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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Ghetto Diary. May 1942

Are decent people in positions of leadership eternally condemned to Calvary?
-Ghetto Diary

 

    A few weeks after Bloody Friday, Janusz Korczak sat up in bed and turned to the diary that he had begun shortly after the German occupation of Warsaw and then abandoned.

    "The month of May is cold this year," he wrote. "And tonight is the quietest of all nights. it is five in the morning. The little ones are asleep. There are actually two hundred ofthem. In the east wing-Madame Stefa, and I in the west-in the so-called 'isolation ward.' "

    His bed was in the middle of the room. Under it, the last drops of the bottle of vodka he had been savoring; next to it, a night table with black bread and a jug of water. All around were the beds of the sick children: Monius the youngest (there were four with the same name), Albert, and Jerzyk on one side; on the other, against the wall, Felunia, Giena, and Haneczka. There was also the old tailor, Azrylewicz, Romcia's grandfather, who was suffering from heart disease and kept Korczak awake with his groans.

    Almost every night, for what would be the last three months of his life, Korczak would write while the children slept. His notations were often no more than a terse shorthand. His body, now wasted from fatigue and hunger, told him that death was near, but he did not yet suspect in what form. As a Jewish doctor in a Catholic country, he had always respected the "curative power of the whispered confession" to the priest, and now he found himself yearning for "a confessor, an advisor, an understanding ear to hear his lament."

    The diary he was keeping would serve those roles, and that of judge. it would not be a historical chronicle of life in the W arsaw Ghetto-like the diaries of Emmanuel Ringelblum, Chaim Kaplan, and Adam Czerniakow-but a subjective memoir of the journey inward that he had interrupted two years before. He felt responsible not to Jewish history but to his own history as a Polish Jew. On those lonely nights, when all of his personal furies became entangled with the very real furies outside, he would write of the terror of his father's madness, the fear of his own, and his regret that he had given up medical work in the Children's Hospital-"an ugly desertion." Only occasionally did his pen rest for a moment or two on some ghetto scene, illuminating that terrible world with a bright flare that would fade rapidly back into the stream of consciousness of his past. At one point he comments wryly: "Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention there is a war going on." The orphans commandeered some of the pages, just as they had the years of his life, springing up here and there with their coughs, their own diaries, their need for trees and flowers. Not until the carbide lamp stopped burning, or the pen ran dry, or his energy ran out did he stop. in the morning Henryk, an apprentice and the son of the old tailor, typed the pages, just as Walenty had in that other war.
    An early entry reads:

    It is half past six.
    In the dormitory someone shouts:
    "Boys, time for a bath" get up!" I put away my pen. Should I get up or not? It is a long time since I have had a bath. Yesterday I killed a louse I found on myself without batting an eye-with one dexterous squeeze of the nail-a louse.
    If I have time, I shall write a eulogy to a louse. For our attitude toward this fine insect is unjust and unfitting.
    An embittered Russian peasant once declared: " A louse is not like a man, it will not suck up every last drop of blood."

    For a few moments Korczak sat on his bed enjoying the " The Old Doctor could still predict at a glance who would have a good or difficult day.

    Before the "beehive began to hum," he would assess his strategy like a military commander: the calls to be made, letters to be written, supplies to be procured. Or he might review the day that had passed, with its victories and defeats.

    Take Saturday, May 23, 1942.
    It began with great excitement as the children lined up to be weighed. He noted on his graphs that though they were showing a steady decline, it was not yet alarming. Breakfast had been welcome, but in its own way it was work. The food reminded him of the struggle to get it on the table-the sausage, ham, and buns they had that week were the result of a "nasty" letter he had written to a dignitary. Not enough when divided among all the children, but something. True, there was that surprise in the form of two hundred kilograms of potatoes -"a real diplomatic victory>"- but he couldn't rest on his laurels or relax his vigilance. The children were unaware of the history of each morsel they put into their mouths as he sat there, tortured, wondering: "Have I done right or wrong?"

    After breakfast a meeting had been held to discuss which teachers could take a leave, and how to find substitutes. it would have been convenient to keep to last year's schedules, but too much had happened since then-too many newcomers and departures. "Things are-why keep on about it-different."

    This being Saturday, everyone gathered for the reading of the orphanage newspaper and reports on the court trials. He was aware that the paper had lost its hold over the children, although the new ones were always interested. No one really cared any more who did well that week and who badly. (It was easier now to turn a blind eye to some problems- for example, to the fact that there was so much theft and unrest in the orphanage.) The older children knew that they would not learn from the paper the one thing they wanted to know. what was going to happen to them. They were listening for what he was not going to say. He didn't want to worry them-or to admit that even he could not be sure what the future held.

    The gong sounded for lunch while he was brooding over his afternoon schedule. Three calls to be made. At the first house, an elderly supporter who had been ill was not at home; Korczak left his belated greetings with the family, embarrassed to have put off the visit for so long. The second appointment was for him to give an hour's lecture on yeast and nutrition at a nearby building. He heard himself droning on about the differences between brewer's and baker's, active and inactive, how long it should set, how much should be taken, how often, and the importance of vitamin B. But all the while he was thinking: How? Through whom? From where?

    The third call was at a party welcoming some returnees from the East. The janitor pulled him aside at the entrance, extremely nervous that the Gestapo would investigate. "Help, Almighty! Don't let them question us!" Once inside, Korczak noted wryly that the guests were clearly relieved to have come back "from hell to this Warsaw paradise." As he made his way home to the orphanage that day, Korczak noticed a scene that he would refer to a few times in his diary:

    A young boy, still alive or perhaps dead already, is lying across the sidewalk. Three boys are playing horses and drivers there; their reins have become entangled. They are trying every which way to disentangle them. In their impatience they stumble over the boy lying on the ground. Finally one of them says:
    "Let's move on, he's getting in the way!" They ga1lop a few steps away and continue to struggle with the reins.

    Sunday at dawn, he lay in bed thinking of the letters to be written and the seven calls to be made. But he did not stir. His will had kept him going until then, but now his body would no longer obey. He tried not to notice the odors in the room: the smell of ammonia from the urine in the chamber pots he rinsed now only every other day was mixed with the garlic stench of carbide from the lamp. There was also the occasional odor of one of his seven roommates. Bedbugs, those "infrequent enemies," were back, and now there were moths to contend with.

    He lay there thinking: "To get up is to sit on the bed, reach for my underpants, button up, if not all the buttons, then at least one. Struggle into my shirt. Bend down to put on my socks. The suspenders . . ."

    With great effort he forced himself to dress, to get on his way. He ignored his persistent cough, the sharp tooth cutting into his tongue. He forced his legs to step from the sidewalk down to the street, and then to climb up again. When someone accidentally pushed him, he staggered to one side and leaned against the wall. Now it was no longer his body but his will that was collapsing. He felt like "a sleepwalker-a morphine addict." For a moment he couldn't remember where he was going. And when he reached the building, he had to stop on the stairs: "What did I come to see him about?"

    It had been happening a lot lately. He was perceiving things through a haze, only dimly aware ofthe revolting scenes all around him, ofhearing things that should shock him. He could easily have postponed or canceled any of these meetings:

    A shrug. It's alI the same to me. Indolence. Poverty of feeling, that eternal Jewish resignation. So what? And what's next? What if my tongue is sore? What if someone has been shot? He already knew he must die. And what next? SureIy you cannot die more than once.

    He realized that he was not the only one experiencing a sense of unreality when he overheard a shopkeeper respond to a customer's complaint: "My good woman-these are not goods, and this is not a store, you are not a customer, nor I a vendor. I don't sell to you, nor do you pay me, because these scraps of paper are not money. You don't lose, and I don't profit. Who would bother to cheat nowadays-for what? Only one's got to do something. Well, am I not right?"

    On another occasion, the proprietress of a butcher shop was too numbed to respond to Korczak's black humor: "Tell me, dear lady, is it possible that this sausage is made from human flesh? It's too cheap for horsemeat."
    "
    How should I know?" she replied. "I wasn't there when it was being made."
    Sometimes, when he was stirred by something like a chance meeting with someone he had not seen in years, he was relieved to know that he could still experience a clear emotion. But in the ravished features of that friend he could read how different he himself must appear from the person he had been.

    He was utterly exhausted when he returned to the orphanage at midday, sometimes having nothing more for all his trouble than fifty zlotys, and a promise from someone else of five zlotys a month. "To provide for two hundred people." After lunch he would throw himself on the bed with his clothes on, to rest for two hours. When the vodka was gone, five shots of raw alcohol mixed with an equal amount of water, with a little candy for sweetener, gave him "inspiration," a blissful feeling of weariness without the pain of aching leg muscles, sore eyes, and the burning in his scrotum. He felt "content, calm, and safe." Occasionally someone might burst into the room and, seeing him stretched out there, withdraw. Or the "tranquility" might be disturbed by Stefa coming in with a "piece of news, a problem, a desperate decision."

    As a doctor, Korczak was well aware that his fatigue and apathy were symptoms of malnutrition from subsisting on eight hundred calories a day. But the doctor who tried to fall asleep at night was also a hungry man. He had never cared about food in the past, but now he lay there conjuring up dishes that he could eat without the slightest difficulty. succulent raspberries from his Aunt Magda's garden, the buckwheat groats his father liked, the tripe he had savored in Kiev, the kidneys he ate in Paris, the vinegar-soaked dishes he had in Palestine. For something really soothing, he imagined champagne (which he'd drunk only three times in his life) with dry biscuits like the ones he had when he was ill as a child. Then there was the ice cream that his mother had forbidden him to have, and red wine.
    Sometimes he planned a menu:

        Perhaps fish with tartar sauce?
        A Wiener schnitzel?
        pâté, rabbit marinated in Malaga with red cabbage?
        No! A thousand times no!
        Why?
        Odd: eating is work, and I am tired.

    To take on more than was humanly possible was Korczak's way of spiritual resistance. He held to his principle that if he kept the order of his house, the ritual ofhis day, he would succeed. Perhaps the war would end, and the Germans would be defeated. Until then, the fact that his children were well and active, did not get typhus or tuberculosis, that the orphanage did not have to be disinfected, was a point for life against death, for good against evil.

    When there weren't enough helpers to investigate applications of children for admission to the orphanage, he did it himself.
    At 57 Smocza Street he found a mother stretched out on the couch, dying of an ulcerated intestine, while her young son was out scrounging fur food.

    "He's a good boy" a neighbor told Korczak. "But I don't know if he'll be willing to go to an institution before his mother dies." "And I can't die before he is settled somewhere," the mother said.
    "
    Such a wonderful child. He tells me not to sleep in the daytime so I'll be able to sleep at night. And at night he says: 'What are you moaning for, that won't help. You'd better go to sleep.' "

    On Thursdays, when the admissions committee met to review the new applicants, Korczak was dimly aware that others were experiencing the same sense of detachment that he felt-even Stefa, who could still express her worry that refusing a child was sentencing him to certain death. The continuity of the discussion was easily broken. Someone had only to interrupt with a remark, and they'd all go off on a tangent:

        What was it we were talking about?
        Someone says: Firstly . . .
        You wait in vain for: Secondly.
        Of course, some of us are long-winded, anyway.
        There is a motion:
        The child should be admitted.
        Recorded: Admit. We ought to pass on to the next application. No. Not one but three speakers support the motion. At times it is necessary to intervene more than once.
        The discussions keep on skidding like a car out of control.
        Wearing, irritating.
        Enough!

    Many of the children who were admitted, like nine-year-old Giena, were full orphans. But even Giena, who had only her seventeen-year-old brother Samuel, might not have been accepted if her brother hadn't been lucky enough to know someone who knew Stefa.

    Giena had been a clever, happy child before the war. She was very close to her mother, whose long, narrow face and dark eyes she had inherited. Her father, a chemist, had worked for a factory that was closed by the Germans when they took over Warsaw, and died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis. Within a year, her older sister and mother were dead of typhus.

    Before she died, the mother had told Samuel to take care of Giena, and for a while he did the best he could. During the day, while he went to work in a furniture factory, he left her with an aunt whose family shared their apartment. But before long his aunt began to complain that she had too many mouths to feed, that he would have to make other arrangements for Giena. By chance, Samuel had made friends with the wife of Abraham Gepner -an influential member of the Judenrat and a former philanthropist of the Orphans Home-when he went to their apartment with Hashomer Hatzair material. She invited him for lunch there once a week. Learning of his problem in caring for his sister, she offered to speak to Stefa about taking her.

    When Stefa saw the gaunt child, her grief-stricken dark eyes sunken into her face, her hand clutching her brother's, she couldn't help embracing Giena. She assured Samuel that Giena would thrive at the orphanage, where she'd have playmates and a regular routine. Giena clung to her brother as he left, and cried and had nightmares for weeks. But then she adjusted to her new home and made friends. She was especially close to Stefa but seldom saw Korczak, who was out most of the day.

    Every Saturday, Samuel came to visit Giena, bringing some little present or food. Sometimes they'd walk through the ghetto back to his room, and once she even invited another girl to join them. He noticed that she was developing both mentally and physically that year, was more serious and better dressed than the other ghetto children. She told him about her friends, the games they played. And she wanted to hear about him-she was worried because he looked thin. How was his work going? Occasionally they talked about what it would be like after the war. She didn't understand the danger, but sensed that people did not have too much hope."If we are still alive," she would preface her remarks, as if it were natural for a child to use such a qualification for future plans.

    Time, like everything else in the ghetto, had run amok. The past was intruding into the present. The only public transportation now was horse-drawn trams like those Korczak had ridden in his youth. Carriages and automobiles had been replaced by pedicabs-bicycles with small seats attached for passengers.

    At first Korczak had avoided the pedicabs, which reminded him of the rickshaws he'd seen in Harbin during the Russo-Japanese War. He had used a rickshaw only once, and then under orders. He knew that an emaciated pedicab man could not live more than three years-a strong one, perhaps five. But as it became more difficult for him to get around on his swollen legs, he began to rationalize: "One must help the pedicab men make a living. Better I than two fat profiteers with packages in the bargain." He never got over his discomfort when he tried to pick out the healthier, stronger-looking ones, and hated himself for his "noble superiority" when he gave them fifty groszy extra. Unlike the "quarrelsome, noisy, and spiteful" droshky drivers ofprewar days, the pedicab men were "gentle and quiet, like horses or oxen."

    Four months after taking over the directorship of the Dzielna Street orphanage, Korczak was still struggling with the staff. He incurred everyone's. "shock and disgust" by pointedly shaking hands with the charwoman while she was scrubbing the stairs, and frequently "forgetting" to shake hands with them. No matter how much they hated each other, when it came to a vote on anything he wanted, they closed ranks against him. Their implicit message: Don't meddle in our affairs. You're a stranger, an enemy. Even if you suggest something useful, it won't work, and will ultimately do more harm than good.

    They proved formidable opponents, going so far as to inform the Gestapo that Janusz Korczak had not reported a case of typhus-a crime that carried the death penalty. He had to rush around to high contacts to clear himself When one of the devoted nurses, Miss Wittlin, died of tuberculosis during that period, he reflected that "the salt of the earth dissolves-the manure remains." One day in late M ay, Korczak had to collect a donation at No. 1 Gryzbowska, the last building before the ghetto wall. A Jewish policeman had been killed there by the Germans only the day before while signaling to smugglers. "That's not a place for wholesale business," a neighbor commented. The stores were closed. People were scared. Just as Korczak was about to enter the building, he was stopped by the janitor's assistant.

    &Pan Doctor, don't you remember me?" Korczak paused-his visual recall, always poor, was almost nonexistent those days. "Wait, of course, Bula Szulc."
    "
    You do remember . . ."
    "
    Ah, only too well. Come over here and tell me about yourself"
    They sat down on the steps of the All Saints Church, which served the converts in the ghetto.
    "
    Szulc is f orty by now" Korczak was thinking. "Not long ago, he was ten." Like so many others on this street, he was engaged in smuggling.
    "I have a child," Szulc said proudly. "
    Come and have some cabbage soup with us. You can see him." "I'm tired. I'm just on my way home." As they sat there talking for about half an hour, Korczak was aware of the "discreet glances" of the "shocked" Catholic converts who recognized him. Critical as they were ofJews-the converts, though themselves forced to wear armbands, were known to be anti-Semitic-he could imagine what they were thinking: "There's Korczak sitting on the church steps in broad daylight with a smuggler. The children must need money badly. But why so openly and, however you look at it, shamelessly? It's a provocation. What would the Germans think if they saw this? Yes, the Jews are brazen and irritating."

    Meanwhile, Szulc was bragging about how well he could feed his child.

    "In the morning he has half a pint of milk, a roll and butter. That costs a pretty penny."
    "
    Why do you do it?"
    "
    So he'll know he has a father."
    "
    Is he a rascal?"
    "
    Why not? He's my son."
    "
    And your wife?"
    "
    A wonderful woman."
    "
    Do you quarrel?"
    "
    We've been together five years and I haven't raised my voice to her once."
    "
    Do you still remember us?"

    A trace of a smile passed over Szulc's face. "I think about the Orphans Home often. Sometimes I dream of you and Miss Stefa."
    "
    Why didn't you ever visit during all those years?"
    "
    When I was well off, I had no time. When i was down and out, how could I come-ragged and dirty?"

    Szulc helped Korczak to his feet. As they kissed heartily, Korczak was thinking: "He's too honest for a crook. Perhaps the orphanage sowed some good seed in him, or trimmed something down." The following day most of "the Thirteen" were liquidated. The rea- sons were never clear. One Gestapo unit was believed to be wiping out the agents of its rival; somehow Gancwajch escaped. Smugglers like Szulc would be targeted the following month.

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