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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Confessions of a Butterfy

I am a butterfly drunk with life.
I don´t know where to soar,
but I won´t allow life to clip my colorful wings.

 

    Henryk was tutored at home by governesses until he was seven, as was the custom in educated circles, and then sent to a "strict, boring, and oppressive" Russian elementary school where Polish language and history were forbidden subjects. Punitive teachers pulled children by the ears and beat them with rulers or a cat-o'-nine-tails.

    He never forgot the way a boy who urinated on the blackboard eraser as a prank was spread out on a desk by the janitor, who held his legs while the composition teacher stood over him with a switch.
    " I was terrified.
    It seemed to me that when they finished with him, I would be next.
    I was ashamed, too, because they beat him on his bare bottom.
    They unbuttoned everything -in front of the whole class.
    "

    He became so nervous at the very thought of going to school that his parents withdrew him after a few months. But one lesson he learned there remained with him: Children are not respected by adults. He would notice how children were trampled in the streetcar, yelled at for nothing, slapped for accidentally bumping into someone. They were always being threatened:
    " I´ll give you to a wicked old man! "
    " You´ll be put in a bag! "
    " A beggar will take you away! "
    He would write of children as a powerless, suppressed class, a little people subjugated by a race of big people:
    " The adult world revolves around the sensitive child at a dizzying speed. Nothing, no one can be trusted. Grownups and children cannot understand each other. It is as if they are different species. "

    Henryk was eleven in 1889 when his father suffered the first of the breakdowns that would take him in and out of mental hospitals for the next seven years and drain the financial resources of the family. To escape the tensions in his troubled household, the boy disappeared even deeper into the world of his imagination. At thirteen he was writing poetry and expanding his horizons-he would learn foreign languages, travel, be a naturalist, a writer.

    When he was fourteen his grandmother died, and there was no longer anyone with whom to share those dreams. For a time he sought solace at her grave, which was next to his grandfather's in the Jewish cemetery. The Jews, like the Poles regarded the cemetery as a gathering place, almost an extension of their own home, where one´s loved ones were always available to listen to problems and often endowed with a wisdom they hadn´t had in life.

    Bored by his strict Russian gymnasium in Praga, a suburb on the right bank of the Vistula (probably the only school the family could afford by then), reading became his salvation. " The world vanished, only the book existed. "He began writing a journal, which he would one day rework into'a novel titled Confessions of a Butterfly: it was a slim volume with much of the romantic weltschmerz of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Henryk, like so many Polish students, had read avidly.

    Both the sorrows and the loves seem to be those of young Henryk Goldszmit from his thirteenth to his sixteenth year, although the narrator describes himself as a cold Slav from the North who is puzzled by his attraction to a dark-eyed Jewish beauty he passes on the street. She rouses his curiosity about the mysterious Jewish people-the "Sphinx of Nations." But rather than romance, it is reconciliation that he yearns for. reconciliation between the Poles and the Jews. Even at that early age it seems that Henryk was beginning to experience the inner division that was part of the process of assimilation in this Roman Catholic society. By making his narrator Polish, and viewing Jewishness through his eyes, he was experimenting with his two identities-Pole and Jew.

    Like Henryk, the narrator has to cope not only with a mentally unstable father but also with strange and confusing sexual stirrings. He has erections and wet dreams that "degrade" his dignity as a man, and fears for his own sanity because masturbating was believed to cause madness. Reassured by his doctor that masturbation is not a disease, only a shortcoming, he is warned to avoid it, as well as everything else that might overstimulate him-"nicotine, alcohol, daydreams, and prostitutes, eighty percent of whom are infected." (Retaining his belief in the harmfulness of masturbation, Korczak would write about his efforts to break the boys in his orphanage of the habit.
    " If you overcome nature, you overcome yourself, " he told them.)

    The narrator resolves to work on controlling himself, but cannot save a friend who has "succumbed" to a servant girl.
    " I can boldly say he is standing at the edge of an abyss. "
    (It may be that Henryk connected sex, which was "dangerous, unhealthy, and undignified," with his father´s condition. A part of him may have suspected that the illness might be syphilis: the disease was rampant then and known to affect the brain.)

    There is one person, a boy his own age named Stash, toward whom he feels " not friendship but a kind oflove one can feel only toward girls. " Stash has a girlish delicacy because of a heart ailment. He puts his arm around Stash's shoulder during recess; holds his hand as they walk about the city. Watching a sunset together" they both have tears in their eyes. " Why can´t one exchange tears like wedding rings? . . . Our souls were joined together in silence. There were no candles burnm . g before the altar, only the sun. No priest to bless us, only the sky. No wedding guests to give us hypocritical congratulations, only the fir, birch, and oak trees. No organs playing, only the wind. . . . I experienced the most beautiful hour of my life. Why did I want to cry? "
    In his Ghetto Diary Korczak would recall the strong feelings he had for this boy. ." Fourteen . . . friendship (love) for Stash. "

    As his father´s condition worsens, the narrator has to spend more time at home with him. He is becoming the father, while his sick father is assuming the role of the son. In the middle of the night he is awakened by the beating of his own heart, and feels as if he were " crying over the grave of his childhood ."

    One day he lets his father win at cards because it seems to make him happy. " Oh, my God ," he prays that night, " let him survive to an old age. And give me the strength to help him. "
    He knows that his father must have once had dreams like his. But "now there is nothing left."

    Sometime in the early 1890s, Jozef Goldszmit´s behavior became unmanageable at home. He was committed to a "madhouse," probably the newly built brick asylum in Tworki, twenty miles south of Warsaw. Built at great expense by the Czar, Tworki housed four hundred and twenty patients from all over the Russian Empire; it even had a separate walled-off compound for criminals awaiting trial. A treeless, desolate place, whose high red-brick walls were surrounded by unhealthy swamps, it was the most advanced mental hospital in the Empire -the first to be lit by electricity. A large Russian Orthodox church together with a small Roman Catholic chapel dominated the grounds. The wards were filled with people suffering from syphilis, alcoholism, schizophrenia, and manic-depressive psychosis. Treatment, modeled on the European system, stressed work projects such as carpentry. There was little in the way of medicine other than herbs, chemicals, or barbiturates. Distinguished patients like Jozef were quartered in a special walled-off compound, given small plots to garden, and encouraged to read and spend time in the carpentry shop. Those who became uncontrollable were put into straitjackets and tied down in bed.

    To visit Tworki, one had to take the Warsaw-Vienna train to the small town of Pruszkow and then hire a horse and wagon for the remaining two miles over muddy, rutted roads. The nurses were kindly Polish nuns, but Henryk seems to have been mortified bv the "condescending" smile of the psychiatrist attending his father. The boy could not understand why his father couldn´t pull himself together and return home to his family.

    Over the years that Jozefwas institutionalized, the medical bills piled up faster than his wife could find the means to pay them. One by one the paintings and fine china began to disappear to the pawnshop. Everything that had stood firm in the drawing room -that spoke of eternity- was now up for sale. Once, Henryk and his sister saw their father´s cloak in a pawnshop window. It looked so familiar as it hung there that it might have been in the hall of their apartment waiting for its owner to come along and take it to the courthouse or on a stroll to the café. They decided to say nothing to their mother, but to save their pennies and buy it back as a surprise. But by the time they had scraped together enough money, the coat was gone. "The pawnshop is life, " Korczak would write. "What you pawn-ideals or honor for comfort or security-you´ll never retrieve again." He would make it a point to possess only the essentials, and to arrange life so that he could hold on to those few things he needed.

    In order to help support his family, Henryk began tutoring the children of wealthy friends and acquaintances. He never forgot the humiliation of being addressed by some of the mothers in language reserved for servants or his surprise at seeing himself in many of those overprotected rich boys who were pale from being indoors all day and flabby from lack of exercise. He soon devised a technique for putting them at ease. He would arrive with a briefcase and unpack it slowly, letting them examine each object and ask questions about it. Then he would mesmerize them with a fairy tale or two before leading them into less enchanting realms ofgrammar, history, and geography. He discovered in the process that he liked working with children-and that he was able to forget his own anxieties while he concentrated on theirs.

    Henryk´s efforts to develop himself as a tutor inspired his first pedagogical article, a feuilleton titled "The Gordian Knot," which was published in the popular illustrated weekly Thorns when he was only eighteen. Writing in the first person, he describes "wandering the world" looking for someone to answer his question: Will the day come when mothers stop thinking about clothes and strolls through the park and fathers about cycling and playing cards and begin raising and educating the children they have turned over to governesses and tutors? The dignified old man to whom he poses this question replies that he has seen the "miracles" of the nineteenth century produce gasoline, electricity, and railroads and people like Edison and Dreyfus, and so surely that day will come, bringing with it a new breed of mothers who will prefer books on pedagogy to the latest novels. After asking the old man precisely when this great day will arrive, the author gives the reader the choice of two endings: that the old man will fall down dead before he can answer, or that he will put out his hand and ask for three rubles.

    The fledgling writer was already displaying his penchant for injecting irony and wit into the discussion of serious questions: how to motivate parents to take a leading role in shaping their children´s minds and character, and how to develop a pedagogic strategy that would seize the imagination of adults and help children to
    " see, understand, and love, as well as to read and write. "
    Seeing his article in print encouraged the young author to submit more. The editor of Thorns remembered Henryk as a shy young man in a school uniform who would enter the office tentatively, place an unsolicited feuilleton signed Hen on his desk, and leave without a word. Amazed at the talent in those pieces, the editor gave him a special column.

    Jozef Goldszmit died at the age offifty-two on August 25, 1896, under mysterious circumstances-possibly by his own hand. A large procession ofcolleagues and friends, both Catholics and Jews, representing the publications and philanthropies he had once been associated with, accompanied the immediate family in walking behind the horse-drawn wagon that carried his coffin to the Jewish cemetery. He was buried along the main aisle reserved for the Jewish community´s most prominent citizens. The tombstone, a tall, narrow slab (now riddled with bullets from the fighting that took place in the cemetery during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944), was engraved in Polish rather than Hebrew, as was the custom for many assimilated Jews. It was adorned only with an embossed wreath. Soon after her husband´s death, Henryk´s mother obtained a license from the Board of Education to take in student boarders-a socially accepted solution for widows in her position. Placing a notice in the Israelite, she offered tutoring for those who needed it, but did not specify that it would be done by her eighteen-year-old son, who was now the man in the family.

    Between school and his tutoring, Henryk bad few spare moments, but alone in his room, his only refuge in an apartment now filled with boarders, he was haunted by the thought that he, too, might end up in an asylum. He was the " son of a madman, a hereditary affliction. "
    He poured out his anguish in a novel called Suicide in which the hero " hated life out of fear of insanity " He wrote poems with the same dark sentiments until a well-known editor responded to one that began " Ab, let me die / Ab, don´t let me live! / Ab, let me descend into my dark grave! " with an unsympathetic " Go ahead! "

    " To wound a poet´s heart is like treading on a butterfly, " he confided to his journal. " I won´t be a writer, but a doctor. Literature is just words, while medicine is deeds. "

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