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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Last Seder

    On January 7, 1942, the Jewish Gazette, the only Polish-language paper allowed in the ghetto, printed a letter to the editor in response to an article that had praised the orphanage of Dr. Janusz Korczak: "The Orphans Home has never been, and never will be, Korczak's orphanage. That man is too small, too weak, too poor, and too dimwitted to gather almost two hundred children, house, clothe, and feed them, and give them training for life . . . This great task has been accomplished by the joint efforts of hundreds of good-willed people with enlightened minds and insight into the problems of the orphaned child . . . Wilcyznska, Pozowna, Korczak (if you need names) are merely the custodians of precious property." The letter was signed J. Korczak.

    Once having caught the reader's attention, Korczak inserted his real message in the postscript: "In a Paris cemetery there is an impressive gravestone bearing the inscription 'To the memory of those who have left us.' On the initiative of our patrons, we are going to hold a memorial service for friends of the Orphans Home as well as former orphans and teachers who have passed away. We also invite you to a puppet show of charming tales narrated by Dr. Janusz Korczak on Saturday, January 10, at twelve noon at the Orphans Home, 9 Sliska Street. Tickets for both children and adults are available for two zlotys." The following month, using the same ironic style, Korczak wrote a letter of application to the Judenrat, requesting the directorship of the public shelter that housed a thousand children at 39 Dzielna Street. He had joked with Czerniakow that he was spreading rumors about himself being a thief so that he would qualify for the job, which was now held by scoundrels who had turned the shelter into a "slaughterhouse and morgue." Describing himself in the application as an unbalanced, excitable scatterbrain who only by laboriously developed self-control was able to engage in teamwork, he listed his qualifications:

    I am sixty-four. As for my health, it passed the test in prison last year. Despite exacting conditions there, not once did I report sick, not once did I go to the doctor, not once did I absent myself from exercise in the yard, dreaded even by my younger colleagues. I eat like a horse, sleep soundly; recently, after drinking ten shots of vodka, I returned home at a brisk pace from Rymarska Street to Sienna-late at night. I get up twice during the night to empty ten large bedpans. I smoke, do not overindulge in liquor; for everyday purposes my mental faculties-passable. Experience has endowed me with a considerable ability to coexist and collaborate even with criminal types and born imbeciles. Ambitious, obstinate fools cross me off their visiting list-though I do not return the compliment. I anticipate that the criminal characters among the staff of the Dzielna Street orphanage will voluntarily resign from the hated work to which they are tied by cowardice and inertia alone. The petitioner suggested a trial period offour weeks, which, because of the urgency, should start that week with a room and two meals daily. "By a room I mean a place to sleep; meals if there are any, and if not - I can do without." He signed the application: Goldszmit-Korczak. February 9, 1942.

    Of course, the application was meant to be amusing-who on the Judenrat would refuse Janusz Korczak the thankless job of rescuing a thousand sickly orphans who were lying in filth and dying untended at the rate of ten and twelve a day? He was granted the position, but given only one thousand of the twenty thousand zlotys he requested for the institution.

    As Korczak expected, the corrupt staff members at the Dzielna Street shelter did everything they could to frustrate him during the few days a week he spent there trying to prevent their siphoning off the provisions meant for the children. His efforts made him feel "all smeared, bloodstained, stinking. And crafty, since I am alive-I sleep, eat, occasionally joke." But it became impossible to joke when he realized that he could not save most of the orphans. In spite of his efforts to see that they got the provisions intended for them, the mortality rate was sixty percent. There was simply not enough food or medical supplies. He felt guilty about eating anything there, no matter how weak from hunger he might be. He wrote in his diary: "Long after the war, men will not be able to look each other in the eye without reading the question: How is it you happened to survive? How did you do it?."
    He sought help everywhere.

    Across the street from his own orphanage was a small relief station called A Drop of Milk, where starving mothers brought their babies. He often went there alone or with Stefa to talk to the director, Anna Margolis, and to observe how babies developed without sufficient milk or food. He presented his findings to a group of doctors studying the effects of hunger on child development, deriving some small and painful satisfaction from the thought that all this misery might at least contribute to medical knowledge. Because Margolis also worked as the head of the tuberculosis ward at the Children's Hospital, Korczak asked her if she could arrange admission for some of the children from Dzielna. She was able to allocate five beds, which he filled with the most serious cases of dysentery, pneumonia, and angina-all diseases directly related to starvation. One boy clutched his mandolin as he was carried into the ward; it was placed on a shelf above his bed, but he died before he could play it.

    Every detail of the operations at the Dzielna Street orphanage came under Korczak's scrutiny. Noticing that the children's underwear never looked clean no matter how many times it was scrubbed, he prevailed on a Polish acquaintance, Witold Gora, who worked as a plumber and furnace man in a German laundry on Pawia Street, to do the clothes during his night break. Every week Korczak delivered a heavy bag of underwear to Gora's apartment, and everv week Gora carried it secretly to the laundry and brought it back clean to his apartment. Gora offered to pick the clothes up at the shelter to save the doctor the trip to his place, but Korczak wouldn't hear of it. "You're taking a serious risk doing this for us" he said. " And, besides, carrying the bags is good for my health."

    The "long, green Polish spring," which Korczak had always seen as a metaphor for renewal, was somewhere beyond the ghetto walls. inside, everything green shriveled and died, as if even trees and grass could not survive the unnatural conditions. It was said that birds would not fly over the quarter. Rubinstein, the self-proclaimed jester ofthe Warsaw Ghetto, was silent. After recovering from typhus, he still stared wildly at everyone on the streets, but did not sing his inane ditties, as if knowing that his madness could no longer match the madness around him.

    Meanwhile, the Nazis, like crazed city planners, continued to shrink the ghetto, lopping off one street here, dividing another down the middle there. If the Judenrat couldn't get the necessary brick walls up fast enough, the Germans made do with barbed wire on wooden fences.

    "A beautiful hour of life'' was promised everyone who received an invitation to the Passover seder at the Sliska Street orphanage on the first of April.

    Many of the guests could remember the prewar seders on Krochmalna Street, a popular annual event for which as many as three hundred people competed to buy tickets. Not knowing Hebrew, Korczak always had one of the observant teachers conduct the service, but he would help the children dip their eggs and bitter herbs into salt water to remember the sadness of being slaves in Egypt. Never had the children waited more eagerly for soup than at those Passover seders, because Stefa would hide nuts in some of the matzoh balls. (The usual custom of hiding matzohs for children to find would have created bedlam in an orphanage.) The child who found a nut in his matzoh ball received a prize. But the best prize of all was the nut itself, which many orphans kept as a special treasure.

    We don't know if there were nuts, or matzoh balls, or even soup at that last seder, but we have a report on its "charm" in an account written in the Jewish Gazette by one of the guests, Herman Czerwinski.

    The long tables, covered with spotless tablecloths, were lit by the "beaming" faces of one hundred and eighty orphans, who were "not abandoned, but joined by the spirits of their mothers and fathers." Korczak sat at the head table with sixteen of the older choir members, who burst into a Zionist song whenever something in the Haggadah referred to Palestine. The seder guests were seated in the rear. When the youngest child asked: "And how is this night different from all other nights?" Korczak responded with a few words that "moved" everyone. After the service, "plates, mugs, bowls chimed. Women came with food from all directions. Joy reigned at this Passover celebration."

    Czerwinski may have omitted Korczak's moving words about how that night differed from all others lest the Nazis read them. For the same reason, he may have felt it best not to report that, during the Haggadah reading, Korczak walked to the window and raised his fist, as if crying out to God in rage and despair to account for the suffering of his children.

    Just before midnight on April 17 (which would come to be known as Bloody Friday), small contingents of SS, each guided by a German-speaking Jewish policeman, went about knocking on the doors of apartments throughout the ghetto. Each occupant was greeted politely with "Good evening," and asked to step outside for a moment. In the courtyard, he was placed against a wall and shot. His body was left where it fell, and the courteous death squad moved on to the next address on the list. If a victim's wife cried out or followed him down the stairs, her body was found in a pool of blood next to his.

    The victims-lawyers, bakers, merchants, butchers, business people, former officials-seemingly bore no relationship to each other. How was the list drawn up? everyone asked fearfully. Who would be next? Only later was it learned that the murdered men had been putting out the illegal political bulletin Das Blettl, originated by the socialist Jewish Labor Bund.

    Although Chairman Czerniakow was assured by the Gestapo that those not involved in underground activities did not have to fear for their own safety, two days later seven more men were shot down in the street, this time in broad daylight. After that, shots could be heard night and day in the ghetto. Again. there were rumors that there would be deportations from Warsaw. In Lublin-it was said-forty thousand people had been sent away on freight cars, their destination unknown. People were terrified to leave their homes. They spoke in whispers, dreading a knock at the door.

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