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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Little Hospital

Children, being small and weak, haue little market value.
-The Child´s Right to Respect


    When he returned to Warsaw in early 1906, Lieutenant Henryk Goldszmit was amazed to find that during his absence he had become famous as Janusz Korczak, the author of Child of the Drawing Room. Critics proclaimed him a new voice in Polish literature that had found "the color of poverty, its stench, its cry, and its hunger." The public was anxious to meet the audacious young writer who had been called away to war just when his star was rising and was now back to illuminate their drawing rooms.

    However, the renowned Janusz Korczak was no more accessible than the unknown Henryk Goldszmit had been. Warsaw was still in a state of revolutionary ferment and there was a lot of catching up to do on what had happened in his absence. Voice magazine bad been closed down three months earlier and Jan Dawid>> along with many other intellectuals, was in exile in Cracow. But there had been some victories: the school boycott, far from over, had at least forced the demoralized Russian government to allow the opening of private schools, which, though not accredited, were permitted to teach in the Polish language. The Flying University, now operating in the open as the Society for Scientific Courses (later to become the Free Polish University), was sanctioned to give courses in Polish, as were some departments at Warsaw University. Declining all invitations except from intimate friends, Korczak reclaimed the position he had left as resident doctor ("general drudge") in the Children>>s Hospital on Sliska Street. The pride of the Jewish community, this tree-shaded one-story stucco hospital, built by the wealthy Bersohn and Bauman families, had seven wards, forty-three beds, an operating room, a lab, and an outpatient clinic that was open without charge to children of all faiths. He settled into a routine that included everything from battling scarlet fever, typhus, measles, dysentery, and tuberculosis to cataloguing the 1,400-volume medical library. His mother, "a good old soul," ran the apartment that came with the job on fifteen rubles a month. He supplemented his annual salary of two hundred rubles (about one hundred dollars) with another hundred from private practice and odd sums from his articles. His mother was shocked at how often he took horse carriages to see patients: "A droshky to go to Zlota Street? Twenty kopecks? Spendthrift!"

    Although it was unusual for any but the most wealthy Jewish doctors to have Gentile patients, Korczak>> s private practice was soon studded with the names of Warsaw´s most prominent families. A number of social hostesses began to realize that the only way to lure Janusz Korczak to their homes was through a sick child. He tried to make time to respond to their calls, but whenever he suspected it was Korczak the author, rather than Goldszmit the doctor, who was being summoned, he could be very rude. In one case, having been asked to come immediately to attend two young brothers, he arrived to find the mother in a hostess gown. "Please wait a moment, Doctor. I´ll send for the boys."
    " Are they out?>>´
    "Not far. They´re playing in the park. Meanwhile-a cup of tea?"
    "I can´t spare the time to wait."
    "But Dr. Julian always . . . Have you been writing anything lately?"
    "Unfortunately, only prescriptions!"
    And he stormed out. The next day a colleague phoned: &For God´s sake, my friend! They´re furious. You´ve made enemies!"
    "I don´t give a damn!"
    He was equally impatient with middle-class Jewish mothers, who must have reminded him ofhis own. To one who insisted her child should have tea, he snapped: "if your child needed to drink tea>> God would have given you milk in one breast, and tea in the other." And to another whose little darling was clearly overweight, he observed: <<´Even Rothschild doesn´t give his child more than five meals a day. "

    Only to the poor was he unfailingly compassionate, paying calls late at night to the basement at 52 Sliska Street or the attic at 17 Panska. He was a medical Robin Hood, taking fees from the rich so that he could afford to give medicine to the poor. But even the poor he charged twenty kopecks because "it is written in the Talmud that an unpaid doctor is no help to a sick man." And he was always available to the children of "socialists, teachers, newspapermen, young lawyers, even doctors." This idealistic young doctor was considered a mad, dangerous lunatic by certain doctors and wholesale pharmacists who were threatened by his night calls, low fees, and habit of dispensing free medicine.

    The children never questioned his sanity or his antics. One mother entered the sickroom to find both her child and the doctor missing; when she cried out in alarm, they both poked their heads out from under the bed. Another knew that her sick daughter would never fall asleep until Dr. Goldszmit came. Like a sorcerer he would wave everyone from the room, and then, sitting by the child>>s bed, he would caress her hands and tell her stories about each finger, blowing on it to make it drowsy. When he got to number ten, she was always asleep.

    A former patient, Henryk Grynberg, who became a doctor himself, said that Korczak´ s hands were cold when he made house calls, and that it felt good when he put them on your brow. If you didn´t have a fever, he´d try to warm them before coming into the room. He always had some playful banter in this kosher home. ´You see, you had your secret sausage, and God punished you. Because of this, your mother will have to make tea and put in a few drops of cognac, as further punishment."

    Korczak may have endeared himself to his patients, but he infuriated Russian hospital administrators with his indignant articles calling for basic hospital reforms, not the least of which was that management should be turned over to the Poles. He criticized doctors ("unethical tradesmen") who made distinctions in the treatment of wealthy and nonpaying patients and who categorized patients according to their disease, rather than viewing them as individuals with a whole range of life problems. The only group that merited his praise were midwives, whom he felt were not appreciated enough for their important role in assisting human beings into the world. He was an advocate of breast feeding, in an era of wet nurses. ´The breast does not belong to the mother, but to the baby" he said.

    Even at his own hospital, Korczak had to fight for "intelligent" treatment of the young patients, overruling doctors and nurses who forbade parents to bring toys because they might carry germs. The children - whom the city was casting his way "like seashells" -had so little to make them smile, and he was painfully aware of his lack of resources.

    "Little hospital. i remember winter, cold, the horse and carriage arrives," he would write. "They carefully carry a bundle with a sick child inside. Bell rings. Calling for the doctor to come down. I am coming. One blanket belongs to the family, one to a neighbor, sometimes three blankets from two neighbors. Clothes, flannels, petticoats, mufflers, bundle of odiferous infection. Finally, the patient. Scarlet fever. The unit for infectious diseases has no more room. Pointless begging. Please, on the floor, in the corridor-anywhere. Doctor, i´ll give you a ruble. Sometimes-trapped. I will leave the child here. You´ll have to take her. Sometimes a curse."

    He had to be firm, to hide the sorrow he felt for the children who had nowhere to go and those he knew would not survive. Yet he was impressed by how "dignified, mature, and sensible a child could be when face to face with death." He was to place the right of the child to die at the top of his Magna Carta of Children´s Rights. No matter how much a mother loved her child, she had to allow him the right to premature death. it was possible, he wrote>> that a child had a destiny other than being his mother´ s child. "The naturalist knows that not every seed produces an ear of corn, not every chick is born fit to live, not every sapling grows into a tree."

    Still, inveterate actor that he was, Korczak did not easily admit the harsh reality ofhospital life. When the daughter ofa colleague exclaimed: "How terrible it must be to wake up in a strange hospital with no mommy or daddy," he replied: "Oh, we know how to cope with that. Every child has a pillow made of chocolate and whipped cream. If she wakes up and feels unhappy, she breaks off a piece, and feels much better."

    The truth of the matter was that the frightened child would wake and see the twinkling eyes of the doctor trying to put her at ease. It was apparent to everyone at the hospital, from the director to the lowliest orderly, that it was not so much the medicine as the magic of Dr. Goldszmit´s way with children that made them well. When a girl named Zofia, who was becoming weak from not eating, refused her mug of broth, he told her how sad the mug was at being rejected. If she did not drink the broth, it would roll right out of the hospital into the street and be run over by a tramcar. Zofia clasped the mug, then drank the broth right down.

    Henryk Goldszmit, the doctor, would stay at the Children´ s Hospital for seven years, but Janusz Korczak, the writer and future educator, was restless. The doctor saw a feverish child through the dramatic crises of his illness, but the educator was aware that when the child was released, he disappeared back into a dark, sunless world that the doctor could neither enter nor alter. "When the devil will we stop prescribing aspirin for poverty, exploitation, lawlessness, and crime?" he would complain to his colleagues. But what could he prescribe to change his patients´ lives? it was the same frustration the five-year-old reformer had felt-how could he remake the world so that there would be no more hungry or dirty children? Complaining about injustice wasn´t enough. As a schoolboy he had once been rebuked by a tram conductor whom he had criticized for cracking a whip on the horses to make them pull the tramcars more quickly: "If you are so full of pity, get down yourself and pull, young man. it will be nicer for the horses." He had taken the message to heart: "Keep your mouth shut if you´re not helping. Don´t criticize if you don´t know a better way. "

    Thinking back to that tramcar incident, he had to admit to himself that for all of his dissatisfaction about social inequities, he had not yet found the means to offer a better way of life to deprived children.

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