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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Muzzle on the Soul

    There were few who knew that Henryk Goldszmit was leading a double life. The medical student lived dutifully at home with his widowed mother, but his other self, Janusz Korczak, the tortured writer, prowled through the roughest slums of the city alone or in the company of Ludwik Licinski, a friend from the Flying University.

    Four years Henryk´s senior, Licinski, a poet and ethnographer, was always on the road, giving as his full address: Warsaw. Like other writers in the Young Poland movement-as this fin de siècle literary group was called-he delighted in attacking the materialism of the bourgeoisie, whom they looked on as philistines. Licinski would succumb at an early age to tuberculosis contracted during exile in Siberia, but at this time in his brief life, he was a good companion for Henryk, who "felt he was dying in his tiny apartment with his overprotective mother." At night they wandered the sandy banks ofthe Vistula River, celebrated the name days ofprostitutes, and got drunk on "stinking" vodka." He could play on those people´ s heartstrings in the most subtle way," Licinski recalled. "The murderer Lichtarz told him: "I would give my soul for you."

    Zofia Nalkowska came along one night during her "last fling" before marriage to Leon Rygier. She drank vodka from the bottle, kissed the mistress of a laundry owner, and enjoyed flirting with Licinski, who was hopelessly in love with her. Henryk felt a sense of liberation in this rough quarter too-but of a different kind. His soul, which was "howling like a dog," was being unleashed.

    "I dreamed I was a poodle," Janek (a diminutive of Janusz) begins the semi-autobiographical novel that Henryk was writing at this time. "My coat was shaved. I felt somewhat cold in that attire, but knowing my master was pleased with me, I wagged my tail merrily and gazed devotedly into his eyes. . . . I had no fleas, worries or responsibilities. However, I had to be obedient and faithful while demonstrating the intelligence that is expected of a poodle."

    The poodle is undone when a passerby looks at him with pity instead of admiration, his eyes saying: "This dog has a muzzle on his soul." Totally demoralized, the poodle can neither eat nor sleep, and reaches a point of such disorientation that he bites his master's hand. He is about to be shot when the author wakes up from his dream.

    The book, Child of the Drawing Room, is about awakening. Janek realizes he has slept through his life trying to conform to his parents´ idea of what he should be. Feeling suicidal, as if he has "lost his soul," he leaves home with a snarl at his mother and father: "Get off my back! Get off-or I´ll bite!"

    He manages to sublet the tenth bed in a room already occupied by the families of a factory locksmith and horse-carriage driver, spends his last kopeck at a bar, panhandles on the street, and follows a prostitute home. But he has no interest in seducing her. "Tell me a story" he asks, as they lie together in bed. "You're boring," is her response. "I feel sorry for you," he says, hogging all the covers as he relates the plan that he and his friend Stash once had to rehabilitate prostitutes.

    It is the neglected and abused children of this poor district to whom Janek is drawn. He finds them in the shadows of buildings, "their pale skin stretched like thin parchment over their crooked bones." Under the bridges he gives them candy and medicine, and, he hopes, a belief in human kindness. He goes with them into their squalid dwellings to tell stories and give lessons in reading. The order intrinsic in grammar may help order their thoughts.

    On a Christmas Eve, dressed like St. Nicholas, Janek goes from room to room in his tenement house dispensing gifts to the children: a little ball, an apple, candies. He hangs a cross on the neck ofa small red-haired boy known only as Carrot Top, whom he finds sitting all alone in the dark. When the child asks him if he is really a saint, he responds "Yes," struck that it is a child who should ask him that question.

    At that moment Janek is aware that he has changed, that "new invisible powers" are gathering inside him, powers that from then on will "illuminate" his way. He is transformed from a self-absorbed writer gathering material for a book into a man of spiritual faith who is responsible for his fellow human beings.

    All the themes of the author´s life are in this novel: his constricted childhood, his fear of suicide and madness, his avoidance of sex, his determination to be a social reformer, his dedication to children. As the book ends, Janek has lost most of his illusions, but not his rage at discovering that two orphaned girls have been sexually abused by their uncle. When the night watchman in the slum tells him to go home, he shouts, as he once had at his parents, "Get out of here! Or I´ll bite! I´ll b-i-i-t-e!" -his syllables blurring into incomprehensibility.

    While Child of the Drawing Room was being serialized in Voice magazine under the byline of Janusz Korczak, Henryk Goldszmit began a residency at the Jewish Children´s Hospital. But no sooner had he received his medical diploma in March 1905, than he was conscripted as a doctor into the Czar´ s Imperial Army to serve in the Russo-Japanese War. Torn abruptly out ofhis life "like a slave puppet," the new lieutenant found himself stationed on a hospital train on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, shuttling back and forth between Harbin and Mukden. Japan, emerging as a modern nation after centuries of Isolation, was proving victorious in both land and sea battles over the demoralized Russian forces riddled with corruption, badly led, and inefficiently supplied.

    The young doctor quickly learned that "war helps you see the illness of the whole body." He viewed the patients lined up that first rainy day at the station as "prisoners" waiting for treatment of enteritis, gastritis, venereal disease, or chronic illnesses. Their diseases, like the international conflict over markets in Manchuria and Korea, had "unseen roots in the past" for which there was no quick cure.

    The most seriously ill were taken aboard. "The train is full of mad people," he wrote to his Voice readers. "One of them doesn´t even know his name, how old he is, or where he is going. Another, equally oblivious to what is going on, broods about why his wife took his pipe. A third, called the Idiot, sings dirty songs."

    They were not soldiers anymore, but "sick people" from whom he was learning about the malignancies festering in Russian society. He moved among his patients-barely literate Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish peasants, fierce Cossacks, and poor Jews - dispensing medicine for both body and soul. Discovering that they responded well to stories, he told them Russian tales. He was not unaware of the irony that he, a Polish- Jewish doctor, was comforting them in the language of his oppressor. the perfect Russian that had been drilled into him at his Czarist gymnasium.

    Every spare moment the young lieutenant spent exploring the devastated Chinese towns and villages. "It was not that I came to China, China came to me," he wrote in another article. "Chinese famine, Chinese orphan misery, Chinese mass mortality. War is an abomination. Especially because no one reports how many children are hungry, ill-treated, and left without protection."

    After meeting four-year-old iuo-ya, who "was extraordinarily patient in teaching Chinese to an inept pupil," he decided that not only should there be institutes of Oriental languages, but everyone should have to spend a year in a village in the Orient studying under a four-year-old. Iuo-ya made him realize that young children who have not yet become "too conscious of grammar and too influenced by nov'els, textbooks, and school," can convey the spirit of a language.

    Visiting a village school, he was shocked to see a teacher, reeking of vodka and opium, beating his pupils on their heels with a thick yardstick. On one side was written in black ink: "He who refuses to learn is deserving of punishment", and on the other: "He who studies will be wise." Lieutenant Goldszmit managed to buy the yardstick, though he knew that after a few days the teacher would make a new one. When the war was over, he would show his orphans how to play ball (palant) with the stick. He would tell them that, though Chinese children look different and use a different alphabet, all children are the same.

    As the hospital train steamed back and forth in that turbulent year 1905, the illnesses that had "lain dormant" in the huge empire of the Czar were exacerbated by news of Japanese victories. Workers´ strikes and student demonstrations continued to erupt in industrial centers. The very word "revolution" was a stimulant to the staff and patients on the train, who voted to join the railway workers´ strike. When a military delegation arrived to punish the rebellious soldiers, they asked Lieutenant Goldszmit to represent them. He was reluctant to become involved-it was neither his country nor his war but the men pleaded so persuasively that he agreed. However, as he stood on the speaker´s crate, he did not talk ofthe strike or ofthe revolution but rather ofthe suffering ofchildren. "Before you go to war for any purpose," he told the amazed delegation, "you should stop to think of the innocent children who will be injured, killed, or orphaned." He was beginning to articulate what would become his philosophy for life: no cause, no war, was worth depriving children of their natural right to happiness. Children should come before politics of any kind.

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