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Janusz Korczak Biography

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    There had never been walled ghettos in Poland, as there had been in other European countries in the Middle Ages, but rumors that there was to be a Warsaw Ghetto had been circulating from the early days of the German occupation.

    The Nazis had managed to keep Czerniakow in a state of confusion with their arbitrary instructions. At first the Judenrat was ordered to close off a "quarantined" portion of the Jewish quarter with barbed wire, and then it was directed to wall the area off Czerniakow had argued the virtual impossibility of building a wall-it would damage water installations, and electric and telephone cables-but he lost the battle. The Judenrat had to supply both the money and the labor to construct one. In July of 1940, after twenty sections of the wall were standing, Czerniakow heard reports that the Germans had decided against a ghetto; when he met with Korczak in mid-September, he was once again resigned to its probability-by then there were small ghettos in the provinces, and a large one in the city of Lodz that was sealed off with barbed wire.

    The German technique, in setting up their ghettos, was to take everyone by surprise with a sudden announcement (which gave them an opportunity to confiscate hastily abandoned Jewish property). On Yom Kippur, the most sacred of the Jewish holy days-October 12, 1940- they announced the creation of a special " quarter" for W arsaw Jews. Despite the previous rumors, Korczak, like everyone else, was caught off guard. Examining the ghetto map posted in his area, he was startled to see that the western border cut through Krochmalna Street: the upper section, where the orphanage stood, was not included within the ghetto limits, but was on the Aryan side-as the rest of the city was now called. To add to the confusion, a number of conflicting maps had been posted throughout the city, each showing different boundary lines.

    it seemed impossible to Korczak that he and his children would be expected to move from their famous institution into another building within the ghetto zone. The Germans knew his work: their educators had visited him and written about his experimental methods. The Nazis might hate the Jew Henryk Goldszmit, but they would have to respect the educator Janusz Korczak. Realizing that there was no time to lose, Korczak hurried up to his room and began a letter to the German command, based in Cracow, which Judenrat officials would deliver along with similar appeals from other institutions. Writing "Petition" across the top of the paper, Korczak sought to impress the Germans with the orphanage's self-sufficiency in its present location.

    "During the current year, the German authorities have neither harmed nor troubled us," he began. "Nevertheless, we have suffered many deprivations and hardships. We have lived off donations and managed with great effort to make ends meet in this our 28th year of communal living." Korczak pointed out that his diligent staff-a cook, assistant cook, dishwasher, and two teachers-had all been raised in the orphanage. One staff member had even sacrificed his life during the siege of Warsaw trying to put out a fire on the roof The children had helped repair the doors and windows shattered in the bombardments, whitewashed the shower room, and kept the orphanage so clean that there were no contagious diseases that might have necessitated their being placed under quarantine. Enclosing financial and other reports, Korczak ended his petition with: "Fully trusting in your understanding, we request your support in allowing the children to remain in this building, with which it would be difficult for us to part." He signed it: "Respectfully yours, Director of the Orphanage and Bursa, Dr. H. Goldszmit, J. Korczak."

    The petition was worth the gamble, but while he was waiting for a response, Korczak began to look around within the ghetto area for alternative lodging for his children. He was negotiating an exchange with a high school of commerce a few blocks away at 33 Chlodna Street which, though not comparable, would fit their needs, when he received the refusal from Cracow. Having no other alternative, Korczak rushed over to complete arrangements with the high-school principal. The two institutions agreed to maintain each other's property with care until they could take possession again.

    Korczak kept his sense of humor even then. When Czerniakow's appeal to remain in his apartment on the Aryan side was also refused, Korczak said he could give him the name of an official in the Judenrat who, for a bribe, would find the Chairman a good address in the ghetto.

    During this chaotic period when Poles and Jews alike were rushing about to find or exchange apartments on their designated sides of the wall, many of Korczak's Gentile friends visited the orphanage to try to convince him to go into hiding. Igor Newerly was one of the first to appear. In spite of their close friendship, Newerly was not confident that he could persuade his stubborn mentor to do anything that he was not ready to do. As they climbed up to the garret room, Newerly noticed that Korczak was breathing with difficulty, and he realized that this once youthful man, so quick and nimble in the past, was growing increasingly debilitated. He waited while Korczak knocked to warn the sparrows of their arrival, and, as usual, was forced to accept the deep armchair while his host took the less comfortable one.

    As Newerly sat down nervously, thinking about how to begin, Korczak lit a cigarette and asked about his wife and child and all their mutual friends, as if their well-being were all that mattered to him. "Everyone's worried about your going into the ghetto with the children," Newerly told him. "Just say the word and we'll get you false identity papers to live on our side."

    " And the children?"
    "We~ll try to hide as many as we can in monasteries and private homes."
    Korczak put down his cigarette, took off his glasses in their cheap round metal frames, and began wiping them with his handkerchief as he always did when he was stalling for time. Finally, he asked: "Do you realize how difficult it would be to hide one hundred and seventy Jewish children-that's how many we have now."

    "We'd try, " Newerlv repeated.
    "But can you guarantee me that every child will be safe?"
    Newerly shook his head sadly: "I'm afraid that's impossible. We can't guarantee anything"-he paused-" even for ourselves."

    Now Korczak was in the position of trying to console Newerly. "My friend," he said, "it's almost impossible to hide anything so well that the person who is after it cannot find it." He had expressed this belief earlier in his story about Moses being concealed in the bulrushes. He knew that the Germans would look for Jewish children as surely as the Egyptians had looked for the babies hidden by the Hebrew slaves. "It is hard for a person to speak lies to those who question him," he had written. "The hands shake, the eyes are full of fear, the face blushes or turns pale."

    And he had added: "I have never hidden a child from enemy soldiers."

    Newerly understood Korczak's reluctance to jeopardize the welfare of any of the orphans. Just as he could not bear the thought of a child being punished in a dark closet or cellar, so now he could not bear to imagine the children being hidden from the Nazis in dark places. Their hearts would pound with terror that they might be discovered. He was a father who did not abandon his children. "My friend, it is best that I keep the children with me." Korczak told Newerly, extending his arm for that firm handshake that had sealed so many agreements in years past and now asked for approval.

    At that time no one could say that the ghetto might not be the safest place for Jewish children. What would come to be known as the " Final Solution" was still in the future, beyond the imagination of the darkest pessimist. "Don't worry, the Germans won't harm us, " Korczak tried to reassure him. "They wouldn't dare. I'm much too well known here and abroad."

    As the November 30 deadline for the Jewish population to move into the ghetto approached, the city was in an uproar: 138,000 Jews, hauling their meager belongings in pushcarts or on their backs, streamed through the twenty-eight gates of the ghetto to the apartments left by 113,000 Poles who were moving out in much the same demented frenzy. In losing homes located above their shops and the shops as well, many in both groups were losing their main source of livelihood.

    Korczak gave a great deal of thought to how he would relocate the orphanage. He didn't want the children to experience going into the ghetto as something fearful, but rather as a new kind of challenge that they would all meet together.

    Jona Bocian, who was an apprentice teacher that year, remembers the painstaking care with which Korczak and Stefa organized everything down to the smallest detail. There were daily meetings to decide who would be responsible for what. Christian friends who wanted to contribute something were asked for colorful pictures or rugs to decorate the chil- dren's rooms, or red geraniums for the window boxes. When Hanna Olczak stopped by, Korczak told her that he wanted to move the household "as if it were a large theatrical troupe." The procession would be like an advertisement for a performance, "a kind of parade in which the children will carry lamps, paintings, bedding, cages with pet birds and small animals."

    On the day they were scheduled to depart, November 29, the children lined up in the courtyard as rehearsed, while Korczak made a final inspection of the wagons filled with the coal and potatoes that he had so arduously procured on his daily rounds. The children waved goodbye sadly to the Polish janitor, Piotr Zalewski, who was staying behind to care for the house. His face was swollen almost beyond recognition from the beating he had received the day before when he and the laundress had applied to the Nazi police for permission to go into the ghetto with the orphans. The Germans had thrown the laundress out, but detained Zalewski for questioning. Didn't he know that Aryans were no longer allowed to work for Jews? When the janitor replied that after twenty years of service he considered the orphanage his home, the Germans thrashed him with whips and rifle butts.

    Zalewski, a tall, beardless man of erect bearing, had been a grenadier in the Czar's army before being hired at the orphanage. Every year on Zalewski's name day, Korczak had dropped in at the gatehouse for a few glasses of vodka, which always inspired the two men to swap scatological war stories and compete to see who knew the most swearwords. (Korczak had been able to hold his own with the janitor on both counts.) The orphans had loved working in Zalewski's carpentry shop in the basement, where they were allowed to get as dirty as they wanted. Often they had poured their hearts out to him as they were hammering and sawing away, or trailing after him as he shoveled coal and swept the courtyard. if, in jest, he occasionally tweaked their noses too hard with his powerful fingers, he had always been forgiven.

    The orphans tried to sing as they marched out of the courtyard and into the street, clutching their few possessions. The green flag of King Matt, with a Jewish star on one side, flew over the little parade as it made its way through the teeming streets the short distance to 33 Chlodna Street. When they reached the place where the wall cut along Chlodna, slicing its "Aryan" half off from the ghetto, they found German and Polish police at the gate demanding identification, as if they were crossing a foreign border.

    While they were passing through, a German policeman confiscated their last wagon, which was filled with potatoes. Korczak shouted at the German to release the potatoes or he would report the incident to his superiors. When the sentry stood firm, Korczak had no choice but to continue with Stefa and the group to their new home. That night, while the children dashed about the schoolhouse exclaiming over the different windows and doors and their new sleeping quarters, Korczak decided to protest to the Gestapo the first thing in the morning.

    When Korczak arrived at Gestapo headquarters the next day, the officer on duty was at first bemused by the highly agitated man in the remnants of a Polish uniform who introduced himself in flawless German as Dr. Janusz Korczak. He offered his visitor a chair. But on hearing Korczak's tirade about potatoes being confiscated at the ghetto gate, the German began wondering why this Pole was so concerned about the Jews.

    Becoming suspicious, he asked, "You're not a Jew, are you?"
    "I am," Korczak replied.
    "Then where is your armband?" The German was angry by now.
    "Don't you know you are breaking the law?"
    Korczak drew himself up and started to explain as he had so often:
    "There are human laws which are transitory, and higher laws which are eternal . . ."-but he didn't finish.

    Infuriated by the impertinence of this Jew, the German officer ordered him seized by the guards. He was beaten and thrown into a cell.

    The ghetto was soon buzzing with rumors about what had happened to Janusz Korczak: he had been tortured and killed during interrogations at Gestapo headquarters; he had been taken to a forest and shot; he had been transported to a camp in Lublin where he lay dying. It was no consolation to Stefa and his friends when they learned that Korczak was only a few blocks away in Pawiak. That massive red-brick compound built in Czarist times for political offenders was the most notorious of all the German prisons. Situated in the heart of the ghetto, it was now a walled city within a walled city. Commitment there by the new conquerors was the equivalent of a death sentence.

    During the day Stefa put on a brave face: it was not for nothing that she had been nicknamed Minister of the Interior by those who worked under her. When she found herself suddenlv without Korczak at their new quarters on Chlodna Street, she did what she had done during World War I while he was away for four years: she rolled up her sleeves and, with the aid ofthe teachers and older children, she put things into working order. She had already decided that the classrooms of this former state secondary school would be used for activities during the day and double as bedrooms at night. The outside world might be unjust, but this just society would remain in operation. She turned the basement into an isolation ward for the sick, not wanting to risk sending the children out to a ghetto hospital where they might become infected with typhus or cholera. She had only a syringe and one vial of morphine, but having nursed generations of orphans, she had her own methods: treat throat inflammations with salt water, use a sock filled with heated sand for relief of pain, apply your own big warm hand for comfort when all else fails. Only at night, when everyone was asleep, did Stefa allow herself the privilege of tears.

    It was still possible to bribe one's way out of Pawiak. Stefa was in touch with Korczak's friends, but the problem was not so much money as how to make contact with the Gestapo. "Harry" Kaliszer, a resourceful young man who had been one of Korczak's favorite orphans, finally arranged a ransom through the notorious Nazi collaborator Abraham Gancwajch-a mysterious figure with great power in the ghetto. The total sum was set at thirty thousand zlotys, part of which was to be paid on release, the rest over a period of time.

    Korczak may have survived his month in Pawiak only because he was fortunate enough to have been thrown in with common criminals rather than political prisoners, who were usually executed. He arrived pale and debilitated at the ghetto orphanage in late December to find the children lined up to greet him, just as they had been when he returned from World War I. After listening to one of the girls deliver a brief welcome speech, he retired quickly to his room-but not before promising to tell them about his experiences at the Saturday-morning meeting. That Saturday, the children and teachers were joined by many of Korczak's friends who were eager to hear what had happened to him. He gave no hint of his ordeal in front of the children, and was his usual witty and ironic self in answering their questions.

    "How did you dare scream at the Germans? Weren't you scared?"
    "On the contrary, they were afraid of me. The Germans are always afraid of anyone who yells louder than them."
    "What was it like in prison?"
    "Wonderful." And, with that, he did the little jig they knew so well.
    In spite of the overcrowding in the cell-which, he assured them, made their new quarters look like King M att's palace-he had managed to eat like a horse, sleep soundly, and exercise vigorously during the short time allowed in the prison yard. Not once, he bragged, did he have to report sick.

    The children loved hearing about Korczak's cellmates. One of them, in for murder, thought that the title of doctor meant surgeon, and suggested they both be called Mac the Knife. When they learned that he was the Old Doctor of the popular radio show, they made a place for him on the dirty pile of straw that served as their bed and pleaded for stories. He told them about the cat with white boots and a feather in his cap who managed to acquire fine clothes and a palace for his Prince without stealing them, and about a boy with a magic lamp that produced a genie who granted all his wishes. And they wept, those hardened criminals, remembering the stories their mothers had told them when they were young and still could dream that a cat or genie might change their destiny.

    Korczak may have convinced the children that he had kept his sense of humor throughout his imprisonment-he had them in hysterics over how he trained his cellmates to catch the fleas that were plaguing thembut Stefa and the other adults saw how wasted he was. He hadn't burdened them with the details ofwhat he suffered-or the screaming, the moaning, and the shots of the firing squads that went on day and night-yet he could not conceal his nervousness and depression.

    The first thing he did on returning was insist that the street entrance be sealed so that the only access to the orphanage was through the courtyard. He also checked the blackout shades each night so that no sliver of light would catch the attention of the German patrol stationed at the nearby gate in the wall.

    Stefa didn't know which she found more alarming, Korczak's emo- tional or physical deterioration: he had diFficulty breathing and swelling in his legs. ignoring his protests, she bundled him off to the hospital for a thorough checkup in the care of a staff member. The admissions doctor noted that though Korczak's cheeks and eyes were burning with fever, he strode into the examining room in his military jacket and high boots with the flair of "an aristocratic Pole." The doctor had difficulty persuading him to get X-rayed. informed he had fluid in his lungs-a sign of heart failure-he had asked quietly: How much? Hearing that it was below the fourth rib, he declared that it was not enough to keep him from collecting supplies for his children.

    Still, for all his bravado, it would be some time before Korczak was ready to venture out into the streets alone-and then it would be with a walking stick.

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