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Janusz Korczak Biography

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The Post Office

    The first of July would go down in history as the Night of Slaughter, but it was no worse than the nights that followed as smugglers were gunned down along the walls, on the streets, in the courtyards and apartment houses. The slaughter continued through the first halfof July until it seemed there could not be a smugglerleft alive. The acute food shortage, especially of bread, suggested that probability; smugglers had been the lifeline supplying the ghetto with basic necessities, and that line was now severed.

    Shortly after the Night of Slaughter, Korczak recorded his last daydream in Strange Happenings. He dedicated it to one of the youngest boys in the orphanage, Szymonek Jakubowicz. If ever he needed superhuman power to save Szymonek and the other children, it was now. And so he created an auxiliary planet, called Ro, as a refuge. The astronomer who lived on it, Professor Zi, could do what the Old Doctor only dreamed of: convert heat radiation into moral power on his "astropsychomicrometer." This original contraption was a cross between a telescope and a radio -but instead of music or war communiqu‚s, it transmitted spiritual rays. It was so advanced that it could even project pictures onto a screen and record vibrations like a seismograph.

    Professor Zi could bestow order and tranquillity everywhere except- and this was his great sorrow - on "that restless spark, Planet Earth." As he sat in his laboratory brooding about the disquiet and disorder down there, he wondered "Should one put an end to this senseless, bloody game?"
    Earthlings were clearly incapable of finding joy in what they had or of working harmoniously in a collective effort. But to interfere would be to force them onto a road for which they were not sufficiently mature and toward a goal beyond their comprehension. To treat them like slaves, or to coerce them through violence, would be to behave as they did with each other.

    Professor Zi closed his eyes and sighed. He could see what the earthlings could not-that the space above them was filled with blue, with the fragrance of the lily of the valley, the sweetness of wine, and the gentle purity of winged flickerings.

    "Planet Earth is still young," he reminded himself "And all beginnings require a painful effort."

    Life went on as usual in the orphanage. The first Monday night in July, from eight to nine, Korczak gave his customary seminar, telling friends who asked to attend: "Anyone who wishes to come is welcome" as long as he doesn't interrupt. We provide food for the spirit, the only food we have."
    He offered his students a rich menu to choose from:

      1. The emancipation of women
      2. Heredity
      3. Loneliness
      4. Napoleon
      5. What is duty?
      6. The medical profession
      7. [Henri] Amiel's memoirs
      8. Reminiscences of a doctor
      9. London
      10. Mendel
      11. Leonardo da Vinci
      12. [Jean Henri] Fabre
      13. The senses and the mind
      14. The genius and his environment (mutual impact)
      15. The Encyclopedists
      16. How different writers worked
      17. Nationality. Nation. Cosmopolitanism
      18. Symbiosis
      19. Evil and malice
      20. Freedom. Destiny and free will

    Such a cerebral feast may have satisfied adult palates, but it had become increasingly difficult to entice the children with anything. Beneath their relatively normal appearance "lurked weariness, discouragement, anger, mutiny, mistrust, resentment, longing." The orphanage had turned into a "home for the aged" or a "sanatorium for rich, capricious patients attached to their ailments." Preoccupied with their temperatures, the children asked every morning:
    "
    What's mine today?" or "What's yours?"
    They competed to see who felt the worst, or had the worst night. When Leon fainted for the first time in his life, he became completely absorbed in trying to figure out the cause.

    Korczak encouraged all the orphans to keep a diary like his, hoping it would help them master their feelings. He let them read his in return for reading theirs-it was a matter of mutual respect. "I share mine with them as an equal," he told his diary. "Our common experiences-theirs and mine. Mine more diluted, watered down, otherwise the same."

    Yet the seriousness of their diaries hurt him. Marcel vowed to give fifteen groszy to the poor in thanks for the penknife he had found. Szlama wrote about a widow who sat home weeping as she waited for her smuggler son to bring something home from across the wall; she did not know that a German policeman "had shot him dead."

    Simon wrote:
    "
    My father fought every day to put bread on the table. Even though he was always busy, he loved me." Mietek wanted a binding for the prayer book that his dead brother had received from Palestine for his bar mitzvah. Sami bought some nails for twenty groszy and was counting his future expenses. Jakob had written a poem about Moses.

    Abus wrote:
    "
    If I sit a bit longer on the toilet, someone says I'm selfish. And i want to be liked by others."

    Korczak could sympathize with Abus after suffering the same humiliation at Pawiak. Here was one problem he could try to remedy, while at the same time solving the fly problem that plagued them. He announced that he had fixed a toilet-fee scale:

      1. For number one - catch five flies.
      2. For number two, second class (a bucket-stool-with-a-hole combination) - ten flies.
      3. First class (a toilet seat) - fifteen flies.

    When one of the boys asked, "May I catch the flies later? I can't wait," another responded, "You go on and do it, I'll catch them for you."
    "
    Does it count if a fly is hit but gets away?" another wanted to know.
    Not only were the children getting rid of the flies (each one caught in the infirmary counted for two), but they were showing "the mighty force of community goodwill."

    He knew he had to offer the children something more than diaries and fly-swatting to help them transcend their present suffering-something with which they could identify and take comfort. He found the solution in a play called The Post Office by the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. The text, about a dying child named Amal, an orphan whose nature was so pure that he enriched the lives of those who came in contact with him, could have been written by Korczak himself, so close was it to his style of fantasy and his feeling for children.

    Esterka Winogron, formerly a student of natural science at Warsaw University and now in the bursa, volunteered to direct the play. She was one of Korczak's favorites, having impressed him with her seriousness as she assisted him on his medical rounds of the orphanage. Auditions were held. The lead part of Amal was given to Abrasha, a popular boy who played the violin. Three weeks of rehearsals were scheduled, and the performance date set for Saturday, July 18.

    One afternoon, while the children were improvising makeshift sets and costumes, Nina Krzywicka, a Christian friend of Stefa's brother, stopped by the orphanage on her way to deliver food packages to her Jewish husband, who had chosen to live in the ghetto. She had also brought a little something for S tefa, although she knew of her aversion to receiving gifts. Trying to engage Stefa in conversation, Nina remembered the difficulties she'd had in the past: Stefa's answers were always direct and simple, and her questions concrete; only when she spoke about her brother Stash did she become animated. She told Nina that she was concerned because she hadn"t had any word from him for a long time. While they were chatting, Korczak ran out the door to scream at the employees of a neighboring restaurant who were disposing of bags of garbage in front of the orphanage. His face was beet red, his language vulgar. Embarrassed at seeing him in such a state, Nina left hastily.

    When she stopped by a week later, Nina was relieved to find Stefa smiling as she helped the children with last-minute details, yet she noticed this time how gray and wrinkled she had become. Korczak wandered over cordially to invite Nina to the play. He, too, looked old and tired -only his eyes were alive. As soon as he was out of earshot, Stefa said:

    "The doctor doesn't feel very well. I'm worried about him."

    Her tone of voice made Nina realize how much Korczak meant to her. The night before the play, disaster struck in the form of mass food poisoning that spread through the house. Korczak and Stefa stumbled about in near darkness with medicine for headaches and jugs of limewater for those who were vomiting and moaning with pain. The staff members were offered morphine-"sparingly."

    The boy whose mother had not wanted to die until he agreed to enter the orphanage became so hysterical that Korczak had to administer an injection ofcaffeine. inconsolable eVer since his mother's death, which had occurred shortly after he arrived at the home, the boy had exhibited bizarre behavior that Korczak interpreted as "pangs of conscience"; now, almost as if he were mimicking his mother's ordeal, the boy screamed, moaned, complained of pain, of feeling hot, of dying of thirst.

    Korczak paced the dormitory, afraid that this newcomer would make all the children hysterical. Although he knew that he should remain calm himself, he began shouting at the boy, even threatening to throw him out on the staircase if he didn't quiet down. "The decisive factor: he shouts; therefore, he is in command," he wrote sardonically in his diary.

    He kept careful records of all gastric upsets. That one night alone, the boys lost eighty kilograms among them; the girls somewhat less-sixty kilograms. He suspected the inoculation against dysentery that he had given them five days before, or the ground pepper that was added to the stale eggs in that night's dinner. "Not that much was needed to precipitate a disaster," he noted next to the statistics.

    Somehow the children were able to recover and pull themselves together in time for the performance at 4:30 the next afternoon. The large room on the first floor of the orphanage was filled with friends and colleagues intrigued by the invitations written in Korczak's unique style:

    We are not in the habit of promising anything we cannot deliver. We believe that an hour's performance of an enchanting tale by one who is both a philosopher and a poet will provide an experience - of the highest order of sensibility.

    Appended to the invitation, with which admission was free, were a few words by Korczak's friend, the young poet Wladyslaw Szlengel, who would gain posthumous fame after his death in the Ghetto Uprising:

      It transcends the test - being a mirror of the soul.
      It transcends emotion - being an experience.
      It transcends mere acting - being the work of children.

    The audience was riveted by the play. Amal, a gentle, imaginative boy who has been adopted by a poor couple, is confined to his room with a serious illness. Forbidden by the village doctor to go outside, he is shut in from the world of nature, like the orphans there on Sienna Street, awaiting an uncertain future. He longs to fly with time to that land which no one knows-a land, he is told by the Watchman, to which a doctor, greater than the one he has now, will lead him by the hand.

    Amal believes the Village Headman when he pretends to read the letter from the King, who promises to arrive soon with the greatest doctor in the land. No one is more surprised than the Headman and Amal's adoptive father when the King' s doctor suddenly appears in the darkened room.
    "
    What's this? How close it is in here!" the doctor exclaims.
    "
    Open wide all the doors and windows!"

    With the shutters open and the night breeze streaming in, Amal declares that all his pain has disappeared, that he can see the stars twinkling on the other side of the darkness. He falls asleep waiting for the arrival of the King himself, as the doctor sits by his bed in the starlight. To Amal's friend Sudah, the flower girl, who stops by and asks when he will awaken, the doctor replies: "As soon as the King comes and calls him."

    It was clear from the hushed silence at the end of the play that Korczak had succeeded in providing the adults as well as the children with a sense of liberation from their present lives. Whether one believed that the King whom Amal awaited was Death or the Messiah, or that Death was the Messiah (as Isaac Bashevis Singer would write in one of his novels), everyone felt momentarily lifted to some realm not only beyond the walls of the ghetto but beyond life itself.

    Asked why he chose that play, Korczak is reported to have said that he wanted to help the children accept death. In his diary he makes only a short notation about the afternoon: "Applause, handshakes, smiles, efforts at cordial conversation. (The chairwoman looked through the house after the performance and announced that though we are cramped, that genius Korczak has demonstrated that he can work miracles even in a rat hole.)" Then he added: "That is why others have been allotted palaces."

    The children had seemed so natural in their parts that he wondered what would happen if they were to continue in their roles the next day: If Jerzyk were to imagine he really was a fakir, Chaimek a real doctor, and Adek the lord mayor? "Perhaps illusions would be a good sub ject f or Wednesday's dormitory talk," he wrote. "Illusions, their role in the life of mankind." Then, having pondered illusions, he set off for reality-the Dzielna Street orphanage.

    A few hours before The Post Office was performed in Korczak's orphanage that Saturday, July 18, Chairman Czerniakow wrote in his diary. "A day full of foreboding. Rumors that the deportations will start on Monday evening." Czerniakow had been dutifully recording the ex- pulsions by train from other ghettos, but he did not speculate on where the trains had gone. (There was no organized Jewish intelligence network to verify rumors of the shooting of old people and children, or the gassing of thousands in camps called Belzec and Sobibor outside of Lublin.) When he noted that he had been ordered to send workers to build a "labor camp" outside the village of Treblinka, sixty miles to the north, he treated it as a routine operation. Wanting to believe that he could avert disaster in the ghetto if he did what was asked of him, he complied with the German demands as best he could, while building for the future with the opening of each new playground.

    Korczak could no longer find comfort in his daydreams. He woke each day to find himself. In "the district of the damned." For the last few weeks he had been busy on a new scenario he titled "Euthanasia."
    "
    The right to kill as an act of mercy belongs to him who loves and suffers- and to do away with himself if he no longer wants to stay alive," he wrote. "It will be this way in a few years."

    More than once "during the dark hours," Korczak had "pondered the killing (putting to sleep) of infants and old people in the ghetto." But he had abandoned the thought as "the murder of the sick and feeble, as the assassination of innocents." Medicine was still about dispensing life- not death. He recalled a nurse from a cancer ward telling him that she used to place a lethal dose of medicine by the bedside of her patients with the veiled message that if they took more than one spoonful, it would act as poison. Not a single patient had eVer reached for that fatal dose.

    And yet people in the ghetto took their own lives all the time, jumping from windows and slitting their wrists. The widow who had lived in the Zylberbergs' kitchen on Chlodna Street had swallowed pills, and he knew of couples who gave their parents poison to end their misery. What was needed was an acceptable system that gave one control over one's own destiny when life had lost its meaning: a plan that gave everyone the legal right to apply for death.

    Endless details had to be considered in working out the rules for the Death Application: the medical examination, consultation with a psychologist, perhaps a confession, perhaps psychoanalysis, the location where death would occur. Then, too, there had to be rules for how and when death was to be administered: while asleep, in a glass of wine, while dancing, to the accompaniment of music, suddenly and unexpectedly.

    Finally the moment arrived when the applicant was told: "Proceed to this or that place. There you will receive the death you applied for." Korczak couldn't decide whether there should be a rule enforcing the procedure if the person changed his mind. Should he say, "The death sentence must be carried out in one month, even against your will. You have signed an agreement, a contract with an organization, a deal with temporal life. So much the worse for you if you recant too late."

    He was "not joking,"in spite of the sometimes absurd tone of the plan. Although he meant to keep it within the confines of ironic speculation, the euthanasia project threatened to veer out ofcontrol. Memories of his mad father, of the unconsummated double suicide pact with his sister, and of the unpublished novel Suicide that he wrote at seventeen kept surfacing.

    "So I am the son of a madman," he writes in this final confession. "A hereditary affliction. More than twoscore years have gone by, and to this day the thought is at times a torment to me. But I am too fond of my idiosyncrasies not to be afraid that someone may try to treat me against my will."

    He took a week's break from the diary-from madness itself. But he returned to thoughts of euthanasia again and again as the events that followed threatened to drive him over the edge. Rumors that forty railroad cars were ready and waiting to deport everyone from the ghetto caused a new wave of panic. Chairman Czer- niakow drove through the streets of the entire quarter and visited three playgrounds in an effort to calm the population. "What it costs me they do not see," he wrote in his diary on July 19. "Today I took two headache powders, another pain reliever, and a sedative, but my head is still splitting. I am trying not to let the smile leave my face."

    The next morning Czerniakow went from one department to another at Gestapo headquarters to investigate the rumors personally. Although he didn't have access to the top echelon, he was told by the officials he contacted that they had heard nothing. He eventually reached the deputy chief of Section III, SS First Lieutenant Scherer, who expressed surprise, as had the others, at the rumors, especially the latest: that the trains were to be loaded that very night. When Czerniakow asked if he could tell the population that their fears were groundless, Scherer assured him that he could, that all the alarm was utter nonsense. Greatly relieved, the Chairman then ordered his aide to make a public announcement through the precinct police stations that, on investigation, the Judenrat had found that there was no substance to the deportation rumors.

    When word ofthe possible dissolution ofthe ghetto reached Korczak's friends on the Aryan side, they immediately took action. Maryna Falska, who was still hiding Jewish children under her roof, found a safe room for Korczak near her orphanage. Igor Newerly, who had managed to obtain an identity card with an assumed name for Korczak, went to the ghetto disguised as a water and sewer inspector, carrying papers to bring out a "locksmith" who was working there.

    it had been some time since Newerly's last visit to the ghetto, and he again experienced shock on seeing this sinister quarter of people "un- der the sentence of death," and a deep sense of humiliation and shame at being a "so-called Aryan." He found life going on as usual in the orphanage, although the children were quieter and slower in their movements. Korczak looked "ill, wasted, and stooped."

    Once again the two friends sat across from each other, and once again Newerly asked Korczak to accept his help. "I explained that this was the very last chance to save even a few from perishing," Newerly recalled. "There could be no postponement. if the doctor would close the or- phanage, some of the children and teachers would perhaps have a chance to escape to the other side. He had only to give the order and come away with me at once."

    Newerly would never forget Korczak's reaction. "He looked at me as though i had proposed a betrayal or an embezzlement. I wilted under his gaze, and he turned away, saying quietly, but not without reproach in his voice: 'You know, of course, why Zalewski was beaten.' " Newerly knew what Korczak meant. If Zalewski, the Catholic janitor at the Krochmalna Street orphanage, had risked his life trying to accompany Jewish orphans into the ghetto, how could Newerly propose that Korczak, their father and their guardian, leave them in order to seek his own safety? It was unthinkable.

    By way of farewell, and as a conciliatory gesture, Korczak told Newerly that should anything happen, he would send him the diary he had been working on for safekeeping. The two men shook hands, and parted again.

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