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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Strange Happenings

    It was the beginning of what Zylberberg would call "that dreadful summer. " There were children in the ghetto who could not remember ever having seen a tree or a flower. On the rare occasions when Korczak's Christian friends were able to send emissaries to find out what he needed, he always requested plants. "The children need something to be absorbed in," he would explain. "Taking care ofgeranium or petunia seedlings will help them forget their troubles."

    For Korczak, nature was a spiritual as well as a physical restorative. When the orphans began pining for the good old days at summer camp, he thought of the patch of green he had noticed in the garden of the All Saints Church while he sat on the steps with Szulc. Deciding that the priest might respond to an appeal from children to play there, he helped little Sami compose a letter-a poignant document that might well have been drafted by King Matt:

      We kindly request the Reverend Father to grant us permission to come a few times to the church garden on Saturday mornings, early if possible (6:30-10 a.m.). We long for a little air and greenery. It is stuffy and crowded where we are.
      We want to get to know and make friends with nature.
      We shall not damage the plants.
      Please don't refuse us.
      Zygmus, Sami, Abrasha, Hanka, Aronek

    The priest, Marceli Godlewski, an outspoken anti-Semite before the war, had once told Korczak: "
    We are a weak lot. For a glass of vodka, we sell ourselves into Jewish bondage." After the German occupation, he had a change of heart: he helped the converts who belonged to his church-which was just inside the ghetto border-and did what he could to assist Jews. There is no record as to how he responded to the children's request.

    Although Korczak and Czerniakow do not mention it in their diaries, these two men (whose friendship had grown out of their work in children's welfare in prewar days) must have discussed the need for all children to have some special place in which to let out pent-up emotions. And what is such a place but a playground? in May of 1942 the Chairman announced, with the same formality with which he disclosed programs for food and other means of survival, that the Judenrat would create a few small playgrounds where children could swing, slide, and do whatever children need to do. The first play area was constructed on a lot next to a bombedout house on Grzybowska Street, across from Czerniakow's office window. The work detail, made up of teachers, factory owners, cattle dealers, and businessmen -all ofthem recently deported from Germany-planted grass and built swings and slides with dedication and care. Sometimes Czerniakow had cigarettes distributed during their breaks; he confided to his fellow Council members that he wished the Polish Jews worked with such efficiency.

    Korczak was among the five hundred dignitaries who were invited to the opening ceremony at 9:30 on the morning of June 7 Members of the Judenrat were seated in an official box. Korczak sat with Zylberberg and the other guests in the warm sun listening to the background music of the Jewish police band while they waited for the proceedings to begin. Suddenly the band stopped; there was a hush. All eyes turned to the entrance of the playground, where Adam Czerniakow appeared in a white tropical suit and white pith helmet; everyone stood as the band broke into "Hatikvah" and the police escorted the Chairman and his wife to their seats. "What do you think of our king?" Korczak whispered to Zylberberg. "Not a bad performance."

    In his impassioned speech, which interpreters rendered from the Polish into Yiddish and Hebrew, Czerniakow urged everyone to make sure that the children survived those tragic times. Life might be hard, he said, but they couldn't give up-they had to keep planning and working. This was just the beginning: he was going to create playgrounds throughout the ghetto. Not only that, he was going to open a training institute for teachers and a ballet school for girls.

    When he finished, the band broke into a march and groups of school children and their teachers filed past the grandstand. Following the sing- ing, dancing, and gymnastics display, the children were handed little bags of molasses candy made in the ghetto. "The ceremony made a great impression on those present," the Chairman reported in his diary. "Balm for the wounds. The street is smiling!"

    Czerniakow also attempted to improve the deplorable conditions of thousands of young smugglers caught by the Germans and thrown into the overcrowded juvenile detention center. When the Chairman arranged for some of them to be brought to the playground, he was appalled to see that these so-called criminals, as the Nazis called them, were "living skeletons from the ranks of street beggars." inviting a few up to his office, he was deeply moved to have "eight-year-old citizens" speak to him like grownups. He gave each a chocolate bar and a bowl of soup. After they left, he wept as he had not done in a long time. But "one cannot wind one's watch with tears"-as he often said, quoting Dickens. He quickly pulled himself together, and resumed his work.

    Czerniakow wasn't disturbed that he was criticized for devoting so much energy to playgrounds at such a grim time. He could even joke about Jewish optimism: "Two Jews were standing in the shadow of the gallows. The situation is not hopeless, one said, 'they have no bullets'." But if he needed to believe that the situation wasn't completely hopeless, Czerniakow didn't deceive himself that it was good. He could identify with the ship captain in a film he had seen: "As the ship goes down, the captain, determined to keep up the spirits of his passengers, orders the orchestra to play jazz. i have made up my mind to emulate the captain."

    There were periods-such as those first two weeks in June-when Korczak could not will his arm to pick up a pencil or pen to make a diary entry. He told himself that it was because Henryk was too ill to do the typing, although he knew there were others who could take his place. On the nights when he had the energy to write, the hours passed quickly. One minute it was midnight, the next it was three in the morning. Occasionally he was interrupted by a child's cry. When Mendelek had a bad dream, Korczak carried the boy over to his bed and soothed him until he fell back to sleep. By the orphanage genealogy, Mendelek, the son of one of his orphans, was his "grandson."

    Korczak had his own "ghastly" dreams.
    One night: "
    The Germans, and I without an armband after curfew in Praga [the right bank of Warsaw]. I woke up. And another dream. On a train I am being moved, a meter at a time, into a compartment where there are already several Jews. Some had died that night. Bodies of dead children. One dead child in a bucket. Another one, skinned, lying on a plank in a mortuary, clearly still breathing. "

    The second dream had no doubt been inFluenced by the persistent rumors that the Lublin Jews who had been taken away by train had been massacred. How like his own orphans those skinned children must have seemed-virtually everything having been stripped away from them, and yet still alive and breathing-and how strong his unexpressed fears must have been that such a fate awaited them.

    That same night he had a third dream, about his father, which reveals his own hungers underneath his fierce commitment to nurturing the children. "I am standing high up on a wobbly ladder, and my father keeps pushing a piece of cake into my mouth, a big one with sugar frosting and raisins. Any crumbs that fall from my mouth, he stuffs into his pocket."

    He woke up in a sweat after all the dreams. "Isn't death such an awakening, at a point when there is no apparent way out?" he asked his diary. And then, with bitter humor: "Every man can surely find five minutes in which to die-I read somewhere."

    If he didn't try to interpret those dreams in which he was rendered helpless to save either himselfor his children, neither did he let them interfere with his daily struggle to resist the Germans and keep his children alive. And he still had his "daydreams" of omnipotence to turn to for power-power to transcend reality and soar over the ghetto wall. Those daydreams, which he had been developing for decades in his notebook labeled Strange Happenings, were now filled with maniacal fantasies about subduing a maniacal enemy:

    I invented a machine that resembled a microscope. (I even made a detailed design of the whole complicated mechanism.) The scale-l00. If I turned the micrometer dial to 99, everything that did not contain at least one percent of humanity would die. The amount of work was unbelievable. I had to determine how many people (living beings) would go out of circulation each time, who would take their place, and what would be the nature of this purged new world. After a year's deliberation (at night, of course), I got halfway through the distillation. Now the only people left were half-animal. All the others had perished. How minutely, to the last detail, I planned everything-the best proof being that I, myself, was completely excluded from this peculiar system. By a mere turn of the micrometer dial of my microscope, I could have taken my own life. What then? On reading over Part One of his diary at the end of June, Korczak was dismayed by its incoherence. it lacked the literary skill on which he had always prided himself Although he was aware that "in reminiscing we lie unconsciously" he worried that if he couldn't make sense of what he had written, no one else could. Was the problem in him, or in the autobiographical genre itself? "is it possible to comprehend someone else's memoirs, someone else's life? For that matter, is it possible to understand one's own remembrances?"

    He thought of trying to write the second part of the diary in the form of letters to his sister. But he got no further than "My dear . . ." because he recalled that the letter he had just written in response to hers had come out "cold, strange, and detached." A "great and painful misunder- standing, " which he did not elucidate, had come between them.

    Anna, who remains a shadowy figure, seems not to have been living in the ghetto at that time. Her letter had accused him of making social calls and bribing the police. He, in turn, felt hurt and misunderstood. "I don't make social calls. I go to beg for money, food supplies, information, a lead," he wrote, as if to her, in the diary. "It's arduous, degrading work. In my humble opinion, I carry out my duties to the best of my ability. I never refuse anyone if I can help it. The charge about bribing the police is unjust."

    Perhaps to regain her sympathy, he confided: "Reading as a form of relaxation has begun to fail me. A dangerous symptom. I am distracted, and that in itself worries me. I don't want to sink into idiocy. "

    The children, as always, had the power to restore him. The day after brooding about the incoherence of his diary, Korczak tried working on it in a classroom in the orphanage. He was transported by the earnestness of the two groups of students who had voluntarily given up games, entertaining books, and chats with friends to study Hebrew.

    "So. Da in Russian, Oui in French, Yes in English, Ken in Hebrew " he told the diary. "Enough to fill, not one lifetime, but three."

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