Janusz Korczak Biography
All Are Equal
The once formidable Stefa now seemed the voice of reason. In spite of the deprivations of the past year, friends noticed little physical change in her, while Korczak seemed to be shrinking, becoming more and more like a "shriveled raisin." He had always been a little wrinkled, but since his prison experience there were deep furrows at the corners of his eyes and mouth; his skin, like his teeth, had a yellowish cast now that he was relying on cigarettes, coffee, and what little vodka he was able to come by to keep him going.
One of Korczak's routine stops was the post office, where he collected damaged packages marked UNDELIVERABLE because their address labels had been torn off or because no one was alive to claim them. The Nazis allowed food packages until December of 1941, but deliveries were uneven, and German soldiers were free to rummage through them. Those packages that made it to the post office might have bread, flour, cooking fat, and grains from relatives who had fled to Soviet-occupied territory at the outbreak of the war, or coffee, chocolate, rice, sardines, and condensed milk from family and friends who had emigrated to neutral countries like Spain and Portugal. But often the contents were spoiled from sitting in way stations for long periods of time. Having persuaded the Judenrat to allow the unclaimed packages to be released to children's institutions, Korczak checked in regularly. There was no parcel, however damaged, that he wouldn't take in case it contained something salvageable. He and Stefa were at the same time sending postcards to everyone they knew overseas. In November of 1941, Leon Gluzman, who had been an orphan in the home in the twenties before emigrating to Canada, received a typed card signed by both Korczak and Stefa: "Please, if possible, send food packages to the Orphans Home at 33 Chlodna Street for our sick children (and those recuperating from recent illness). And please alert others to our need, in particular those who remember their youth." The card was addressed to Gluzman in Ottawa, Ont., U S.A. / America, and stamped by the Nazi censor with the German eagle.
John Auerbach, an eighteen-year-old who had been lucky enough to get a post-office job through his father's contacts, was sitting on a bench with other postmen waiting for the mail to be sorted one gray April morning in 1941 when Janusz Korczak entered with his empty sack.
"Sit down, Doctor, relax, they haven't started yet, " one of the postmen said, jumping up to give him his seat.
"I can stand," Korczak protested. "Your legs are more tired than mine."
When the postman insisted, Korczak lowered himselfonto the bench, his chin propped on one hand over his walking stick, his eyes scanning the faces of the crowd that was sloshing melted snow across the sagging plank floor and making the air acrid with the smell of unwashed bodies. Auerbach, who admired Korczak's work and wanted to be a writer himself, noticed how old and shrunken he looked, though his eyes, despite their deep bags, were piercing and alive.
" Are you a student?". Korczak asked, suddenly turning to him.
Auerbach shrugged. "I probably would have been one, but I am a
postman now. Nothing more."
Gancwajch and his infamous network-known as "the Thirteen" because of their base at 13 Leszno Street-operated in the ghetto like an alternate Judenrat (much to Chairman Czerniakow's consternation) and were believed to report to one of the Nazi factions. Originally set up in December of 1940 as the Office to Combat U sury and Profiteering in the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, the network, which would number between 300 and 400 men, had its own police force, first-aid station, and ambulance service.
"What a despicable, ugly creature," Czerniakow wrote of Gancwajch in his diary. Little is known of the man except that he materialized from somewhere outside of Warsaw. A talented orator, with a command of Yiddish and Hebrew as well as Polish, he preached the wisdom of working with the German conquerors-a pragmatic position that some compared to the Judenrat's. Whatever they thought of Gancwajch's motives-opportunistic or altruistic-many ofthe ghetto leaders, out ofdread or need, accepted his invitations to conferences on social welfare projects. One such meeting in early May lasted well past curfew' forcing its participants to spend the night in the Thirteen's headquarters. Czerniakow noted in his diary a f ew names of those who attended the "tea party' " with excla- mation marks after Korczak's. According to Ringelblum, Korczak agreed to head a Children's Aid Commission, but what that involved, or indeed whether it ever came into being, is not known.
In early June of 1941, Korczak and Stefa spent much of the night
with the Zylberbergs and other tenants in their compound peering through
cracks in the shutters of the orphanage as German troops marched through
the deserted ghetto streets-through Chlodna, Elektoralna, and Senatorska
-and over the Vistula bridge on their way to the Soviet frontier.
Stalin, wir kommen was written across the tanks.
The Jews held on to their sardonic wit as a way of surviving. Nothing
that happened inside or outside the walls was too insignificant to be
recycled into gallows humor. People would greet each other with: "Why
should the Germans bomb London, and the English Berlin? All that flying
back and forth is a waste of gas. The Germans ought to bomb Berlin and
the English London." Or: "Horowitz [Hitler] comes to the Other World,
sees Jesus in Paradise. "Hey, what's a Jew doing without an armband?"
"Let him be," answers St. Peter. "He's the Boss's son.'" Rubinstein,
the mad jester, was still making absurd pronouncements: "The rich are dissolving!"
There was no predicting Nazi tactics. Late that summer the Gestapo unexpectedly gave permission for the Judenrat to establish twenty Jewish schools with courses in Polish, Yiddish, or Hebrew. As the Jews rushed about in search of classroom space-most available public rooms had been turned into soup kitchens-they did not know that Hitler had already appointed Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Central Security Office, to carry out the "Final Solution," and that the first experiments with cyanide gas as an efficient method of extermination were being made even then at Auschwitz.
Korczak kept his children in the orphanage classes rather than risk their catching typhus outside, but he held pedagogic seminars for the teachers and directors of the new schools, which served six thousand of the ghetto's fifty thousand children of elementary-school age. it was decided that the school season should open with a theater contest in which all three language groups would compete. The Hebrew-speaking schools were planning sketches of Jewish life in Palestine from ancient to modern times, the Yiddish schools pieces stressing social justice and labor, and the Polish schools dramatizations of scenes from Polish literature that portrayed Jews and Poles living side by side in harmony.
When he visited Michael Zylberberg's Hebrew Day School, Korczak found three hundred students there speaking, singing, and playing in Hebrew, just as if they were in Palestine. He tried to make time to drop in at rehearsals of their play, Masada (whose title was changed to Fireflies at the last moment to avoid German notice). Based on the three-year resistance of the Jews under Roman siege at a mountain stronghold known as Masada-which ended with the Jews committing suicide rather than accepting defeat-the play was meant to remind the audience that Jews do not go down passively. Zylberberg noted that Korczak particularly liked the poem with which the play ended:
The chain continues on,
From parents to children,
From father to son.
This is how our parents danced,
So we, too, wi11 keep on dancing,
As head of the powerful Judenrat, the Chairman was well aware that he had many critics who accused him and his Council members of graft and corruption. (A popular chant about him went: "Czerniakow's belly is big and round. Gulps broth and meatballs by the pound!") But whatever Czerniakow's ethical ambiguities, his interest in children's welfare was genuine. As the Chairman's job became increasingly difficult-he noted in his diary that the face looking out at him from a recent portrait was "very old and tired and bitter"-he became increasingly involved in special projects for children. He was also seeking to relieve his loneliness and worry over his only son, Jas. Nothing had been heard from Jas since June when the Germans captured Lvov, where he had fled after the invasion of Poland.
That day at the Femina Theater, Czerniakow, along with his wife and several other speakers, asked the audience to open their purses as well as their hearts to help the hungry and homeless children. They managed to raise a hundred thousand zlotys, some of which went for posters that read: OUR CHILDREN, OUR CHILDREN MUST LIVE and A CHILD IS THE HOLIEST OF ALL BEINGS.
Korczak decided to hold services in the orphanage for his children and the community on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "You shouldn't be surprised, " he told Zylberberg, whom he asked to help with arrangements. "In troubled times, prayer is important. It will give the children strength, and us too. No one is required to come-only those who feel the need for it. And it will help bring in funds for the House Committee."
Whether it was their need for prayer or the excitement of celebrating a holiday, the children threw themselves into transforming the orphanage assembly hall into a synagogue. They laid down carpets and arranged flowers smuggled in by Korczak's Gentile friends. An ark containing two Torah scrolls in richly embroidered coverings, flanked by two silver candlesticks, was placed at one end of the room, and benches arranged in rows before it.
Zylberberg invited a cantor who had been deported from a small town to officiate. But, as it turned out, there were few in attendance other than fellow tenants in the compound and the orphanage children and staff. Fearing that a large crowd would bring typhus into the home, Korczak had put a high price on tickets for the services; and then at the last minute the Germans had allowed synagogues to open for the first time in two years.
Korczak stood in the back of the hall in his old gray suit and high military boots, a silk yarmulke on his head, completely absorbed, as if in meditation. No one stirred as the cantor sang out:
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
How many shall pass away,
And how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die.
"It is important that the children not be worried, " Korczak told him. "But I am afraid ofwhat lies ahead. The Germans are capable of anything."