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Janusz Korczak Biography

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September 1939

I am well versed in reading the pages of war.
-"Appeal: To the Jews!"

 

    The ambivalence and depression that Korczak struggled with in the late thirties-"those wicked; shameful, destructive prewar years"-lifted with the German invasion. He was galvanized into action: at last there was something he could do. He took out the musty Polish uniform that he had worn as a medical officer during the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, and volunteered for duty. Disqualified because of age, he moved out of his sister's apartment and back into his garret room at the orphanage on Krochmalna, like a captain taking over his ship's command again.

    When his friend from Polish Radio, Jan Piotrowski, offered him a position with the newly formed radio information agency called Warsaw iI, he accepted without hesitation. Soon the reassuring voice of the Old Doctor could be heard encouraging the population to keep their spirits up. "Yesterday I was an old man," he told his audience. "Today I am ten years younger-maybe even twenty. " It was satisfying to return as a Polish patriot to the air waves from which he had been dismissed as a Jew. Then, life may not have been "worth living," but now the "storm had cleared the air, made breathing easier."

    For the first few days, while the Germans were bombing the outlying districts of Warsaw, it was possible to believe that everything might go on as usual if the citizens took the necessary precautions of digging ditches and erecting barricades. On September 2, a Saturday, Korczak allowed the orphans to visit their families. He even took time to reply to the complaint of a boy published in Our Review that adults were treating young people as nuisances during this crisis. "You mustn't give in to gloomy feelings," Korczak advised "but draw strength from the advantage that youth gives you."

    On the air, the Old Doctor encouraged young people to make themselves useful. "Don't stay inside cowering and crying about what might happen. Go out into the streets and help dig fire lanes. Go to the Tomb ofthe Unknown Soldier who died for Poland and put flowers on his grave." He told his orphans that it was all right to continue playing, as long as they did it quietly. "Every moment soldiers are dying as they defend Warsaw. it's hard for their mothers and fathers who live nearby to hear you laughing and singing when they've just lost their own children. Have respect for their suffering."

    Because of their mutual-assistance pact with France and Britain, the Poles were waiting for their allies to come to their rescue. When Great Britain entered the war on September 3, Korczak joined the excited crowd gathered outside the British Embassy. He didn't know which made him happier. the hope that England would help Poland push back the Germans, or the sight of Poles and Jews once again "rubbing shoulders like brothers," as they had during the uprisings against Czarist Russia and in the First World War. Tears filled his eyes when he heard the singing of Poland's national anthem, "Poland Is Not Yet Lost," followed by the Zionist song "Hatikvah."

    Two days later the government left the city, after ordering all young men to go East to be mobilized. The few remaining members of the Orphans Aid Society urged Korczak to send the children back to their relatives because of the difficulty of providing for them, but he would not consider disbanding the home. The children were safer remaining together with him and Stefa, he insisted. Somehow he would manage to find the necessary food and supplies.

    Korczak even took on the task of bringing food to Maryna Falska and the orphans in Bielany, who had been temporarily evacuated to another building because Our Home was on the front lines. As soon as the children saw him standing in the corridor in his uniform, they cried, "Oh, there's Pan Doctor!" and ran up and grabbed him, and begged for candy as they showered him with kisses. Antoni Chojdynski, a former apprentice, remembers the children clinging to him on all sides, and how happy he looked. ."He called them by name, saying: "How are you?" "Are you all right?" "What's happening?"

    As he pulled herring out of his sack, Korczak apologized that there was no bread to eat it with: he'd brought canned cucumber instead. A few days later he reappeared with a sackful of lentils, a popular Jewish dish, which these children had never tasted before. "We thought of it as biblical food," Chojdynski recalled. "Pan Doctor told us that he'd asked a storekeeper to donate the lentils to hungry Polish orphans, since the Germans would probably confiscate them anyway."

    On the eighth day of the invasion, the Germans were at the gates of Warsaw. The city was like a besieged fortress: many streets had been reduced to rubble by incendiary bombs; fires burned everywhere; buildings were gutted; dead horses lay rotting on the ground. There was no bread, gas, electricity, or water for its citizens or the thousands ofrefugees and demoralized soldiers who had streamed in from other parts of the country where the Polish cavalry and infantry were being decimated by German tanks and planes.

    Korczak dashed about the blazing city, rescuing frightened children, giving aid to the injured and comfort to the dying. A few times a day, he checked in at the radio station to bring news or encouragement to the apprehensive populace. A coworker remembers him "slightly bent, enlivening the bomb-shattered quarters with his humor."

    Although seven shells hit the orphanage in the course of the next three weeks, morale remained high. Whenever the air-raid sirens sounded, the children, whose number had swelled to one hundred and fifty, would rush down the stairs to the basement shelter, where sandbags had been piled up against the windows. Even an injured boy whose father was missing and whose mother and sister had been killed by a shell in front of him managed the stairs quickly, though neither his leg nor his one remaining eye had healed. "We'll bring a smile to his battered face yet," the Old Doctor told his radio audience.

    The older children took turns standing guard near the roof during incendiary attacks. They had only a second or so after a fire bomb landed to douse it with sand or water to prevent it from bursting into flame. There was one terrifying moment when a shell exploded right outside the dining hall, smashing all the windowpanes. No sooner had Korczak gone out to investigate than the whole house shook from another explosion. The children dove under the tables with the young teachers, not even daring to run down to the shelter. They were certain their beloved Pan Doctor had been killed. But a few moments later he ducked back inside sheepishly without his hat, explaining that the blast had blown it off. "I had to make a quick retreat,". he said with an impish grin. "My bald head would be a perfect target for those planes."

    But not everything turned out well. Romcia's father, Jozef Sztokman, died of pulmonary complications after struggling to put out a fire on the roof. The whole orphanage went to the cemetery for the funeral. Over his grave they vowed in both Polish and Hebrew that they would honor 'Truth, Work, and Peace."

    Korczak tried to keep a smiling face with the orphans and staff, but ida Merzan remembers one night when he let down his guard. She was being cared for at the orphanage after receiving a head wound in a bombing attack outside Warsaw. During one of the air raids she got up to follow the children down to the shelter and encountered Korczak on the stairs.

    "What are you doing out of bed?" he demanded when he saw her.
    "I don't want to be alone," she replied. "I feel sad."
    "My God, who isn't sad, " he said quietly. "The whole world is one great sadness."

    During this period, many of the former apprentices and orphans came to Korczak for advice about whether or not to flee to the Russian zone. "No one knows what will happen," he would say, in keeping with his policy of never giving direct advice, but he did not discourage them from going.

    On September 23, after a night of unusually heavy bombardment when the whole of W arsaw shook as if the earth might open up and swallow it even before the Germans could, Mayor Stefan Starzynski delivered his now famous radio address: "Warsaw may be in flames, but we are proud to die bravely!" Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, which followed, was interrupted when German bombs hit a power plant and the station went dead. it was four in the afternoon. From that moment, the guttural sounds of German would command the air waves.

    Five days later Poland fell to the Nazis. For three weeks her people had struggled valiantly together against impossible odds, and now it was over. The day after the siege ended, Stefa's sister-in-law, Irena, encountered Korczak hurrying through the ruins of the once bustling Marszalkowska Street, carrying a young boy in his arms.

    "What are you doing here?" she asked.
    "Looking for a shoe store," was his reply.
    "But all the shops are destroyed or closed," she reminded him, looking around at the desolation.

    "Then I'll find a shoemaker," he said. "'This boy can't walk on all this glass without shoes."
    "Who is he?" she inquired.
    "I don't know. I just found him crying in the street. I have to carry him until I find something for his feet."

    He moved past her, continuing down the street with the boy to the Old Town, where he rang the bell of Hanna Olczak, the daughter of his publisher, Mortkowicz. He often dropped in unannounced to have a cup of hot sweet tea with her and reminisce about her father while her little girl Joanna played at their feet with the brown spaniel. "How beautiful," he would say, before pulling himself out of the soft armchair and forcing himself back on his rounds. Hanna was not surprised to have him come by with the barefoot child that day. She gave them both tea, and took care of the boy while Korczak continued his search for shoes.

    The Nazis were orderly when they entered the city: they set up soup kitchens and distributed free bread. For a while it was a relief just to be done with the bombings. Things were bad, but people hoped that the worst was over, that this German occupation would end, like the last one, in German defeat.

    As he wandered through the "enforced misery" of Warsaw, Korczak marveled at the resiliency of the young when he heard noisy' mischievous children's laughter erupting out of heaps of burned rubble. "Despite the carnage, despite the power of man's destructiveness, the mighty life force goes on," he wrote. "After this war, no one will dare to hit a child for breaking a window. Adults will pass children with their heads bent in shame."

    The brief period of calm was shattered when a new kind of German terror was unleashed on both Poles and Jews: sadistic attacks in the streets, imprisonments, and executions. The Jews were rounded up for work details and the Poles shipped as forced labor to Germany. Jewish businesses and factories were appropriated, Jewish schools were closed. When the Russians unexpectedly invaded on September 17' once again Poland was partitioned-the Soviets taking the Eastern part, the Germans the West-as had been secretly agreed upon in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non- Aggression Pact.

    Most of the philanthropists of the Orphans Aid Society had either fled Poland or had their businesses confiscated and their bank accounts frozen. In spite of the increasingly sinister atmosphere of the city, and fears for his safety, Korczak continued to wear his Polish uniform, without insignia, on his daily rounds to procure food and supplies for the orphanage. He became a familiar figure at the offices of the Judenrat, the Jewish council set up by the Germans to act as intermediary between them and the Jewish community. He also stopped by regularly at the American Joint Distribution Committee and at CENTOS, the Jewish welfare agency for children where Stefa had worked. With everyone trying his best to keep a low profile, it was unnerving to have Korczak come by in his uniform. Abraham Berman, the director of CENTOS, recalled:
    "We were so startled by his appearance, we couldn't help asking what he thought he was doing dressed like that. "As far as I am concerned, there is no German occupation," he replied. "I am proud to be a Polish officer and I shall go about as I wish."> He was unconvinced when we argued that it was not a matter of our personal feelings, but that we were a social institution with very crucial aims that would be jeopardized if he were found here like that."

    When Newerly expressed surprise to see him in uniform, Korczak said that he was no more enamored of uniforms than he had ever been, but had decided to wear his as a symbol ofprotest. He was equally adamant about not wearing the white armband with the blue S tar of David which was made mandatory for all Jews over eleven years of age on December 1, 1939. Not only did he feel it was demeaning to the Jewish star to wear it as a badge of shame, but he would not let the Germans erase his Polishness by branding him only a Jew. " As a teacher, I value eternal laws above transitory human ones," he had once written, and he still held to that position.

    Korczak loved to regale his friends with stories about how he dealt with German officers who eyed him suspiciously on the streets. "I'd start singing at the top of my lungs, reel back and forth as if I'd lost my wits, and they'd look at me with disgust and move on." If they stared at him in a cafe when he stopped for coffee, he'd begin "mumbling incoherently" to himself until they turned away. But all the while he was watching the Germans, too, as they patrolled the streets, observing them with a clinician's eye, trying to make a diagnosis of their aberrant behavior. He didn't believe in stereotyping people (during his year in Berlin it had amused him that the one German student in his lecture course was always late, while the Slavs were always on time), but the Germans did seem true to form as they strode about the city, efficient, detached bureaucrats, concerned with order and small details. And yet they were not the Germans he had known. There was a brutal edge to their behavior that made their previous occupation of Warsaw seem almost benign.

    One cold night in January 1940-wasted by " As he wrote, the Nazis were outside patrolling Warsaw. They might curtail his freedom of movement, but they could not restrain his free spirit and his faith in a higher order than theirs: " Korczak struggled to keep inviolable that deep quiet place within him even as he struggled for food for his children; yet he did not make another diary entry for the next two years. With his energies completely absorbed in finding the funds and essentials he needed to keep his children alive, he wrote only appeals to the public for help, a genre that necessity had forced him to refine. Just eight months before the war, Korczak had deliberately provoked the Jewish community with an ethnic announcement in Our Review:
    It's bad to be an old man, but it's worse to be an old Jew.
    Could there be anything worse?
    Oy, oy' oy-and what if that same old Jew is penniless?
    And what if he is both penniless and unresourceful?
    Isn't that the worst of all?
    No. What if the old Jew who is unresourceful bears the yoke of a large family of children, and his heart aches, and his legs and his hips, while his eyes perceive that his strength is ebbing away?

    As Korczak expected, some found his new style less than amusing, but it did bring in donations. After the Germans occupied Warsaw, he once again used his writer's skill-which any professional fund-raiser might envy-to move the most obdurate heart. Addressing '"the Jews, " the petitioner declares: "One cannot flee from history. Extraordinary circumstances demand an extraordinary effort of the mind and the senses, will power, and action." Crediting God with saving the orphanage, he demands "a loan of 2, 000 zlotys, which will be returned sooner than you think." (This last has the familiar touch of King Matt, who demanded a loan from the three defeated kings, saying, "Don't be piggy.") Not only was the future of his orphanage at stake, but the "entire tradition of aid to the child. " Anyone who failed to respond would suffer "moral decay," and destroy a tradition of two thousand years. It was Jewish "honor" he was upholding, and who would want the burden of discrediting that?

    His strategy must have been successful, for a few months later he appended a postscript: "I am happy to note that but for a few exceptions, man is a reasonable and ethical being. There are now 150 children in the orphanage."

    In his next appeal, Korczak recommended that people give something to him before they were forced to give everything to the Germans. He wanted not only financial assistance but addresses of well-to-do acquaint- ances when he came to call. The two documents were signed: "Dr. Henryk Goldszmit / Janusz Korczak / the Old Doctor from the Radio."

    As he pounded the pavements making those promised calls, Korczak was still in his Polish uniform, still without the Star of David armband, still "playing the clown," for he knew that people "don't like gloomy faces."' Sometimes he would stand in front of a cafe where his friends gathered, shouting like a beggar: "Is there someone here with a bag of potatoes to get my children through the winter?" Waiting on line for kasha, he would tease the woman behind the counter that she reminded him of his elder granddaughter, so that she might add a little extra to the purchase. And once, wanting to get off the tramcar before the usual stop, he whispered to the conductor: "if I were a young girl, i would hug you for slowing down so that I could jump off at the next corner "Much to his delight, the rattled conductor snapped: "You don"t have to kiss me, sir, " and slowed down to get rid of him. And, even if only to revive his own flagging spirits before facing Stefa and the children each evening, he would make his way through the streets singing bawdy songs from his military days.

    Adam Czerniakow, the Chairman of the Judenrat, recorded in his diary some of the clownish exploits Korczak, an old friend, had related to him. Although Czerniakow was a civil engineer by training, he had always had a passionate interest in children's welfare. Korczak's visits were obviously a welcome relief from Czerniakow' s otherwise grim activities.

    Not all of Korczak' s friends were comfortable with him in the role of buffoon. Leon Rygier remembered his alarm one night when the bell in his partially bombed-out apartment rang just before curfew, and his relief upon seeing it was Korczak.

    "it's so good to be here with you," Korczak exclaimed, throwing himself onto a chair and trying to be lighthearted about his difficulties soliciting money that day. "Some people are generous, but not everyone. If they're difficult, i just undo my coat and reveal my Polish uniform. They get so nervous about having someone in uniform in their place that they give me something just to make me leave."

    Rygier listened in pained silence, knowing how reticent Korczak was with strangers and how contrary to his nature this kind of begging was. Their eyes met, and he was sure that Korczak knew what he was thinking.

    " That first winter of the German occupation was bitterly cold, the temperature falling some days to thirteen below. Korczak had coal' but he couldn't use it effectively until he replaced the glass in the bombedout windows. Fortunately, igor Newerly passed his exam as a glazier and, with the help of the older boys, soon had the orphanage comfortable again. Other former apprentices and orphans also came to the rescue, volunteering their time, donating mattresses, sweaters, and underwear, or performing services such as dental care and repair work.

    Clothing the children adequately was an acute problem for Stefa, since the cost of textiles and tailoring of any kind was prohibitive. Resourceful as ever, she set up a sewing school in the orphanage funded by ORT, a relief agency with which Stella Eliasberg was active. The twenty students, ex-orphans from Krochmalna or other institutions, came six days a week from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon. ORT supplied the instructor, as well as two sewing machines, an electric iron, and thirty chairs. Stefa was proud to report that in one month they managed to make seventy-eight dresses, twenty pairs of trousers, thirty pairs of boys. pants, and thirteen shirts.

    April 1940 was the deadline for anyone with a foreign passport or entry visa to another country to get out of Poland. When Stefa was notified by the International Red Cross that Kibbutz Ein Harod had arranged the necessary papers for her to return to Palestine, she replied by telegraph through its Geneva office: "My dears, we are well. I am working a bit, but Korczak a lot. I cannot leave without the children. Be patient. I bless you all. Stefa." That spring, Korczak, along with many others, clung to the hope that the Allies might defeat the Germans quickly. It was a blow when the Nazis invaded Norway and Denmark that April, Holland and Belgium a month later, and France in June, forcing the British to evacuate at Dunkirk.

    When an American delegation charged with arranging relief consignments with the German occupation authorities asked to visit the orphanage with their Nazi escort, Korczak at first refused. Only after being pressured by Stefa and Jewish welfare officials did he give his reason: he always wore his Polish officer's uniform under his smock, and he would not remove it. Not until Stefa thought of putting a scarf around his neck to hide the uniform did Korczak agree to receive the delegation. He did so with his usual ironic charm, directing his remarks to the Americans and pointedly ignoring the Germans. The children, who had not been told there would be visitors, were involved in a game of soldiers, some of them decked out in paper helmets and brandishing wooden sticks.

    "Obviously the war hasn't upset them too much," some of the Americans remarked. They told Korczak how impressed they were by the orphanage, but he couldn't help noticing their disappointment that "things were not that bad." Convinced that they expected "corpses and skeletons," he decided that nothing is easier to get used to than the misfortune of others.

    The strain of keeping the children in the good condition that impressed the Americans was beginning to show on Korczak. He developed a painful condition of boils on his neck. Encountering him on the street with a sack ofpotatoes slung over one shoulder, Ida Merzan was surprised that he winced when she embraced him."My dear, would you push my suspender back for me?'" he asked. As she gently put her hand under his coat and moved the suspender, he sighed with relief, "There, that's much better."' She noticed that, though he strode off briskly, he was hunched over like an old man.

    When the boils began to abscess, causing a high fever, Stefa urged Korczak to see a doctor. He waved her away in his usual fashion. Fearing blood poisoning, she called in a doctor, who ordered him to the hospital without delay to have them lanced. Korczak refused: "If I am to be operated on, it will be here, and no place else." A well-known surgeon was sent for, but he warned Stefa that because ofthe depth ofthe incisions he had to make, there was a risk of hemorrhage. At the first sign of bleeding, Korczak was to be rushed to the hospital. After twenty minutes, bleeding started, and Stefa bundled Korczak into the carriage that the surgeon had left waiting outside, just in case.

    For the past eleven years, on June 1, the anniversary of izaak Eliasberg's death, it had been Korczak"s custom to accompany Stella Eliasberg and her daughters to the Jewish cemetery, where he said kaddish for his friend. This year, because of his weakened condition, Korczak had to postpone the observance until June 10. He arrived with bandages on his neck and his arm in a sling, accompanied by a group of older orphans walking in pairs and carrying King Matt"s large green banner-which had the blue Star of David on a field of white sewn onto one side. Korczak led the children down the main path, past his father' s grave, to a small embankment on the left where Eliasberg was buried under a modest tombstone.

    The high death rate had filled the cemetery with mourners, many of whom joined the gravediggers in listening to the orphans sing. Korczak invited those children who so desired to place a hand on the Bible he was carrying and swear to live as Dr. Eliasberg had in the spirit of love for all mankind and in devotion to justice, truth, and work. All the children took the oath. The acacia were in bloom, and their branches, alive with birdsong, belied the tragedy that was unfolding beyond the cemetery grounds. A few birds flew down onto Korczak"s shoulder while he was reciting kaddish. Helena Eliasberg thought he looked like St. Francis.

    Despite all the obstacles, Korczak was able to arrange for the children to go to Little Rose that summer. The fate of the camp had been very much on his mind following the German occupation, and shortly after the first snow he had gone out there to take inventory. Train travel being forbidden to Jews, he had walked the twenty miles in the bitter cold, accompanied by two of the older boys. They found nothing left but the buildings. German soldiers had looted the camp, and neighbors had chopped down many of the trees for firewood.

    Cold and exhausted, Korczak sat with the boys on some stumps in the yard, staring at the desolate scene. No longer up to such exertion, he sat with his eyes closed for some time. The two boys hesitated to disturb him, but they were frightened. They knew that he wanted to return to Warsaw before dark.

    "Pan Doctor," they said softly.
    Korczak opened his eyes, and jumped up. "We will go to German headquarters and complain about this," he told them.
    They went first to see the mayor of the district, who greeted them cordially. Together with him, they paid a call on the German comman- dant, Captain Stephens, who turned out to be an engineer of Swedish descent. Speaking with Korczak in German, Stephens not only agreed that the camp could open for July and August but promised to replace some of the equipment and to allow provisions to be sent in.

    That summer of 1940, the children were able to forget for a time the world outside Little Rose, but Korczak got little rest. He had to go into Warsaw a few times a week to check on food supplies, and was in a good or bad mood depending on his success and what he encountered in the city. Witold Kaczanowski, the son of the director of Tworki, remembers stopping by Korczak' s camp with his father in a horsecart filled with grain that the inmates had raised on the asylum's land. His father greeted Korczak as if he knew him, but Witold was too young to know if the grain was part of a business transaction or a donation.

    At night Korczak always took a few of the younger children who were ill into his room, in case they wanted water or to use the chamber pot; he worried that the young teachers, needing their own sleep, might not hear the children call. When ida Merzan came out to visit the camp, she saw Korczak standing near the children, but speaking as if to himself. Or was he praying? She wasn't sure which.

    When Korczak returned with the orphans to Warsaw in September, he found that Saxon Square had been renamed Adolf Hitler Square, and that all parks were closed to Jews. Jewish doctors, officially forbidden to treat Aryan patients' were ordered to register with the Gestapo. Korczak filled out the form straightforwardly: his permanent address, No. 8 Zlota Street, Apartment 4; his professional one, 92 Krochmalna; his rank in the First World War, captain; his rank in the Polish Army, major; his religion, Mosaic faith; his area of specialty, pedagogue-pediatrician; his academic work, the study of children. But Korczak's nervousness revealed itself in the mistake he made in his already bungled birthdate, escalating it by a century: 22 Vii 1978 (1979?). He signed the document Dr. H. Goldszmit.

    There was new optimism in Warsaw when Britain began air raids on Berlin. Many believed the war would be over in two or three months. In mid-September, Korczak stopped by to chat with Adam Czerniakow, whose authority as Chairman of the Judenrat extended to every aspect of Jewish life in occupied Warsaw. At a time when the Chairman's diary was filled with entries about Jews being thrown out of their apartments, the rise in the number of suicides, mothers weeping for sons in forced- labor camps, and complaints about the bread tax, he took time to note how amused he was by how Korczak dealt with Wedel, the chocolate maker. When Wedel complained that he could not sell him 120 pounds of grain because sales to Jews were forbidden, Korczak had retorted, "Then give it to us as a gift."

    A few weeks later the Chairman recorded Korczak's droll fund-raising plan: the Judenrat should tax each person who left a plea for help on the grave of a tzaddik (holy man) and use the money for the poor.

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