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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Which Way?

    Two years later, in the fall of 1898, Henryk -by then an intense young medical student of twenty with vivid blue-green eyes and reddish hair already thinning at the crown-seemed to have forgotten his determination to abandon writing. Hearing of a playwriting contest under the patronage of the famous pianist ignacy Paderewski, he submitted a fouract play entitled Which way? , about a deranged man whose madness destroyed his family. It won honorable mention (despite the judges´ reservations about its somber mood and lack of dramatic tension), but the play would not concern us did it not bear the pseudonym Janusz Korczak.

    Legend has it that Henryk learned at the last moment that he needed a pen name for the contest and took it hastily from the first book he saw on his desk: The Story of Janasz Korczak and the Swordbearer´s Daughter, by Poland´s most prolific historical novelist, Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski. The printer (it is said) made a mistake, and the name came out Janusz rather than Janasz. But, in reality, pseudonyms were not a contest requirement, and Henryk's decision to take the name of a Kraszewski character could not have been random chance. Uncle Jakub Goldszmit had dedicated his novel The Family Drama to Kraszewski with the emotional supplication: "Take me under your wing, Master, like an eagle protecting a fledgling bird!" The young playwright seems also to have been seeking shelter under the Master's wing.

    The noble character and courage of the fictional Janasz Korczak, a poor orphan of gentry lineage, must have appealed to Henryk, if not the contrived plot. A broken leg prevents Janasz from serving in the Battle of Vienna in 1863, but he does not let it prevent him from rescuing his beloved cousin, Jadwiga, and his uncle, the King´s swordbearer, from the enemy. Denied Jadwiga´s hand in marriage because he is only a poor relative, Janasz turns his fate around by patience, honesty, and selfcontrol, eventually winning Jadwiga and a place in the king´s court.

    Henryk might have assumed a pen name to protect the anonymity of his family-possibly even to change his luck. ( "I escaped from my youth as from a lunatic asylum ," he would tell an interviewer.) But it was also not chance that he chose a Polish one. In a country where one´s surname reveals one´s religious affiliation, Goldszmit was unmistakably a Jew, the outsider. With an old gentry name such as Janusz Korczak, Henryk could re-create himself as an insider, linked to a heroic Polish past.

    Still, it was not an easy transition. For the next six years, he did not sign Janusz Korczak to the hundreds of articles and feuilletons that flowed from his pen-some of them humorous observations on human behavior, others earnest essays on land reform, health insurance, pedagogy, women´s rights, the plight ofpoor children, and travel articles from Switzerland and France. Instead, he used fragments ofhis two selves: Hen, Ryk, Henryk, G., Janusz, or K.-as if he needed time to fully integrate his new identity. Only his medical articles in professional journals were consistently signed Henryk Goldszmit, as they would be for the rest of his life.

    Henryk´s friends wondered why he wanted to be a doctor when his literary career was going so well. When Leon Rygier, a fellow writer, encountered him in his blue medical uniform watching some children playing quietly near their nursemaids in Saxon Garden, he asked him just that.

    " Being a doctor didn´t interfere with Chekhov´s becoming a great writer ," Henryk replied. " It deepened his creative work. To write anything of value, one has to be a diagnostician. " (Much later he would say he owed most to Chekhov-a great social diagnostician and clinician.) " Medicine will give me insight into human personality, even into the nature of children´s play ," he continued. " See those children over there. Each one plays differently. I want to know why ." In response to Rygier´s comment that not all great writers were doctors, he conceded wryly that his decision might have been influenced by the fact that a literary career was too risky when one had a mother and sister to support. (He didn´t mention that both his paternal grandfather and his maternal great-grandfather were doctors.)

    Henryk had committed himself to a medical career, but he was impatient with his training. He considered most of his professors pompous, insensitive men who seemed detached from the suffering of their patients. As far as he could see, medical schools dehumanized doctors. Students were taught little more than "dull facts from dead pages," and when they finally received their degrees, they didn't know how to cope with sick people. His critical attitude toward the system did not go unnoticed by his professors, one of whom told him: " Hair will grow on the palm of my hand before you become a doctor. "

    Because of his extracurricular activities as a journalist and the mandatory hours of military training he had to put in oVer a two-year period, it took Henryk six years instead of the usual five to graduate. Even that was an achievement given that, like so many of his generation, he was caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the time. Poland was in transition from an agricultural society to an industrialized one, and Warsaw was rapidly changing as new factories were built and tens of thousands of peasants crowded into the slums in search of jobs that only a few would find. Successful writers devoted much of their time to championing the cause of workers and peasants. Stefan Zeromski´s novel Homeless People became a bible for Henryk and his friends; its protagonist, Dr. Judym, gave up love and personal happiness to serve the poor: " I am responsible! " he cried. " if I, a doctor, will not do it, who will? "

    Henryk was equally ready to sacrifice himself for the impoverished children he observed in the Warsaw streets. He saw them as the most disadvantaged proletariat of all because they had no one to represent them: " Unkempt boys in run-down shoes, shiny frayed pants, caps thrown carelessly on shorn hair, agile, slight, undisciplined, practically unnoticeable. Not yet burned out by the heat of life, not yet sucked dry by exploitation, no one knows where they manage to find strength, these active, silent, numerous, poor little workers of tomorrow. "

    The roguish little street beggars soon flocked to the medical student who was willing to listen to them. They besieged him with sad tales of hunger and abuse, while holding out their hands for whatever they could get. Other passersby brushed them off, but they knew that he would always have something for them, if only a piece of candy, an encouraging word, or a kiss on the forehead.

    A friend with whom Henryk was walking one day was amazed by an urchin who came running after them, shouting that he wanted to return the twenty kopecks he had received two years before. " I lied when I told you my father would kill me if I didn´t come home with the money i´d lost ," the boy confessed. " I´ve been looking for you a long time so I could give your money back. "
    As the child counted out the kopecks with his grubby little fingers, Henryk asked how many times he´d used that trick:

    " A lot."
    "Did it work?"
    "Most of the time."
    "Have you given the money back to the others, too?"
    "No."
    "Then why are you giving it back to me?"
    "Because you kissed me on the forehead. It made me feel sorry for what I did."
    "Was it so strange to have someone kiss you?"
    "Yes, my mother is dead. I don´t haue anyone to kiss me anymore."
    " But didn´t anyone tell you that it's not good to lie and beg?"
    "The priest told me it´s not good to lie, but he says that to everyone."
    " And was there no one else who cared enough to guide you?"
    "No one," says the boy, no longer able to hold back his tears. "I have no one."

    Henryk set down his encounters with these urchins, driven to lying and stealing by poverty and neglect, in a novel, Children of the Street. His message was that they could be saved only if they were reached through education in their early years. But who was to educate them? Certainly not their drunken, debauched parents, for no one had educated them. If the process weren't interrupted, the evil would be passed on.

    Not everyone appreciated his lofty ideas. When he wrote in Thorns: " I am a person concerned above all else with the problem of uplifting the lives of children, " the editor (who was concerned above all else with entertaining his readers) suggested he find another outlet for this preoccupation. From then on, Henryk published in Voice magazine, a sounding board for intellectuals who congregated around the Flying University.

    Henryk had met the editor of Voice, Jan Wladyslaw Dawid, Poland´s first experimental psychologist, when he attended his course at the Flying University. This underground college, so named because students and professors had to keep moving from one location to another to escape surveillance by the police, attracted the finest minds in the country. Though divided into two socialist factions-one advocating national independence and the other an international socialist alliance within the Russian empire-they were united in their determination to keep alive Polish history and culture, which the Czar was determined to stamp out. Those who were caught spent a few weeks, months, or even years in a prison cell, or in exile in Siberia.

    Henryk had been taken to his first lecture in Dawid´s apartment by his friend Leon Rygier. There were so many coats in the entrance hall they had trouble finding hooks for their own. Once inside the candlelit living room, whose shades were drawn to avoid detection by the police, he was introduced to other students and accepted tea from Dawid´s wife, Jadwiga Szczawinska, who presided over the samovar with the same energy she expended on all the projects in which she and her husband were involved.

    It was Jadwiga, a woman of formidable organizational ability, who, while still single, had started the Flying University in her small apartment to provide education for young women in Polish language and literature. When word spread about this remarkable clandestine venture, men clamored to be included; and by the mid-1880s there were over a thousand young students of both sexes enrolled in courses at various undergyound locations in Warsaw. Jadwiga even managed to set up an extensive scientific library for the university, but her domineering personality alienated many of the faculty. Her husband, who was known to "fight like David with Goliath" over issues he believed in, was said to be powerless when it came to Jadwiga.

    The secret gatherings of the Flying U niversity provided social as well as academic opportunities. Zofia Nalkowska, a precocious fifteen-year-old who wanted to be an emancipated woman (and who would become a wellknown novelist), kept a diary of the sessions at the Dawids. apartment during the time that Korczak was there. in one entry she notes that the girls were really dressed up, but that she looked as attractive as any of them in her brown dress, which gave her a good figure. She tried to concentrate on what Dawid was saying, but sometimes found herself glancing over at the boy with the nice smile who had asked to borrow her notes.

    Zofia was not alone in her criticism of the "wise and clever" professor´s dry , factual delivery, yet Dawid's reputation as a mumbler who wrote much better than he spoke did not prevent students from flocking to his courses. He had studied in Leipzig with the founder of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt, and his lectures were filled with the radical ideas in education that were sweeping both sides of the Atlantic at the time: ideas that called for liberating the child from the conventional restraints of the past. Rousseau had paved the way for this pedagogical breakthrough in 1762 with his fictional Emile, a boy who was encouraged to grow and develop naturally. And Johann Pestalozzi, working with real children in his famous boarding school set up in 1805 in Yverdon, laid the foundation for progressive education.

    Korczak considered Pestalozzi one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century. Many of his later ideas on education, the dignity of work, and the importance of observing clearly in order to think clearly, reflect the influence of that dedicated Swiss educator. But it was Dawid´s experiments with measuring the psychological responses of children at different ages-work that anticipated the field of child development- that made Henryk decide to do scientific research on the child that would exclude everything that "smacked of subjectivity."

    Already the two sides of Henryk´s character were jockeying for position: the scientist would always be suspicious of the artist, keeping him in check by compiling height and weight charts-material that the artist would seldom find time to correlate.

    Another strong influence on the young medical student was Zofia´s father, Waclaw Nalkowski, a fiercely outspoken social activist, who developed the field of modern geography. " Who knows famous Poles? " Korczak would ask when writing of Nalkowski. He saw the geographer as a "blazing star in a small firmament," who, had he been born in a country where there was no Russian censor, would have been internationally famous.

    Henryk also became a lifelong friend of the imposing Stefania Sempolowska (her trademark a broad-brimmed hat with two ostrich feathers, and a long black dress with a stylish train), who wrote on natural history and supported the rights of Jews, peasants, and workers. Her concern about educating the illiterate masses led her to become a driving force behind the Free Lending Library, where Henryk gave his Saturdays to inspiring unruly children to read. The Russian authorities, convinced that the library was spreading atheism and other subversive ideas, conducted constant roundups. Between raids on the Flying University and the library, Henryk spent "enough time in the cooler" to have his "rough edges" taken off.

    Turn-of-the-century liberals like the Dawids, Nalkowski, and Sempolowska -who stood for a democratic socialism that refused to recognize class or ethnic divisions -set the moral standards of their time; one did not compromise one´s principles no matter the consequences. Living modestly, without affectation or false ambition, they became Henryk´s "tutors in the social sphere." Much of the strength he needed to draw on in later life can be traced to their uncompromising ethical character. The Poland he felt part of was the one they represented.

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