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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Ghetto

    "There was no natural evolution of life in the thirties that led into ghetto life," Misha Wroblewski, the only teacher in Korczak's ghetto orphanage to survive, would say. "They were two separate worlds-pre-ghetto and ghetto. Just a total, sudden break. You can't shove half a million people on top of each other into a small walled-off area without adequate food, housing, or heat and expect them to lead normal lives. In the beginning you might have felt normal, but after a while you were no longer sane. The ghetto was a mad world, and we behaved madly."

    For the first few weeks after getting out of prison, Korczak saw very few people. When an occasional German militiaman came to the door with a vagrant child who needed shelter, he asked someone else to attend to the matter. The only new friend he spent time with during that period was Michael Zylberberg, a teacher who lived with his wife, Henrietta, in the block of flats that shared the courtyard with the orphanage. Zylberberg had taught Jewish literature and history in a Hebrew high school before the war, and had encountered Korczak in educational circles. In those first weeks of Korczak's recuperation, he often dropped into the orphanage to talk. The two men pored over the map of the eleven square miles of the ghetto which Zylberberg, unemployed because the schools were closed, had taken time to explore.

    The sealed-off area which they were studying was divided into two zones, known as the Large Ghetto and the Small Ghetto. Chlodna Street, where the orphanage was located, was in the small one. Once a wealthy residential area, it had attracted prosperous Jews uprooted from their exclusive dwellings on the other side of the wall. It was much less con- gested than the larger district to the north, where the majority of the population lived crowded in unheated, inadequate quarters, as many as nine to a room.

    Acting as Korczak's guide when he was strong enough to venture out, Zylberberg led him first to the Large Ghetto. They could hardly make their way through the swarming mass of human life which had turned the streets into a macabre bazaar-beggars stood side by side with desperate people bartering or selling their possessions, old clothes and underwear, doughy half-baked bread, saccharine, anything-even Star of David armbands, whose price varied according to the quality of the material. The two men had to step over impoverished refugee families from the provinces, wrapped in tattered blankets, huddled together for warmth. (Before the bitterly cold winter was over, their naked corpses, covered with newspapers, would lie in the same streets, waiting to be carted away to a mass grave, only to be replaced by a new batch of refugees and beggars whose fate would be the same.)

    It occurred to Zylberberg that Korczak, leaning for support on his walking stick, blended right in with the poor people of the ghetto. Nobody would have thought for a moment that this was the famous Old Doctor. But, for that matter, it was impossible to recognize anyone's status: stripped of work and meaningful activity, unprotected by law, the ghetto Jews had become what the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum called "superfluous men." Those with musical or acting talents were hawking them on the streets like all the other vendors.

    Zylberberg took Korczak to Leszno Street to hear the blind accordion player who had been famous in the twenties for his wrenching songs about the pogroms of Czarist days and the attacks on Jews by the Poles during the early days of independence. Now he was becoming known for his equally poignant lyrics about the ghetto. They found a large crowd gath- ered around the blind musician, who was assisted by an attractive blonde woman who darted in and out of the crowd selling the words and music to the song he was singing:

        Where shall I go?
        Where shallI go?
        The shame and pain have become too hard.
        Every road is closed and barred.
        Great is mu suffering, and great is mu woe,
        MU heart weeps and mu tears flow.
        Where shall I go, Jews.
        Where shall I go?

    Moving on, they saw a paralyzed young woman with dark flashing eyes who was crawling on all fours in the middle of the muddy road. Her powerful voice, which woke the residents each morning with a Yiddish song, was now shrieking "The Three Seamstresses" by the famous writer I. L. Peretz:

        Their eyes are red, their lips are blue,
        No drop of blood in the cheek shoWs through.
        On their pale faces the sweat beads lie.
        Their breath is hot, their tongue is dry.
        Three girls sit sewing.

    At the corner a half-crazed man came leaping toward them, flailing his arms and crying: "Look lively, Jews, we've lost all shame! Rich and poor are now the same!"

    "It's Rubinstein, the self-appointed jester of the Warsaw Ghetto," Zylberberg said. "No one knows anything about him except that he's a refugee from the provinces. He always runs wild through the streets like this, shouting some ditty he's made up."

    It was as difficult to make their way back to the Small Ghetto as it had been to advance forward. Not only did they have to push once more past the thousands of peddlers and beggars, but they had to climb back over those inert refugee families. Turning a corner, they were again accosted by Rubinstein, who sprang at them this time with a threat: "Give me a penny and you may go! if you don't, I'll start screaming!"

    "It's his form ofblackmail," Zylberberg explained. "Everyone knows that if he doesn't get his coin, hell begin shouting: "Down with the Führer! Down with Hitler! And the Germans will start shooting everyone in sight."

    Korczak handed Rubinstein a coin.
    Exploring the Small Ghetto a few days later was not as strenuous, but just as disturbing. There were fewer refugees from the provinces in this more exclusive section, but the streets here were also filled with children hawking anything they could find from trays strapped to their shoulders, and with hundreds of musicians, who had staked out their turf.

    Near the Judenrat building on Grzybowska, Korczak was taken with a young violinist from Jerusalem who had been trapped while visiting relatives in Poland. Leaning on his walking stick, he watched this delicate, fair-haired youth from the city he had thought to live in, noting how he kept his blue eyes closed while playing Bloch's "Ba'al Shem Tov" and other Hebrew melodies, and opened them only to look for tossed coins.

    As Korczak and Zylberberg continued on down Panska to Sliska, they encountered groups of roving musicians-including members of the Warsaw Philharmonic, who drew a large crowd whenever they stopped. Stars of the opera accompanied them, singing arias that the people requested. Korczak took off his glasses to study their faces and then to look closely at the bystanders who were carried away by the music.

    A short while later, they came across renowned cantors from all over Poland, unemployed now that the synagogues, like the schools, were closed. The bitter reality of the ghetto had reduced them to fierce competitiveness with each other. one, who was forced to wheel his paralyzed wife propped up in a child's stroller as he sang, was ostracized by the others for trying to play on the public's sympathy. The crowd here, just as avid as the opera fans, had not lost its sardonic sense of humor. When one man mumbled that he had heard Cantor Rosenblatt sing the same songs much better, another quipped: "Well, if you don't like these renditions, you can book passage to New York and hear Cantor Rosenblatt there."

    In the course of their wanderings, the two educators chanced upon many people they had known in what now seemed another life. An assimilated philanthropist, well over eighty, reminded Zylberberg of their meeting years before. He explained that he was alone because his two daughters had converted and were living on the Aryan side with their Gentile husbands.

    "Why did you come into the ghetto, then?" Korczak asked curiously.
    "In my case, I have no family, and my children are all here, but it's different for you. Can't your daughters arrange to get you out?"
    "I could have joined them if that's what I wanted," the old man replied. "I have chosen to be in the ghetto with my fellow Jews who are suffering."

    Zylberberg noticed that this answer pleased Korczak, who said he felt the same way. They began discussing the Yiddish writer Peretz, who was a relative of the philanthropist, and whom Korczak had met at literary gatherings before the First World War.

    Their conversation about Peretz was cut short by Rubinstein, who came rushing by.

        Give me one cent-it's nothing!
        Two cents-that's nothing too!
        Three cents-forget it! But four-
        Four cents, or else it's Gesia for you!

    Then, spotting a funeral procession on its way to the very Gesia Street cemetery to which he had been referring, Rubinstein went tearing off to join it, screaming: "Rich and poor are all the same!"
    "The Jews are a strange people," Korczak said, shaking his head.

    At eleven one night, as they were getting ready for bed, Zylberberg and his wife were startled to hear the thud of heavy boots coming up the wooden stairs, an alarming sound since no one in the building ventured out after the seven o'clock curfew. Instinctively, they rushed to turn off the lights, as if the darkness would protect them. But the footsteps came closer and closer until they stopped right outside their apartment. The doorbell rang.

    "Who is it?" Zylberberg called.
    "Dr. Korczak. Please open up," came the familiar voice.
    Zylberberg looked at his wife with relief as he unlatched the door. There stood his famous walking companion in the old army boots that seemed never to leave his feet.

    Apologizing for having frightened them, Korczak said that he had waited until the orphanage quieted down. After glancing over the books on Zylberberg's table, he explained the reason for his late call. Since his release from prison, he had realized that they were living in a bizarre society in which everyone had to adapt in some way to survive. Because it was too dangerous for the children to go out, he wanted to invite people in each week to talk about what they were doing. He had already lined up some Judenrat officials, representatives from soup kitchens and other institutions, as well as the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, and a philosopher. He was also hoping to schedule a lawyer who was now a policeman, and a scholar who was a janitor. if Zylberberg liked the project, would he, as a teacher and neighbor, be willing to help him organize the series? And would he give the first talk?

    Zylberberg agreed to both, but wanted time to think about his topic. Urged by Korczak to decide right then, Zylberberg suggested that he tell the children about Peretz, who, before becoming a famous writer, had worked as a teacher and even set up orphanages. Korczak was pleased. "Peretz is just the right subject at this time. He belongs to Warsaw." The orphanage was "buzzing like a hive" when Zylberberg arrived the following week. Having just finished their midday meal, the children filed out of the dining room into the large hall that had been the school auditorium. Stefa and the teachers helped everyone get settled. Korczak sat among the children.

    "The man I am going to tell you about, the ever youthful Peretz, lived not far from here, "Zylberberg said. "He wrote in Polish in the early days of his career. But though he spent a lot of time teaching poor Jewish children, he wanted to find a way to help all Jews who were suffering from poverty and fleeing from Russian pogroms. When he discovered the warm, joyful faith of the Hasidim, which gave his people pride in themselves and made each man a king in his own home on the Sabbath, he began writing in Yiddish so that he could reach them."

    Zylberberg spoke in Polish to his young audience, but after he had recited Peretz's poem "Brothers" (which is engraved on the poet's tombstone), he repeated it in the original Yiddish. He noticed Korczak nodding in recognition, for it had been made into a popular song and expressed a philosophy close to his own.

        White and brown, black and yellow,
        Mix the colors with one another.
        We are all sisters and brothers

        of one father and one mother,
        And God created us all.
        The whole world is our Fatherland.
        We are all sisters and brothers,
        This is what we must understand.

    When Zylberberg followed this with the monologue from Peretz's famous play, The Golden Chain, which had also become a song, the children began clapping their hands, tapping their feet, and singing along with him:

        And so
        We go
        Singing and dancing ...
        We great, great Jews...
        Souls aflame!
        For us clouds divide!
        Heaven flings open its door!
        To clouds of glory we rise,
        Toward the Throne ofGlory!
        And we do not pray,
        We do not beg.
        We are great, proud Jews,
        Seed of Abraham,
        Isaac and Jacob!
        Longer we cannot wait!
        Song of songs we sing!
        Singing and dancing we go!

    As soon as they finished accompanying Zylberberg in that song, the children spontaneously broke into the earlier "Brothers." They sang it over and over, joining hands and swaying as brothers and sisters, until Stefa reminded them that they had kept their guest long enough. In closing the program, Korczak suggested that "Brothers" become the orphanage anthem, a proposal that the children seconded by singing it exuberantly as they left the hall.

    When the room was silent once again, Korczak and Zylberberg could hear the German patrols marching back and forth by the wall that cut through Chlodna Street just a few doors away.

    Those who visited the orphanage found it an oasis in the midst of hell. Its daily routine carried Korczak along with it, restoring his equilibrium. Classes were held surreptitiously in morning and afternoon shifts, with Hebrew one of the main subjects in order to prepare everyone for a possible new life in Palestine when the war was over. Just as on Krochmalna, the vital center of the home was held together for the children by the court of peers and parliament. Every Saturday morning Korczak still read aloud the column he had prepared for the orphanage newspaper, but the dangers he had so wittily warned the children of in the pastsuch as putting their fingers in the ironing machine-seemed mild compared to those of the present. "A machine does not understand, it is indifferent," he had written in those prewar days."You put your finger in, it will cut it off Put your head in, it will cut that off too. Life is a machine, it does not give any warning or delay punishment."

    The Germans now embodied that machine, as the children knew, especially the newcomers who had seen their parents killed before their eyes or watched them die of hunger or disease. No one who went out to visit relatives on Saturday afternoons, or just to get air, could avoid witnessing some brutal street scene. Nothing Korczak wrote could spare them, nor could he spare himself He had to accept that he could not prevent the children from living in constant uncertainty and fear. All he could do was to continue to keep them adequately fed and sheltered, and to give them some hope for the future.

    Each building compound in the ghetto had a House Committee that was responsible for raising the funds needed for the building's maintenance, as well as for the payment of taxes and for contributions to the thousands of destitute refugees arriving from other countries. As a member of the House Committee at 33 Chlodna (which was one of the cleanest and best-run compounds in the ghetto), Korczak suggested raising money through a concert at the orphanage between Purim and Passover. A special meeting to discuss arrangements was convened in the orphanage one evening at nine.

    The participants in this eclectic group, made up of Jews of all persuasions, were united more by their common fate than by religious Unity. Among them were a member ofthe Polish Socialist party, a Talmudic scholar,an assimilated industrialist, an agnostic pediatrician, a few observant engineers, and a convert. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that the concert program should include both professional musicians and street performers. But the question of which language the evening would be conducted in sparked a heated debate. The assimilated Jews insisted on Polish, the Zionists on Hebrew, while the Bundists and Orthodox Jews were equally vehement about Yiddish.

    Korczak sat there, as he did at all House Committee meetings, leaning forward on his walking stick, his eyes closed as if asleep. But everyone knew from past experience that he was aware of all that was being discussed, and was waiting to give his opinion at the appropriate moment. When a stalemate threatened further progress, one of the assimilationists passed a note to Zylberberg, who was chairing the meeting, to request Korczak's opinion. He assumed that Korczak would vote for Polish.

    Upon being asked to speak, Korczak slowly removed his glasses, as he always did when he wished to concentrate, looked solemnly around at everyone, and then said mildly that he was surprised there should be any argument, that intelligent people could waste so much time on such an obvious issue.

    "And what is that?" the other committee members wanted to know. "Just this," said Korczak. "When one argues against the use of a particular language, one also argues against those who use it. Can you deny that the majority of people in the ghetto speak and think in Yiddish, even die with it on their lips?"
    Those who had been arguing the most tenaciously against Yiddish were silent.
    "And so Yiddish must be the language of the concert-otherwise, the performance will have no soul."

    Korczak's words had an immediate effect on the group. A motion was made in favor of Yiddish and seconded, and the concert scheduled for two weeks later. Once again Zylberberg was struck by the "fascinating and enigmatic" way that Korczak revealed himself as a Jew.

    The three hundred people who attended, for the most part prominent and wealthy, had not been asked to buy tickets. Korczak had convinced the committee that the guests would give more money if it were left to their conscience to make a contribution. Some of the professional actors and musicians had agreed to perform without a fee, but a small honorarium was given to the stranded blue-eyed violinist from Jerusalem, as well as to a few of the folksingers Korczak had befriended on the street.

    "Music is the religion of the future and you are its priests," Korczak told the performers in opening the program. ."Artists such as you lead the way."

    A few Polish and Hebrew pieces had been included in the program, but the Yiddish songs drew the most spirited response from the predominantly assimilated audience. Korczak was so moved by the street performers from all over Europe whom "fate had cast into this ghetto," that he wept unashamedly while they performed.

    A professional singer, Romana Lilienstein, who, together with her accompanist, had chosen a selection of light music appropriate for children, was one of the few who would live to recall that event: "Even though the home was clean and orderly, to this day I am haunted by the air of poverty that pervaded the corridors and auditorium. The children, dressed, like everyone else, in their best clothes, were obviously ecstatic as they sat waiting under the watchful eyes of Stefa Wilczynska. They listened attentively as Dr. Korczak made a few comforting and humorous remarks in his opening speech. We knew they were as hungry as we were, as everyone in the audience was, yet I'll never forget the intensity of those hundreds of eyes fixed on us. It is difficult to explain what such a concert meant at that time."

    However, the evening was to end on a discordant note. After the applause had quieted down and people were getting up to leave, Korczak unexpectedly announced that he wanted to share some brief poems he had recently composed. He drew a few cards from his pocket and started to read.

    The bitterly satiric poems mentioned no names, but ridiculed a small black mustache, a large fat belly, a hunchback, and, finally, an elegant dandy, all of whom were able to hold the fate of millions of people in their hands. The audience stirred uneasily when it became obvious that Korczak was referring to Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and their own "hangman," Hans Frank, who was in charge of the "New Order" in Poland; there was an agitated dash for the exit when he openly called those Nazis murderers and outcasts of society.

    Korczak continued reading to the few house tenants who had remained out of deference to him. Zylberberg stayed on after everyone had retired to ask Korczak why he dared take such a chance. Didn't he realize the danger to all of them if the Nazis heard about his poems?

    Korczak merely smiled and said: "The people who left are fools. What is there to be afraid of? Surely Jews can say what they think among themselves. There were no spies here, or anyone who would give me away-we are all in this together."

    Korczak was asserting his right to autonomy in his own territory. Zylberberg realized that his new friend's nervous behavior after his imprisonment had been a temporary lapse. He felt he was seeing the real man this night, an assimilated Jew of wit and talent who had great trust in his own people. But still he found Korczak, with his unique combination of Polish defiance and Jewish irony, an enigma.

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