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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Our Children
Must Live

    Once again during the High Holy Days the Germans unveiled a malevolent plan-as if "the scoundrels get restless at the approach of winter," historian Emmanuel Ringelblum noted in his diary. The previous year they had established the ghetto; this year they announced their intention to reduce it in size, even as they brought in an increasing number of Jews from other countries.

    In mid-October 1941, Korczak and Stefa learned that residents of 33 Chlodna and adjoining streets would have to relocate within four days because that area had been zoned out of the ghetto. It was almost as much of a blow to have to vacate this building as it had been to lose their original quarters on Krochmalna. Worn down by hunger and fatigue, they had less energy for this move. But, as always, they got on with the task at hand. Korczak managed to find a former businessmen's club at 16 Sienna Street in the Small Ghetto. It had once been an exclusive address but now it faced a recently erected wall that ran down the middle of the street to form the southernmost border of the ghetto. The new quarters were even smaller than the previous ones, but, luckily, Korczak was also able to take possession of a little house behind the club, at 7 Sliska Street, as a dormitory for the staff.

    Stefa organized the limited space at the Sienna Street house to accommodate the orphanage's many activities. Using wooden chests and cupboards, she partitioned the large room on the first floor into dining, study, and play units during the day, and sleeping quarters at night. The routine of the home was established immediately. Classes were held in shifts as before, as were meals. Each child had work assignments-kitchen duty, or a cleaning detail, for which he received points. There was an active choir, a drama and sewing circle, a doll corner, and puppet workshop.

    Just before the orphanage moved to its new location, Michael Zylberberg's wife, Henrietta, came down with typhus. From the moment she entered the ghetto, she had repeatedly told Stefa that everyone would die of hunger, and had spent most of her days bartering possessions for food for her husband and herself Now it seemed that she would die of typhus rather than starvation.

    During the ten days that his wife lay semiconscious in their apartment, Zylberberg stayed away from the orphanage for fear of infecting the children. He managed to pay a few doctors to see her, but they had little medicine and her condition worsened. Late one afternoon, when Zylberberg was certain she would die, Korczak appeared at his door with his medical bag. After examining the patient, he gave her a shot ofprecious serum he had brought with him. He returned frequently during the next few days to give her further shots. As she battled for life, she could hear his voice testing her consciousness: "Do you know your name?" And encouraging her: "Don't give up. Don't let Hitler have another victory."
    One night, after sitting with her for hours, he told her husband: "It looks as if the fever will break and she will live." He proved to be right.

    Henrietta didn't accompany her husband on his visit to the new orphanage because she feared that the streets had become too dangerous. Zylberberg found the atmosphere in the home heavy and the facilities not as adequate as those on Chlodna. The kitchen was tiny, and there was only one bathroom for the hundred and fifty children and staff. However, Korczak greeted him with his usual smile, and the children were so excited to see him that they burst spontaneously into their anthem:

        White and brown and block and yellow,
        Mix the colors with one another.
        People are still brothers and sisters
        Of one father and one mother!

    As the ghetto closed ever more tightly around the Jews, the absence of their Polish "brothers and sisters" on the other side of the wall became an almost physical deprivation. Even the Hebraist Chaim Kaplan complained to his diary. "Our souls yearn for the sight of a Gentile face." He listed the only five Gentiles one could see: the tax collector, the bill collectors for monthly payments of electricity and gas, and the two conductors on the Jewish tram. If one was unfortunate enough to be taken to court, one saw a sixth-the judge.

    Feeling the same sense ofloss as the Jews, Korczak's Christian friends began devising schemes to visit him. On one of those gloomy November days when the skies were overcast and everything was covered with dirty snow, M aria Czapska managed to borrow someone's pass to get into the ghetto. Since the only tramcars that went through the ghetto didn't stop inside, she got off at the station just before the gate, showing her pass to the German and Polish police at the checkpoint outside, and to their Jewish counterparts inside. Darkness was falling, although it was still afternoon, as she made her way through the crowded streets, past vendors hawking cigarettes and sunFlower seeds, past beggars exhibiting frozen limbs, past half-naked children ignored by passersby as if they were "rags of humanity"

    When Korczak greeted her at the door of the orphanage, Maria was taken aback by how rapidly he had aged in the ghetto. As a student who admired his work in the early nineteen-twenties, she had sought him out, and become a social worker through his inFluence. Neither of them said anything as they made their way to his office through a line of children standing in the dark hallway waiting to exchange books at the library corner. She was struck by the mature and thoughtful expressions on their faces.

    After they were settled in his small upstairs office, Korczak began talking about the Hanukkah program the children were preparing.He intended to write some prayers for it, as well as for a Christmas pageant. Since he wanted to compose an invocation for two choruses that would use material from both religions, he asked her to send him a litany to the Virgin Mary. Korczak looked sad as he spoke about previous years when he wrote Hanukkah plays for his Jewish orphans and danced around the Christmas tree with his Christian ones. As the darkness of the afternoon deepened, so did their silences. She could hear a tramcar speeding nonstop across the ghetto from one Aryan district to another, as well as hurried footsteps in the snow and low voices outside speaking Yiddish.

    As she was leaving, Czapska hesitated at the door, knowing she might never see her friend again. "How are you feeling, really?" she asked. "Like a butterfly," he said. "A butterfly who will soon fly away to a better world." After a pause, he gave that half-sardonic smile she knew so well. "It's either a vision-or sclerosis of the brain."

    Kazimierz Debnicki also managed to get hold of someone else's pass into the ghetto. He was never to forget the shock of coming from a part of the city that was still green and where there was air to breathe into this frozen world where crowds of people were stepping over corpses as casually as they might over mounds of snow. Once he managed to find the orphanage at Sienna and Sliska, he was relieved to see it functioning in an orderly way, but he could not control his rage at the Germans as he and Korczak sat down to talk.
    "This ghetto is like a prison," he blurted out.
    "There are two prisons," Korczak responded quietly.
    "One larger than the other. One may have more trees and flowers, but the same fate awaits everyone." And then he added wryly: "When a man condemned to death leaves his cell, it makes no difference if the cell was large or small."

    Debnicki couldn't help noticing how emaciated Korczak had become. His voice said one thing, but his wild, red-rimmed eyes, like those of a madman, belied his words. He was trying to keep his balance by speaking rationally about an irrational situation. He was an old military doctor, he reminded Debnicki, and with all the danger in the ghetto, he never forgot that it was still more dangerous on the front lines.

    Korczak sounded like the Old Doctor as he kept steering the conversation to a philosophical level that transcended the immediate moment. Finding himself yet again in the position of having to comfort those who had come to comfort him, he tried to stress the optimistic side of things, to talk about the future. "Hitler's movement will not last because the vast majority of German people will not put up with these atrocities," he said. When Debnicki repeated his outrage at the way some Poles were behaving-informing on the Jews, turning them in to the Gestapo- Korczak responded:
    "Remember, for each one who acts like that, there are many who behave decently. Basically, people are good."

    Yet Korczak was deeply saddened that the bridge he and his family had devoted themselves to building between the Jews and the Poles could be so effectively sabotaged by the Germans. He wrote in his diary. "How easy it is for two criminals to team up for nefarious purposes, but how impossible for a collaboration between two peoples who share the same values but are separated from each other by different histories."

    Typhus was decimating the community at such an alarming rate that there was no longer space in the cemetery to hold all the victims. They were lowered naked, without even newspaper to cover them, into mass graves.

    Korczak was more and more overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness as he passed emaciated boys and girls with bare arms and legs begging in the wintry streets one day and frozen to death in the gutters the next. They were usually children of refugees who had already succumbed to typhus, hunger, or cold, or sick children put out on the street just before death by parents who could not afford to pay for a burial wagon to take them away. Often someone had covered their little bodies with a deco- rative Children's Month poster: OUR CHILDREN, OUR CHILDREN MUST

    Sometimes Korczak knelt beside the dying children, trying to transmit some warmth from his hand to their emaciated bodies, whispering a few words of encouragement, but most of them were already beyond response. In their advanced stage of starvation, they could not get up, but lay curled in a fetal position, as if sleeping with their eyes open. One of the children's rights that he had espoused was the right to die with dignity, but there was no dignity in the way these children lived or died.

    For some time Korczak had been hounding CENTOS to provide more shelters so that the street children would have some chance, however minimal, for life. When nothing came of this, or of a plan for the Jewish police to make some provisions, he decided to try to set up on his own a modest place where the dying children would at least have a sense that someone cared for them.

    Having exhausted all other channels, Korczak thought of eliciting the help of Colonel Mieczyslaw Kowalski, a member of the Health Department of the Judenrat. The Colonel, who had been a professional military doctor in the Polish Army, occasionally supplied Korczak with soap, linens, fuel, and even food. Since they rarely exchanged anything but formalities, the Colonel was surprised when Korczak began speaking animatedly about his plan to help the street children die with dignity:
    "The hospitals are too crowded to admit them, even ifthere were a chance of recovery. What I have in mind wouldn't take a great deal of space or money. It could just be some empty store, like a fabric shop, with shelves to place the children on. We wouldn't have to have a large staff-one person with the skills of an orderly would be enough."

    In recognizing the need for a place where dying children could be comforted and pass their last hours in peace, Korczak anticipated the hospice movement. But in the ghetto, where the living required as much comforting as the dying, the Colonel had demands that took priority. The project never materialized.

    Still, Colonel Kowalski was able to help Korczak in a way that neither of them could have foreseen. One day word reached Kowalski that Janusz Korczak had been picked up by the police for not wearing an armband and was about to be sent to Pawiak again. The Colonel immediately got in touch with the chief doctor of the German division of health, Dr. Wilhelm Hagen (known as a "good German"), who owed him a favor. Kowalski had recently set the leg of Hagen's Jewish friend from medical school days; now he asked Hagen a favor in return: a medical certificate that would exempt Korczak from Pawiak. Hagen agreed to issue one, but only after he had examined Korczak. The plan almost backfired. When Korczak was brought to Kowalski's office by the police, he refused to be examined by Hagen. Pretending not to know German, he protested that he was healthy and would not undress. it took some time for Kowalski to persuade Korczak to take off his clothes. "I was shocked by how emaciated he was, " Kowalski said. "He had a congested lung, a ruptured hernia, and badly swollen legs, to mention just a few of the things wrong with him." After writing the certificate, Hagen told Korczak:
    "I hope you'll wear the armband in the future because this is the last time I can help you." This time Korczak replied directly in German:
    "I can promise you that Ill never wear it."

    On November 1, All Souls' Day, when the Poles visit graveyards to place flowers and candles on the graves of their dead, Korczak bribed a guard at the gate to let him leave the ghetto. He was on his way to Bielany to see how Maryna Falska and the children were faring. He arrived about noon, cold and exhausted from the long walk. Maryna and the other staff members, shocked to see how badly he looked, scurried about to make him comfortable. The children came running when they heard that Pan Doctor was there. One boy opened his mouth to show that he'd lost a tooth and asked for some coins. "No payment without the tooth," Korczak replied merrily.

    After he had looked the children over and talked with them for a while, Maryna suggested that Korczak come to her room to rest and have tea. Once they were alone, she revealed that she was hiding three Jewish children. She had been able to take them because they spoke perfect Polish, but she had not conFided the secret of their identity to the other children, lest they inadvertently reveal it.

    Korczak didn't have to be told that life on this side of the wall was perilous, too: the Poles suffered shortages of food and fuel, and tens of thousands of them were rounded up each month for forced labor in Germany. Many of them had been killed by the Germans, including Jan Piecinski, a former bursa member, whom Maryna had been grooming to take over as director of the orphanage.

    A few hours later when Korczak rose to leave in order to return to the ghetto before curfew, Maryna sent the caretaker, Wladyslaw Cichosz, to accompany him. As they walked along, Korczak asked him not to abandon Maryna and the children during the war (a request that Cichosz honored), and kissed him on the forehead when they were nearing the ghetto walls. Cichosz watched from a distance as the doctor disappeared through the gate.

    Ten days after Korczak visited Bielany, Gestapo wall posters announced that any Jew leaving the ghetto without an official permit would be taken to the Jewish detention facility and shot. One week later, eight people caught trying to smuggle food into the ghetto from the Aryan side were given the death penalty. The Judenrat pleaded for mercy for the prisoners and a "legal trial." But at seven-thirty on the morning of November 17 the Germans ordered the Polish police to carry out the executions in the prison yard. Six of the "criminals" were women-one, a sixteen-year-old girl, asked God to regard her death as a sacrifice for her people so that no one else would have to die. Thousands of people outside the prison wall wept; the Polish police are reported to have wept, too, as they fired on command.

    Despite what was happening in the ghetto, people clung to the hope that the war would soon end with the defeat of the Germans. Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary that the Jews were waiting for that day with such anticipation that they wouldn't even commit suicide for fear of missing it. By mid-December there did seem to be reason for hope: after three months of sweeping through Russia, the Germans finally met re- sistance at the gates of Moscow; and America had entered the war against both Germany and Japan after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. What was not yet known was that the Germans had just set up their first extermination camp in Chelmno, which would eliminate the need for guns such as those used to massacre the 34,000 Jews in Kiev, the 28,000 in Riga, and the 25,000 in Vilna during this period.

    Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which fell on December 15, found the community once again deep in gloom after the execution of seventeen more victims caught smuggling. Because of Russian air raids, the quarter had to be kept dark; but even so, few had the price of Hanukkah candles or kerosene. Having spent the previous Hanukkah in Pawiak prison away from the children, Korczak wanted this one to be festive for them. The house hummed as the orphans made menorahs for the tables and presents for each other, and rehearsed one of the Hanukkah plays that Korczak had written years before. The holiday had a special meaning for Korczak: "an old man with a gray beard," he called it. He admired Judas Maccabaeus for his toughness in sending his sons on the daring mission to recapture the Temple from the Syrians, as well as for his shrewd ability to foresee victory. Korczak, too, would need a miracle: his meager supply of candles would have to last eight days.

    In Korczak's play, The Time Will Come, the candle advises a brother and sister not to quarrel, because there is already too much conflict in the world: "One must begin the path to peace within one's own home. After that, the time will come when peace will prevail everywhere in the world." Each generation of Korczak's children had believed the candle's promise: "Though we still have a long road ahead of us, I will return to you next year." A few days before the holiday, the children were surprised to see a garbage truck from the Aryan side pull up to the orphanage with presents for them concealed beneath the trash. The three garbagemen, contacted by the Polish underground, were delivering food and toys from Korczak's friends. On their way to the ghetto, they had even cut down a small pine tree as their own personal gift.

    One of the men has described that day. "Korczak asked the children to gather round the tree, which he set up on a table in the middle of the room. Our parcels were lying under it. The children stood quietly, just staring. What surprised me was that they were not like children, but like smiling old people. Their eyes were full of sorrow, even though they were happy. i started to cry as we serenaded them with a Christmas carol: "And God please give peace to people of good will.' "

    The Poles explained to Korczak that, on the two days a week they were assigned to collect garbage inside the ghetto, they always smuggled in letters and food. Sometimes they were even able to smuggle people out. As they left, Korczak slipped them a postcard while shaking hands. They read it when they were back on the Aryan side: "The Jews will never forget their brothers and sisters on the other side of the wall." That severe winter of 1941 brought yet another blow for the ghetto. The day after Christmas, notices were posted ordering the Jews to turn over to the Nazis via the Judenrat every scrap of fur they possessed. They had three days-the penalty was death.

    "I would not care to be born a second time," Czerniakow had confided to his diary on his birthday the month before. Watching from his office window as thousands lined up in the freezing cold to hand over the only source of warmth they had, he may have wondered if he should have been born at all.

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