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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Yesterday's Rainbow

    On July 21, the night before his sixty-fourth birthday, Korczak was sitting up in bed writing in his diary. According to the Jewish calendar, this was the eve of the Ninth of Av, the most tragic moment in the history of the Jews, when one laments the destruction of the First and Second Temples. But if Korczak was aware of this, or that the ghetto was on the brink of ultimate disaster, he did not mention it in the diary.

    He was reminiscing about his family-how annoyed his mother had been that his father had delayed registering his birth, how Grandfather Hirsh, after whom he was named, had given his father and the other children Christian as well as Hebrew names. The thought that his greatgrandfather, the glazier, spread warmth and light gave him comfort now. Writing about his beginnings, he was brooding about his end: "It is a difficult thing to be born and to learn to live. Ahead of me is a much easier task: to die. After death it may be difficult again, but I'm not bothering about that. The last year, month, or hour."

    After almost two years in the ghetto, Korczak's body was giving way to the physical and emotional strain. He knew that he couldn't hold out much longer, but he worried about how to take leave ofthe orphans, who unlike him had not been meditating on death as the natural ending to human life. He hoped that he had given them the spiritual strength to meet whatever destiny awaited them. For himself, he wrote: "I should like to die consciously, in possession of my faculties. I don't know what I should say to the children by way of farewell. I would want to make clear to them only this-that the road is theirs to choose freely. "

    At ten that night he heard several shots outside his blacked-out window. But he didn't stop writing. "On the contrary. it (a single shot) concentrates the mind."

    On July 22, 1942, the morning of Korczak's birthday, Chairman Czerniakow rose early as usual to arrive at his Judenrat office by seventhirty. En route, he was surprised to see that the borders of the Small Ghetto were surrounded by units of Polish police, and by Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Latvian support troops, in addition to regular guards.

    He expected the worst by the time ten top SS officers charged into his office, led by SS Major Hermann Höfle, who had directed the liquidation of the Lublin ghetto. They ordered the telephone disconnected, and the children removed from the playground across the street. Unlike the Germans who had been giving Czerniakow the runaround the day before, Höfle was brutally frank with him and the other Council members:
    "
    Today begins the evacuation of the Jews from Warsaw. You know that there are too many Jews. To you, the Judenrat, I entrust the carrying out of the task. Should you neglect to acquit yourself satisfactorily, you will all hang from the same rope."

    The Judenrat was then informed that all Jews, irrespective of sex and age - except for Council members, their families, and essential service units-were to be deported to the East. By four that afternoon, Czerniakow was to see that six thousand people were at the Umschlagplatz, a large loading area just north of the ghetto, where freight trains were waiting to transport them to their destination.

    Until then, Czerniakow had complied with everything asked of him. But when the Germans told him to sign the deportation announcement to be posted in the ghetto, for the first time in his career as Chairman he refused to put his name on an official document. Realizing now that the Judenrat members (Abraham Gepner, among others) imprisoned in Pawiak the day before had been seized as hostages to make him cooperate, he requested their release. it was granted, as well as exemption for Jewish Self-Aid personnel, cemetery administrators, garbage collectors, postoffice employees, and tenant committees.

    However, when Czerniakow asked for the exemption of children in the orphanages and other institutions, he was told only that it would be taken under advisement. In the meantime, the Judenrat was responsible for seeing that the two thousand members of its police force delivered their required quotas to the trains every day. At the first sign ofresistance, Czerniakow's wife would be shot.

    As if it were an ill omen of what was to follow, Korczak woke that morning of his birthday to discover that Arzylewicz, the old tailor, was dead. He hardly had time to react when a message came that the Gestapo had ordered the hospital adjoining the Umschlagplatz evacuated. Over fifty convalescent children were to be transported to the already overcrowded Dzielna Street orphanage. He rushed out, determined to pre- vent it.

    By noon the ghetto was in turmoil - cattle cars had been sighted on the railroad sidings down by Stawki Street, next to the Umschlagplatz. Refugee centers and prisons were being closed, their emaciated inhabitants carried away, screaming and wailing, along with the street beggars, in the horse-drawn carts that would come to be known as death wagons.
    "
    The rumble of wagons and clopping of horses' hooves on the cobbled streets-that was how it all began!" is the way one survivor described that first day.

    Deportation notices, issued from the Judenrat office, but without the Chairman's signature, appeared on wallboards throughout the ghetto. People spilled out of their apartments to read them. Resettlement in the East! What did it mean? Every deportee was permitted to carry seven pounds of luggage, including cash, valuables, and provisions for three days. Those failing to comply with this edict were liable to the death penalty.

    The Jews of Warsaw read and reread the terse announcement. Nowhere did it mention their destination. The only exemptions, other than the Judenrat, its many agencies, and all hospital personnel, were those working in German factories. Immediately there was a frantic crush of people trying to find jobs in any kind of factory that issued work permits. There were, at the same time, some Jews actually relieved to be getting out of the ghetto: no place, they reasoned, could be much worse than where they were. They needed to believe that wherever they were being resettled, they might manage to survive until the war was over.

    Korczak no doubt stood in the crowds reading the deportation notices, watching the wagons carry the first deportees off to the trains, but he didn't describe the hysteria in the ghetto when he turned to his diary that night. Instead, he vented his rage on a "brazen, shameless" woman doctor who had transferred fifty convalescent children from the emptied hospital next to the Umschlagplatz to his Dzielna Street shelter. A ven- detta had been going on between the two of them for the past six months- she had " stooped to every conceivable outrage against the patients for the sake of convenience, through obstinacy or stupidity," and now she had overruled his objections that the overcrowding would be harmful to all the children. The young patients had been admitted on her orders when he wasn't there. "To spit on the floor and clear out," he wrote. "I've been considering this idea for a long time. More-a noose, or lead weights on the feet."

    One marvels at what Korczak did not write in his diary. Rather than accept his powerlessness to alter the events of that day, he did battle where he could. The death of the old tailor, whose "aggressive and provocative behavior" he had tried to ignore that past year, was a footnote to things left unsaid. Looking over at the empty bed, he wrote: "Oh, how hard it is to live, how easy to die!"

    By confiscating Adam Czerniakow's car on July 23, the second day of the deportation, the Gestapo effectively stripped the Chairman of still another vestige of his authority. But he was relieved to learn that his request for the exemption of vocational-school students and husbands of working wives had been granted. As for sparing orphans and pupils of craft schools, he was told to appeal directly to a higher official.

    Sitting at his desk in the Judenrat that afternoon, Czerniakow ruminated on the information he had received that the deportation proceedings were to take place seven days a week. Opening his diary, he wrote what was to be his last entry: "A great rush to start new workshops throughout the ghetto. A sewing machine can save alife. It is three o'clock. So far, four thousand are ready to go. The orders are that there must be nine thousand by four o'clock."

    While he was having supper at home that evening, Czerniakow was summoned back to his office to meet with two SS officers on the deportation staff. Stripped of his car, he was forced to take a pedicab for the first time. In the course of the brief meeting he was told that no exceptions would be made for orphans. Being unproductive, they had to be deported.

    When the Germans left, the Chairman sat in his chair, a broken man. For almost three years he had tried to fulfill every Gestapo command, hoping that by compliance the Jews would make themselves indispensable to the Nazi war effort, however long it lasted. He had compromised more than one principle for the sake of the ghetto, but he drew the line at cooperating in the evacuation of its children. He rang for the night clerk and asked for a glass of water. She saw that he was as white as a sheet. His hands were trembling as he took the glass. Attempting a smile, he dismissed her with "Thank you" -his last words.

    Like Korczak, Czerniakow kept poison available. He had twentyfour tablets of potassium cyanide locked in his drawer, one for each member of the Council should they ever be asked to do anything that went against their conscience. That moment had arrived for him. He wrote two notes. In one, he asked his wife to forgive him for leaving her, and to understand that he could not do otherwise. In the other, he explained to his fellow Judenrat members that he was unable to hand over helpless children to the Germans. He hoped that they would not see his suicide as an act of cowardice. He could no longer bear what was happening.

    Shortly afterwards, the cashier, who was working in another part of the building, was surprised that no one answered the incessant ringing of the phone in the Chairman's office. Opening the door cautiously, he found Adam Czerniakow dead in his chair.

    That night the Gestapo ordered an emergency meeting of the Judenrat to elect a new Chairman. In the early morning hours there was a hasty burial ceremony for Czerniakow, with only his wife, a few Council members, and close friends like Janusz Korczak in attendance. In his eulogy, Korczak said: "God gave Adam Czerniakow the important task of protecting the dignity of the Jews. Now that he is dead, he will return his body to the earth and his soul to God, along with the gift of protecting his people, knowing that he has completed his task." The people of the ghetto, already in a state of terror, were not sure what to make of the news of Czerniakow's suicide. Many felt that the Chairman had failed the Jews by not leaving them some clear message. Marek Edelman, who would survive the Ghetto Uprising the following year, reproached Czerniakow for making his death his own private business. But others saw for the first time the heroic quality of this ordinary man (so often accused of"nonleadership") who, after the German invasion, had chosen to give up a visa to Palestine to serve his community, for no salary and at great personal risk. Chaim Kaplan, always critical of the Chairman in the past, acknowledged in his diary that while some people achieve immortality in an hour, Czerniakow achieved it in an instant.

    If the Chairman's suicide was not enough to persuade the majority of Jews that resettlement meant death, it certainly made them even more apprehensive of the journey. Since the "nonproductive elements" were those slated to go, there was a new surge of people looking for jobs in the hundreds of "shops" that sprang up overnight. When not enough people took up the Nazi offer of three kilograms of bread and one kilogram of marmalade in return for volunteering for the trains, the Germans put increasing pressure on the Jewish police to see that the cattle cars were filled. The desperate Jews were now in the position ofbeing hunted down by their own police, equally desperate to fill their quotas. Work permits were no longer enough to save one in the daily street blockades. Families were dragged from their hiding places. Anyone who resisted was shot. Stores were closed. There was no smuggling. No food. No bread. No one dared venture outside without a purpose.

    During those first chaotic days, Giena's brother Samuel didn't know what to do. Hearing rumors that the orphanages would not be touched because the Germans had decided not to bother resettling children who weren't strong enough to work, he wanted to believe that his sister was safe, but his mother's pale face kept appearing in his dreams, asking:
    "
    Where's Giena?"

    What could he do about his sister? If he brought her to his room, how would she manage while he was working in the furniture factory or attending underground meetings at night? He had rented a room in the apartment of an elderly couple, but he hardly knew them. What would Giena do during the day? Wouldn't she be frightened and lonely without her friends? She was clever and precocious for her ten years, but she was still only a child. And how would he feed her? . Bread was scarce and expensive. He had no money left, just a few pieces of their mother's jewelry. But who would trade bread f or such things now?

    On July 26, the fifth day of resettlement, Samuel decided to keep Giena with him. Taking time off from work, he made his way to the orphanage warily, lest he be seized while passing through an area where an Aktion was taking place. He found Giena playing with two other children in the large downstairs room of the orphanage. The atmosphere of the house had changed in those few days since deportations began. The children looked grim and complained of being hungry. Giena led him to Stefa, and then slipped away to finish her game.

    After hearing Samuel's request, Stefa acknowledged that he had a right to do what he thought best. But she wanted him to know that she had been discouraging family members who rushed over with the same intention. Not only did she and Korczak feel that the children were safer with them- even the Judenrat believed that the Gestapo would not touch an orphanage as famous as this one-but it was not good for the morale of the home if some children left. The staff had voted to stay no matter what. She suggested that he talk to Giena before making a final decision. Usually when a child was withdrawn, he or she could not be readmitted, but in Giena's case Stefa was willing to make an exception.

    Samuel walked with Giena into the small courtyard between the two houses. Sitting on a bench there, he told her again how he had promised their mother to protect her, and wondered if they shouldn't be together now that people were being sent to an unknown destination. He admitted that he was worried about leaving her alone when he was at work.

    Giena had also been wondering what to do. Two of her best friends had already been withdrawn by relatives, but she didn't want to leave the orphanage. She was afraid of the crowds of people on the street and of the thought of waiting alone for him in an unfamiliar building. Still, she gave in to Samuel's pressure that they be together during this period.

    As it turned out, Samuel' s fears about his sister being frightened and lonely were confirmed that next week. Giena was terrified each morning when he left for the factory, and tearful when he returned. She missed her friends, and especially Stefa. After a few days she pleaded with him to let her return to the orphanage.

    Samuel was tempted to tell her that the orphanage could be in danger because the Nazis were not known for sparing children, and that some members of the underground feared that resettlement meant death. But he couldn't. What use would this information be to a child when even adults were helpless and confused? Seeing Giena's sad expression, Samuel wondered if she didn't suspect the worst. Perhaps all the children did. He took her back to the orphanage, and felt a catch in his throat as he watched her embrace Stefa. He left immediately, knowing that if he lingered he would not be able to hold back his tears. Stooping down to kiss Giena's eyes, which so resembled those of their mother, he dashed out quickly without looking back.

    For three days after Czerniakow's death, Korczak avoided his diary. When he turned to it again on July 27, he did not mention the suicide of this friend who had been one of his main supports. "Yesterday's rainbow," he began the entry. "A marvelous big moon over this camp of homeless pilgrims. Why can't I calm this hapless, insane quarter?" Even now he gave no details of the deportations: how every day whole blocks of people were forced out of their buildings, herded together, and driven with whips through the streets to the Umschlagplatz. Rather, with bitter irony, he tried to fathom this "lucid plan" of the Germans by writing a speech for someone very like the mad colonel in his play Senate of Madmen:

    Declare yourself, make your choice. We do not offer easy roads. No bridge playing for the time being, no sunbathing, no delicious dinners paid for with the blood of smugglers . . . We're mnning a gigantic enterprise. Its name is war. We work in a planned, disciplined manner, methodically. Your petty interests, ambitions, sentiments, whims, claims, resentments, cravings, do not concern us.
    Jews, go East No bargaining. It is no longer a question of a Jewish grandmother, but ofwhere you are needed most-your hands, your brains, your time, your life.
    We are the Germans. It is not a question of the trademark, but of the cost, the destination of the products. We are the steam shovel . . . we may feel sorry for you at times, but we must use the whip, the big stick or pencil, because there must be order . . .
    The Jews have their merits. They have talent, and Moses, and Christ, and Heine, and Spinoza, and progress, and yeast, and pioneers, and generosity, and are a hard-working ancient race. All true. But besides the Jews, there are other people, and other issues.
    The Jews are important, but later-you will understand someday . . . You must listen, my friend, to History's program speech about the new chapter.

    Could one ever understand this particular program? One could only hold on to the program that had informed one's own life. "WHY DO I CLEAR THE TABLE?" he now wrote in large block letters across the page:

    I how that many are dissatisfied with my clearing the table after meals. Even the kitchen crew seems to dislike it Surely they can manage. There are enough of them. If there were not, one or two could always be added . . . Even worse, if anyone comes to see me on important business- I tell him to wait, saying: "I am occupied now."

    What an occupation: picking up soup bowls, spoons, and plates.

    But worse still is that I do it clumsily, get in the way while the second helping is being passed. I bump against those sitting tightly packed at the tables. Because of me, he cannot lick clean his soup plate or the tureen. Someone may even lose his second helping.

    No one has asked him: "Why do you do it? Why do you get in the way?" but he decides to explain anyway.

    When I collect the dishes myself I can see the cracked plates, the bent spoons, the scratches on the bowls . . . Sometimes I watch how the extras are distributed, or who sits next to whom. And I get some ideas. For ifI do something, I never do it thoughtlessly. This waiter's job is of great use to me, pleasant and interesting.
    But this is not important . . . My aim is that in the Orphans Home there should be no clean or dirty work, no purely physical or purely mental workers.

    To someone opening Korczak's diary at random, it might seem bizarre that this great educator went on for pages about why he cleared the table at the very moment when the Warsaw Ghetto was in the process of being swept away. But that was his way of transcending the evil around him: the rituals and order of the past were the only ballast he had to hold his little republic firmly to its moorings.

    When Esterka Winogron, Korczak's devoted assistant who had directed. The Post Office, was seized in one of the early Aktions, Korczak, disregarded his own safety and rushed about the ghetto trying to find someone with influence who could save her.
    "
    Where was she picked up?" he was asked.
    He didn't know. He only knew that he had to locate her among the thousands of people herded together in the Umschlagplatz before she was shoved onto one of the trains. It might already be too late.

    Summoning up what little strength he had left, he made his way past German and Ukrainian soldiers, past Jewish police, past the deserted shops and apartment houses with their smashed windows, pressing himself against a wall when a German barked at him to get out of the way of the next contingent of victims being escorted past by whips and dogs. They did him a "favor," since, roaming about, he might be hit by a stray bullet. This way he could "stand safely against the wall, and observe and think-spin the web of thought. Yes, spin the web of thought."

    He thought how Esterka used to confide to him that she did not want to live frivolously or easily after the war, but "dreamed ofa beautiful life." He moved on, intent only on finding her, as if, in some magical way, by saving her, he could save them all. When a young Pole at the police box by the gate to the Umschlagplatz asked him kindly how he had managed to run the blockade, Korczak turned on his old charm, and inquired if the policeman could not possibly "do something" for Esterka. There were instances when a bribe had persuaded a Jewish, Polish, or even German police officer to pull someone out of the cordoned-off area to safety. "You know very well I can't, " was the polite reply.

    "Thanks for the kind words," Korczak heard himself saying, knowing that his gratitude for being spoken to humanly was the "bloodless child of poverty and degradation."

    Tormented by his inability to save Esterka, he tried to console himself that they would meet later "somewhere else." He may have meant this literally, or he may have been referring to that land "beyond the stars" where Amal had gone. He was not even sure that he would be doing her a service if he did manage to bring her back to the ghetto. "Perhaps it is not she but we who have been caught (having stayed), " he wrote in the diary.

    A few days later he, too, was caught. Stella Eliasberg would recall Korczak pounding on her door one afternoon and falling into the room. When he was able to speak, he told her that he had just been seized by an SS commando during an Aktion and hurled onto a death wagon. He only escaped being taken off to the Umschlagplatz because he was recognized by a Jewish policeman, who helped him down. As he was limping away with his cane, the German shouted at him to come back, but he pretended not to hear. Korczak stayed at Stella's apartment for four hours, waiting for the Aktion to end, apologizing all the while for boring her with his story. And then he limped his way back to the orphanage.

    The appearance of the quarter was changing from day to day, he informed the diary :

      1. A prison
      2. A plague-stricken area
      3. A mating ground
      4. A lunatic asylum
      5. A casino. Monaco. The stake - your head.

    Giena's brother managed to visit her a few times in the late afternoon by waiting until the roundups were over for the day. The Germans had removed the Jewish police from this duty, and were depending on the brutal Latvian and Ukrainian troops to force the deportees to the trains. Stefa admitted she was no longer confident about the security of the orphanage, but she could still assure Samuel that, no matter what happened, the staff would not abandon the children.

    During what was to be his last visit with Giena, Korczak passed by- "a bent old man with a short white beard." He scrutinized Samuel briefly, asked how he was managing, and moved on; he left communicating with family members to Stefa. Giena tried to be cheerful with her brother. She talked about the books she was reading rather than her hunger. However, when he was about to leave, she threw her arms around him, whispering, "Take care of yourself, for my sake."

    On Saturday morning, August 1, Korczak's bed felt so soft and warm that he had a hard time getting up. For the first time in thirty years he was not interested in the results of weighing the children. "They ought to have put on a bit of weight," he told himself, while wondering why they were given raw carrots for supper the night before. He closed his eyes again and considered writing a monograph on the feather bed.

    But he had to get up, if not to weigh the children, then to deal with Adzio, a "retarded, maliciously undisciplined" boy. Not wanting to expose the house to the "danger of his outbursts," Korczak had already written to the Jewish police to take him away. As in prewar days, the equilibrium of the community came first.

    One wonders where Korczak thought the police would send Adzio other than to the Umschlagplatz for "resettlement in the East." Following his diary entry about Adzio, he records with satisfaction that he has managed to get a ton of coal for the Dzielna Street orphanage. Even as the trains were taking thousands of Jews every day to their unknown destination, he was preparing for the winter.

    For the past week he had been talking to his Judenrat friend Abraham Gepner about converting his two orphanages into factories to sew German uniforms or whatever was needed. He was hoping that if the children could prove themselves useful they would be allowed to remain where they were. Gepner was still a powerful man in the ghetto -"the heart and soul of the Provisions Unit," Czerniakow had once called him-and if anyone could set up the shops, he could. "Korczak deluded himself to the end that the factories would save the children," Stella Eliasberg was to recall. "That's why he wanted everything to go on as usual, so as not to unnerve the children and create panic. But as it turned out, there was not even time to set up one shop."

    Korczak may have been trying to keep one step ahead of the Germans, but he no longer had the power to ward off the demoralization that was affecting everyone. "Why, what I'm experiencing did happen," he told the diary. "it did happen. They sold their belongings-for a liter of lamp oil, a kilogram of groats, a glass of vodka." The whole ghetto had become one vast pawnshop. And everything the civilized world had always taken for granted-faith, family, motherhood-was being debased.

    Each day brought so many "strange and sinister experiences" that he had completely ceased to dream. He read the memoirs of Marcus Aurelius to calm himself; he also practiced indian meditation, which he seems to have been familiar with. One night, realizing that it had been a long time since he had "blessed the world," he tried. It didn't work. He didn't even know what went wrong. He had sat breathing deeply until he felt diffused with purifying vibrations, but when he lifted his hands for the blessing, his fingers went slack; no energy flowed through them.

    Reviewing his life in those early dawn hours, it seemed that everything had ended in failure:

      My share in the Japanese war. Defeat - disaster.
      In the European war - defeat - disaster.
      In the World War . . .
      I don't know how or what a soldier of a victorious army feels . . .

    Julek had taken the place of the old tailor in the bed next to his. The boy had pneumonia and breathed with difficulty like the old tailor. he moaned and thrashed about with the same " selfish and theatrical desire" to get attention. Not until Julek had his first quiet night in a week was Korczak able to get some sleep.

    Korczak woke at five-thirty in the morning on August 5 to find the sky overcast. Seeing Hanna already up, he said:
    "
    Good morning."
    She responded with a look of surprise.
    "
    Smile, " he pleaded.
    She gave him a "pale, tubercular smile."
    Hanna, like all the children, was hungry. Bread, that staple of life, was nonexistent. Korczak's anger now seemed mixed with resignation and sorrow as he petitioned God:

      Our Father who art in heaven . . .
      This prayer waS carved out of hunger and misery.
      Our daily bread.
      Bread.

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