrassed at the welcomes that await me," she admitted to Feiga.

    Stefa was gone, and still Korczak remained in Warsaw. The political situation might be bleak, but Korczak held on to his belief in the liberal stratum of Polish society as the true face of Poland. His faith was sustained by the many Poles who still esteemed him and abhorred anti-Semitism. Close friends at the radio station had been able to negotiate some air time for him if he wanted to do another Old Doctor series. At first he hesitated, for fear "things might end harshly again," but finally he allowed himself to be persuaded. He chose loneliness as the theme of his first three radio talks: "The Loneliness ofthe Child," "The Loneliness ofYouth,& and "The Loneliness of the Old Man."

    Like Henry James, Korczak might have said that his loneliness was the "deepest thing" about him: the port from which he set out and the port to which his course was finally directing itself All his adult life, he had exposed the loneliness of the child in an alien, adult society, and occasionally the "impatient, strange loneliness" of the adolescent; but now it was the loneliness of the old man he confronted with the most passion, because it was his loneliness. It is one thing to call oneself the Old Doctor, and another to come to terms with approaching old age.

    "When does the loneliness of old age begin?" the Old Doctor asked an ancient linden tree which he recognized as his double. "With the first gray hair? The first extracted tooth which will never grow back again? When you have your first grandchild?" This chat with the tree was his "diary, confession, balance sheet, last will." He asked the question he had been asking himself all his life.

    Who are you? Pilgrim, wanderer, castaway, deserter, bankrupt, outcast?
    . . .How have you lived? How much land did you till? How many loaves of bread did you bake for others ? How much did you sow? How many trees did you plant? How many bricks did you lay before taking leave? How many buttons have you sewn? How many garments have you patched? How many socks have you darned?

    . . . While you lived, did you just observe languidly as life flowed by? Did you steer the course, or were you carried along?

    The lonely people of the nation revealed themselves in the thousands of letters to the Old Doctor that poured into the station. But even as the Old Doctor spoke as a tree rooted firmly in Polish soil, he was investigating ways of being transplanted elsewhere. ""Nothing is new here since Madame Stefa's departure," he wrote a former apprentice in Tel Aviv, before asking him if he knew a boarding house where he might rent a room for a few months.

    After he completed his loneliness series, the Old Doctor was given another program, which he called "My Vacation." In June of 1938 he was on the air every Monday and Thursday at 3:45, recalling his experiences with children he had encountered during his travels to the mountains and countryside over the course of his life.

    One show, a lyrical account of a day' s boat excursion with some of his little friends, had much of the magic of that immortal voyage taken by Lewis Carroll with Alice and her two sisters half a century before. "When I'm with children-I accompany them," the Old Doctor began. "And they accompany me. We talk or we don't. No one is the leader. It is my hour and theirs at the dock, when we are together. our shared good hour of life. It won't come back."

    The children, ranging in age from five to fourteen, arrived at the dock accompanied by nervous mothers.
    "Mill you take a preschool child?"
    "I won't, but the boat will."
    The boat seemed stable and balanced, the fisherman experienced in rowing . . . So only. the question of weather, a sweater, cheese, seasickness, to take or not to take sun hats, a football, a Scout knife, a dog, and if they can be home in time for dinner because mothers are anxious.

    A whistle. They set sail. They wave. Silence. "Views, landscapes change. Splash. The water sparkles blue."
    This storyteller is not a fantasist taking his children down rabbit holes, but rather a scientist, dealing skeptically with matters of the real world:
    "Is there such a thing as dragons?"
    "I don't think so."
    "Were there ever?"
    "Historians don't mention them. There were prehistoric animals . . ."
    After considering such other questions as "Can a frog have a runny nose?" and "Are there any poisonous trees?" they decide to form a scientific society back at the inn. "Attendance will not be obligatory. They can meet after lunch or in the evening. Mother permitting. They are right to fall asleep even during this planning. (I, too, often fell asleep at scientific meetings.)"

    So they returned, no one having got lost during a picnic on shore, nothing exceptional having happened other than one girl discovering how wonderful leaves look with a bouquet of flowers, and one boy learning not to cover an ant with earth. "And who knows but at this very moment the ant may be home telling the story of how it survived to all of its friends, " the Old Doctor concluded his radio tale.

    The Old Doctor was the greatest humanist and intellectual on the air in Poland, according to his friend, Jan Piotrowski, the editor of the radio magazine, Antenna: "He spoke to children as if they were adults, and to adults as if they were children . . . He would understand us, but still place a stethoscope over each heart and soul. Carefully, he would reach his diagnosis, and before you noticed, the kind Old Doctor had vanished. But on your table he had left a prescription and a coin, for he knew that you, his patient, were poorer than he."

    In the slim volume he wrote on Korczak after the war, Piotrowski tells of receiving permission from his friend to publish his "beautiful triptych on loneliness" in Antenna. After writing on the proofs:
    "Here we conclude the third talk of the Old Doctor,"
    Piotrowski added: "When shall we hear the Old Doctor again?" It was an appeal to both Korczak and the head of programming at Polish Radio to come to some agreement about future shows. He was particularly hopeful that high officials at the station would be so moved by the loneliness talks that they would not submit to pressure from right-wing groups, "who could not forgive the non-Aryan origin of such a remarkable man." Piotrowski's appeal did not succeed. Once again the station was under fire from anti-Semites, and once again the Old Doctor disappeared from the air waVes. A few months later Piotrowski received a "formal and definite injunction" from the head of the radio's programming department not to print any more material on the Old Doctor in the magazine, and to cancel plans for a book of his radio talks.

    As the Polish world continued to push Janusz Korczak out, the Jewish world gathered him in. He received invitations to speak at Jewish community centers all over Poland, which he accepted because, as he wrote a friend, it would be like visiting small settlements in Palestine. Perhaps be would learn something; perhaps he could lift the spirits ofpoor, honest people by explaining to them what was happening in the country.

    Rachel Bustan, who was ten in 1938, remembers the excitement when the Old Doctor arrived in her little town, near Oswiecim (which would soon become known as Auschwitz), to speak at the Jewish community center. He didn't look at all important as he sat quietly on the podium, his hands folded on his lap, telling the story of "Puss in Boots."

    Korczak was also giving lectures in Warsaw to the Young Pioneers who were on waiting lists for visas to Palestine. He was concerned not with preparing them for life in that country, but with inspiring them to remain intellectually curious about the world. "We must attempt to find answers that cannot be found in books, for we are searching for the larger truths about man and the universe," he said in a lecture titled "We Do Not Know." Reminding them that great scientists are not ashamed to admit their ignorance about the earth's mysteries, he quoted a Talmudic scholar:
    "I have learned a great deal from my teachers and colleagues, but I have learned most of all from my students."

    After the lectures, the Young Pioneers often accompanied him home, surrounding him on all sides to prevent possible street attacks. incidents in which Jewish pedestrians were shoved or spat on by Polish thugs were becoming more frequent, but Korczak would never acknowledge that he was in any danger or allow himself to be intimidated. Once when he was traveling with one of his Jewish orphans on a crowded tramcar, another passenger, spotting the Semitic features of the boy, pointed a free seat out to Korczak: "Would the old Jew like to sit down?" Korczak responded icily; "The army major cannot sit down because he has a boil on his ass." Terrified of the consequences of insulting a Polish Army officer, the anti- Semitic passenger got off quickly at the next stop.

    Korczak encouraged his friends visiting from Palestine to wander freely with him about the city. Walking with Moshe Zertal, who had just arrived in Warsaw with his wife and young child on Hashomer Hatzair business, he said: "We are having a wonderful autumn in Poland. You will never find such colorful foliage anywhere, not even in Palestine."

    But Korczak's good spirits vanished when they passed a large poster:
    D0N'T BUY FROM JEWS! He paused for a moment to take in its message and moved away, muttering, "Stupid idiots! They don't know what they're doing. They are ruining our country!" After this outburst, he was silent for a while, then continued: "It's not good, my friend, not good. Human values are being eroded. The earth is trembling."

    Shock waves continued to reverberate from the Third Reich. On September 29, 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland. And then, in response to Poland's revocation of the passports of Polish nationals who had lived abroad for more than five years, the Nazis rounded up and transported to the Polish border eighteen thousand Polish Jews who had been living in Germany, many from families that had been there for generations. Unable to obtain the special reentry consular stamp that Poland required, the Jews languished in terrible conditions in a no-man's- land between the two countries. When Hershl Grynszpan, a Polish-Jewish student in Paris, heard that his parents had just been expelled from Germany, he shot and killed a third secretary in the German E mbassy in Paris. The Nazis retaliated by destroying synagogues and Jewish businesses all over Germany in a violent outburst in which ninety-one Jews died. It would go down in history as Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass).

    Helpless as the earth continued to tremble, Korczak began writing stories about heroic Jewish boys who wielded unlimited power. In one tale called "Reveries," an unnamed boy dreams of saving the Jewish people from persecution. Smuggling himselfonto a plane bound for England, he manages to gain permission from the King for all Jews to emigrate to Palestine. When the boy's discovery of a cache of buried gold makes him world-famous, Hitler regrets having expelled the Jews and invites them back. But the boy informs Hitler that the Jews have had enough of being invited and uprooted all the time, and will stay in their own homeland. In the spirit of King Matt, the boy ignores Hitler's request for a loan, but buys milk and butter for the starving German children.

    This plucky boy was not the first Jewish child that Korczak had created. in the early nineteen-twenties he had drafted a story about a boy named Hershkele, a four-year-old orphan who dreamed of becoming the Messiah King. But Hershkele had been supplanted by King Matt, the universal king of children, and had to wait until the late nineteen- thirties to reemerge in The Three Journeys of Hershkele.

    Hershkele-a diminutive of Hirsh, the Hebrew for Henryk-dreams of seeing the Holy Land and sets out from his village three times in an attempt to make his way there. Unlike M att, who dwelled in a palace, Hershkele lives in an attic room without glass in the window. instead of royal tutors, he has only two teachers: his older brother, Lieb, who talks constantly of the Promised Land where everyone has honey, figs, and fish with noodle soup; and a crippled madman who tells him that each person must conduct his own search for God.

    Wishing to bring order to the world, Hershkele swaggers about with a big stick as his sword, and looks for the sun and moon in the garbage dump. He becomes Moses, and climbs mounds of garbage to receive the Ten Commandments. Malka, his little friend, becomes the Jewish people. She stands at the bottom of the dump and will not listen to God. Hershkele hits her with his sword, and Malka runs home crying. After being scolded by Malka's mother, Hershkele/Moses continues to dream of leading poor Jews across the desert to a land where "there is bread, honey' and grapes."

    Gray-haired Abraham tells Hershkele: "Who knows, maybe you'll be famous in the land of Israel." Then he adds: "But Palestine is far away. It isn't time yet."

    Hershkele never makes it to Palestine, although in his first attempt he manages to get as far as the marketplace, and beyond: He is already outside the town. He is already in the desert. He walks all by himself. He sees unfamiliar countries. He sees a river, a bridge. He sees a boat. And over there woods, small houses, small COws and small horses. He hadn't knownthat everything in Palestine was so small.

    He keeps walking until he can't walk anymore.
    In a moment he will fall down.
    He strikes the ground with his sword expecting water to spout up. And then everything goes blank.
    He wakes to find himself at home with rich Sarah giving him sweet, white milk.
    Esther says: "He has measles. But he'll get well."

    The would-be Messiah makes two more attempts, but he never reaches Palestine.

    One gloomy day in late November 1938, when Korczak entered the orphanage "in low spirits," the children surprised him with a movie they had prepared with a waxed paper box and an electric bulb. "It was naive, primitive, and moving," he wrote Joseph Arnon. "Their enthusiasm and their anxiety that it might not succeed, the excitement of the others waiting for the show to begin, the accompaniment of an accordion-all beautiful. A tremendous experience for me. The labor, the effort, the risk, all ending in triumph."

    In answer to Arnon's question about his plans, he added: "I am eager to spend the winter in Palestine, since I've already experienced summer and early fall. Lot Air Line has agreed to let me have a ticket for half price, but I still cannot manage it."

    There was always some excuse that prevented Korczak from going to Palestine. For him, as for Hershkele, it wasn't time yet. And time was running out.

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