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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Religion of the Child

I watch baby sleep.
Eyes sleep, lips sleep,
Nose is sleeping too.
Now little eyes are tired.
Eyes say goodnight, lips say goodnight,
I say goodnight, sleep, baby, sleep.

-Lullaby

 

    In early 1939, while right-wing groups were busy agitating against the Jews, Korczak was "busy with Krochmalna."> He was also trying, unsuccessfully, to compose lullabies-for "one needs silence to write for children, and a calm mood," both of which were in short supply in Poland those days. To Sabina Damm's inquiry about when she would see him in Palestine, he replied with his usual: "Who knows? Who knows?" But he assured her that he still wanted to come. "At least there the worst will not spit in the face of the best because he is Jewish." As for the insomnia she experienced the night before her lectures, he offered her encouraging advice that reveals his own philosophy of creativity: "What comes easily has little worth. Anxiety, lack of confidence, hesitation, suffering-these are necessary until you write or say something of value."

    In March 1939, one year after Stefa arrived at Ein Harod, Germany marched into Prague, and Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as a state. People returning to the kibbutz from Europe were full of rumors of impending war, causing Stefa to worry about Korczak. When she made the decision to emigrate, she was sure he would follow. Now that he hadn't, she decided that she had better return to organize his departure. Feiga tried to dissuade her, but once Stefa made up her mind to something, she followed her course like an arrow to its target. She would go back to Warsaw to help Korczak with whatever problems were standing in his way.

    Life had not been without problems for Stefa on the kibbutz. She had discovered that being a guest at Ein Harod and living there were not the same. Once she became a member of the communal family, she was treated with the lack of consideration that people often show their relatives. She who had for twenty-five years moved through the Orphans Home "like a ship crossing the ocean" found that she had no real authority here. Everything had to be decided in turbulent meetings which were as inconclusive as they were interminable. "It takes three hundred years to change anything on a kibbutz, " Stefa would complain.

    Not a few settlers thought this "unattractive newcomer with her faulty Hebrew and thick Polish accent" had a lot of nerve demanding things be done her way. It was not enough that she was dedicated and punctual, and had worked with Korczak: her timing, as well as her style, was different from theirs. Sometimes the kibbutzniks felt that Stefa and Feiga were allied against them. Feiga's unsmiling, severe personality often seemed as abrasive as Stefa's, as if the two women were joined by blood as well as pedagogic theory. They were equally dogmatic about how the children should be raised. "Give me a child of five or six," Feiga would say, "and i will see that he learns to dress himself quickly."

    Stefa couldn't help but be aware of the resentment against her, especially when some of the settlers made a point of avoiding her in the dining hall. Eight months after her arrival, she tried to defuse the situation by asking to have the floor at a kibbutz meeting. "I feel I'm not needed here," she announced honestly. She sensed she was treating the children one way, they another; that they didn't even notice the children except to complain about them making noise and disturbing their afternoon siestas. "I left Europe because I thought I'd be able to contribute something here," she reminded them. "But without your support, I cannot be effective." Stefa's heartfelt plea cleared the air. Such outspoken confrontations were not unusual on the kibbutz, where everyone was under some kind of tension. Life went on, with personal problems subsumed by the larger ones of survival.

    In her letters to the Orphans Home in Warsaw and to the Little Review, we glimpse Stefa's innovations. She installs a lost-and-found box in the northeast corner of the dining hall, chamber pots in lighted, accessible areas for children who have to get up at night, bed lamps for those who wake up with stomachaches or nightmares, and a note-taking system that enables caretakers on one shift to leave messages for the next. She quarrels with the builder about placing the light switches and toilet chains so high that the children are always breaking things in their efforts to reach them. "It's more difficult to explain to these adults how to do things than to children," she writes. "i told the builder that in our home on Krochmalna only one chair out of a hundred and ten was broken oVer a twenty-five-year period. And that one, even without its legs, is still in service in the sewing room."

    Not until Stefa had departed for Poland on April 22, 1939, did the settlers appreciate the diversity of her contributions to the Children's Houses. She left a letter thanking the kibbutz for its hospitality and for teaching her so many things. "Maybe I will see you again," was the way she phrased it, leaving her future plans unclear. She left with sorrow, but with no illusions. "The kibbutzniks don't want someone to teach them how to behave with their children," she told Zerubavel Gilead, who had come to the kibbutz as a child from Russia.

    "The kibbutz wasn't ready for Stefa," Gilead would say years later.

    When Stefa returned to Warsaw, she brought another album from Ein Harod to share with Korczak. He was still intent on going to Jerusalem, but she insisted it would be safer for him to live on the kibbutz. The subject became such a charged one between them that, whenever they saw a friend off for Palestine, Korczak would make a point of saying:
    "See what you can do about finding me a room in the Old City in Jerusalem." And Stefa, with the same stubborn persistence, would take that person aside and say: "Don't look too hard, it's dangerous for him there."

    Moshe Zertal, arriving with his family for a short stay in Warsaw, remembers not wanting to disturb Korczak because he knew the doctor was at a "crossroads" in his life and going through a period of <<,great soul- searching." But as soon as Korczak heard that Zertal's young son had fallen ill, he called to say he was coming that afternoon to examine him.

    "At the appointed hour the doctor appeared, " Zertal recalls. "He was tired, having been out on a trip with the children that morning, but in good spirits. He went straight to my son's bed, gave him a cursory check, and began to play with him. The language the two used was not very recognizable-one having no vocabulary, the other only pidgin Hebrew -but there was a definite conversation between them. As he was leaving, Korczak said, "Don't worry, it will pass. Keep him in bed, and put a big pan of boiling water in the room to supply moisture." Then spotting my mother, with whom we were staying, he added with a smile, < Zertal discovered that Korczak was right. The next day a doctor "like all other doctors" arrived, and left behind two real prescriptions like all other doctors.

    When Zerubavel Gilead came to Warsaw that spring in search of new stories to publish in Palestine, he made Korczak's apartment one of his first stops. He was surprised that Korczak's sister, Anna, a thin woman in a prim black dress, opened the door herself. He had expected an important man like Korczak to have a servant.

    "Welcome, welcome," she greeted him warmly, and called down the long hallway, "Doctor, a guest from Palestine."

    Anna, who worked at home as a legal translator, retreated as soon as Korczak came walking sprightly down the corridor in his long green smock, a woolen cap on his head, to escort Gilead to his quarters.

    Gilead took in the details of Korczak's simple room: the piles ofbooks and papers strewn on the desk, the bust of Pilsudski that Korczak had received with an award. the tall wardrobe, the iron cot covered with a rough military blanket, the face of his mother peering out from her photograph on the wall.

    When Korczak saw him glancing at the open Polish Bible, which had fresh notes in the margins, he said: "This is the novel I read daily like a serial. I'm working on a Children of the Bible series, and I'm always discovering something new. But why are you standing? Please sit down. Help yourselfto what's in front ofyou." A few oranges, dates, and almonds had been set out on a small table for his visitor. "To keep you from being homesick,"Korczak said, "and to keep your spirits up."

    Korczak offered Gilead his short stories about Jewish children that the Hashomer Hatzair hadn't already translated into Hebrew for its magazine. The young poet was soon in the habit of dropping by regularly to see if the doctor had anything new for him. Their conversations covered a wide range ofsubjects, and once Gilead asked him shyly what he thought love was.

    In one of his books, Korczak had explored love from a child's point of view: "What is love? Does it always depend on something else? Is it always given to those who deserve it? What is the difference between liking a lot and loving? How can we know whom we love more?" But, of course, he knew that Gilead was asking about adult love.

    "My dear friend, I am now over sixty, but to your question "What is love?' I must say I don't know," he replied. "It is a mystery. I know aspects of it, not its essence. But I do know what mother love and father love are."

    He told Gilead about a dreamlike experience he'd had as a medical officer in the Balkans during the war. "Our unit was stationed in a mountain village. I was working in my hut until very late one night and I became thirsty. Stepping outside to the water barrel, I was stunned by the brilliance of the moonlight. The mountains above me were dark, but the village was illuminated in a dreamlike haze. And there, in the hut across from mine, I saw a young woman leaning in the doorway, her dress stretched tight across her body, and her head, crowned with heavy braids, resting on her bare arm. As I stood watching her, my heart told me: "She is the one! The mother of your child. What could be a more perfect combination: a man of the plains and a woman of the mountains!' All of this happened in just a moment. The woman disappeared into the darkness of her hut, but I remember her to this day. I don't know if that was love, but it was a kind of love-a desire for fatherhood."

    Korczak did not reveal to Gilead anything about the close call he had with fatherhood to which he would allude in a baffling entry in the Ghetto Diary. Setting up an imaginary dialogue between two "old codgers" reviewing their lives, he has one, who is clearly himself, tell the other, who is married with many children: "I had no time for girls-it's not only that they're a greedy lot and take up all your nights, they also get pregnant . . . A nasty habit. it happened to me once. Left a sour taste in my mouth forlife. I had enough ofit, the threats and the tears . . ." The full exchange between the two old men is Korczak at his most sardonic, but the rough locker-room talk about women and pregnancy seems oddly out of character. One senses a fear of and aversion to women under the male bravado of this man who always had time for children-and a secret at last confessed. (Whether a child was ever conceived, born, or aborted, is not known; the mystery of that diary entry remains.)

    The main topic of conversation in Warsaw that spring was the threat of war in Europe. Partial mobilization had begun in Poland. In the cafés it was said that Hitler would not attack because of Poland's mutual-as- sistance pact with France and Britain, but should he be so bold, the Polish Army would hold out until the Allies intervened. Despite the uncertain atmosphere, W arsaw went about business as usual. Gilead noticed that Korczak never mentioned the trepidation that everyone, including himself, was feeling.

    "You seem preoccupied," Korczak observed during one of his visits. "What's the matter with you? Homesickness?"

    Gilead, who was scheduled to remain in Poland another six months, tried to make light of his nervousness. "Well, I think I should return to the kibbutz soon. I may not have long to live if there's a war."

    Korczak surprised him with the vehemence of his response: "Don't talk nonsense, young man. This is no time for jokes. People die only when they want to. I've been in three wars and, thank God, I'm still alive and kicking."

    He told Gilead about a fearless officer who had been with him on the Eastern front. When the shells were raining down on the trenches, he would casually lift the collar of his coat as a shield. But one night the officer returned from leave very depressed because he'd learned that his wife had been cheating on him. He was killed the next day.

    "So go to your flat, young man, take an aspirin, and put yourself to bed,'. Korczak ordered. "You'll perspire nicely, and all the nonsense will evaporate. if you feel badly after that, go back to Palestine. But don't go in defeat."

    It would have taken more than aspirin to keep Gilead in Poland. He came to say goodbye the following week. Korczak's sister Anna opened the door-only this time, before withdrawing, she snapped at him, "Why don't you ever speak to me?" Fortunately, Korczak came down the hall just then, full of good spirits, and ushered him into his room. For the first time, he pulled out a bottle of Mount Carmel wine.

    "Let's have a little fun," Korczak said, ignoring their last conversation. "We are parting, maybe not for long, but still there will be a considerable distance between us. You know, even though I'm used to traveling by ship, i always feel queasy at first. i have to wait a while until I get my sea legs. Maybe it's because I am the son of a land which is far from water. I don't know, but let's drink-l'chaim, my friend, l'chaim!"

    In the midst of their chatting about future plans, Korczak stood up, crossed over to the cupboard, and removed a wooden box containing stacks of long, narrow notebooks filled with his distinct, minuscule handwriting. "This is my life's work," he said in a tremulous voice. "Ten years of material on my experiences with children, my research, conflicts, failures, and successes. I'm going to call it The Religion of the Child."

    When Korczak came to the station to see Gilead off, he handed him an envelope. "This is just a token for you," he said. "Fragments of the preface to the book I intend to write. ill finish the last chapter in the land of Israel. Have a safe trip. I shall follow you." And he pulled Gilead to him warmly, hugging and kissing him.

    On the train Gilead read the pages that Korczak had given him: the preface was to be a philosophical discussion between an old doctor and his son during a camping trip at the foot of Mount Gilboa in Palestine. Until then, the two had never been able to communicate. The son's little daughter (whose mother, a mountain woman, has just died) is playing nearby. As the son tells his father of his childhood love for him and of his grievances, his daughter comes running toward them. She puts one tiny hand on her father"s hand and the other on her grandfather's. She says nothing, but father and son know what she means: they have to reach out to each other.

    In this unfinished story Korczak seems to be creating the dialogue he never had with his own father. The reconciliation he seeks can only come at a moment of mutual forgiveness which is made possible by the healing power of a child. We recognize the fantasy child the army doctor imagined having with the mountain woman in the Balkans-the child who might have been.

    Before he joined Stefa and the children at summer camp, Korczak followed her advice that he spend the month of June working on his book while taking salt baths at a nearby spa. From his window in the country inn, he could see newly conscripted young soldiers being trained for duty on the German-Polish border.

    Little Rose, the summer camp, proved to be a stronger tonic than the salt baths. .< "Twenty new children whom you have to discover like twenty books written in a little-known language, books that are somewhat damaged, pages missing, a riddle, a puzzle. It was like old times-all that mattered were lost sandals, a thorn in the foot, a quarrel near the swing, a broken branch. I slept in the isolation room with the children who came down with measles. When i caught myself dozing, I would think: Don"t fall asleep, listen for another ten minutes to their breathing, coughing, sighing. What wisdom there is in their coughing while they sleep-a constant struggle goes on with the infection, the fever, the scratching, the flies."

    It was a tradition that each camp season end with Olympic Games in which there were competitions in running, jumping, throwing, and other sports, as well as music and singing. But that last summer before the invasion the children wanted to replace their Olympics with War Games-Poles against Germans. A large sandy area was prepared for the battlefield, fortifications built, bunkers dug. Shotguns were carved out of wood and chestnuts became bullets. Any boy hit by a chestnut fell down, played dead, and was out of the game. The girls, acting as nurses, helped the wounded from the field.

    It didn't dampen anyone's spirits when the Poles lost the war -it was only a game-but a pall fell over the children as they passed a brick works on their way to the forest for their last campfire. Korczak realized that it reminded them, as it did him, ofthe two drunks who had threatened them at that spot the first day of camp by shouting: "Give me the pistol! Call Hitler!>" But everyone relaxed that night as they sang songs and told stories under the full moon until long after midnight. He was able to report to Joseph Arnon that he returned to Warsaw "very excited and jubilant-if it is proper to describe oneself so at the age of sixty-one."

    In late August of 1939, Korczak was preoccupied with finding a way to provide squirrels for the children of E in Harod. During his last trip to Palestine, he had begged the Polish consul to have a dozen red squirrels shipped from Poland, but the consul had not understood that it was a matter of great consequence-that, "without squirrels, trees are sad and motionless." His new plan was to have the children of Ein Harod write directly to the British authorities requesting that gray squirrels be shipped from lndia. The reason he was optimistic, he wrote Gilead, was that after World War I he had asked the British consul for napkins for the orphanage, and eight months later, when he had given up hope, a crate had arrived with enough napkins to last ten years.

    Squirrels were uppermost in Korczak's mind at this time because he had finally decided to visit Palestine for four months in October to gather material for the "last chapter" of The Religion of the Child. With the usual reservation-"If I have enough money"-he wrote Arnon: "I intend to spend two months in Old Jerusalem (at an interesting cheder I saw there) and two in a seminary in Tiberias. I am afraid of rheumatism, bugs, and even a little of the Arabs, in that order."

    On September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland.
    On September 2, the letter that Sabina Damm had written to Korczak in reply to his inquiry about a room in Jerusalem came back to her, stamped: "This item is being returned to the sender due to the suspension of all communication between Palestine and Poland."

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