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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Summer Camps

They start to laugh with a different laugh than the one they had in the city.
-Moshki, Joski, and Srule

 

    One summer day in 1907, Janusz Korczak, dressed in sports clothes, stood in the large courtyard of the Summer Camps Society and watched as one hundred and fifty poor Jewish boys arrived for what would be their first trip to the country. He noted the boys who came with families and those who straggled in alone, the ones who were clean and those who were neglected; he noted their apprehensiveness as they said final goodbyes for three weeks, and their fearfulness and shyness as they lined up in pairs. He knew they were wondering what kind of counselor he´d be -one who was strict or one they could hoodwink.

    Having volunteered his services to the camp society while in medical school, he valued the opportunity it offered to work with children outside of a hospital environment. The camp to which he was assigned, about eighty miles from Warsaw, had been funded by an assimilated Jewish philanthropist, with the stipulation that only Polish be spoken. Forbidden Polish music and patriotic songs were played on the gramophone as a way of exposing the children to the Polish national culture and history that the Russians were still trying to obliterate. in the humorous and moving book he wrote about his experiences with those ten-year-old boys, Moshki, Joski, and Srule (diminutives of typical Jewish names), Korczak portrayed himself as a bungling Gulliver in the land of streetwise Lilliputians who taught him everything he knew about the young: "There for the first time I came in touch with a community of children and learned the alphabet of educational practice. Rich in illusions, lacking in experience, sentimental, and young, I believed that the mere fact that i wanted to achieve something with children was enough." The thirty children assigned to him had seemed a reasonable number because he did not as yet understand the skill he would need to keep the "menacing mob" under control. Having complete freedom to create his own program of games, swimming, excursions, and storytelling, he had blithely concentrated on locating a gramophone, a magic lantern, fireworks, checkers, and dominoes.

    "There I was, like someone wearing kid gloves and a carnation in bis buttonhole, setting out in search of enchanting impressions and warm memories to be got from the hungry, abused, and disinherited," he wrote. "I wanted to discharge my duties at the cost of little more than a few smiles and cheap fireworks . . . I expected their friendliness and was unprepared for their shortcomings bred in the dark alleys of city life."

    When the boys made a wild dash from the train to the horse-drawn carts waiting to take them to the camp, the new counselor had his first moment of panic. The most aggressive ones claimed the best seats, the most awkward lost their bags, prayer books, and toothbrushes, and there was pandemonium before everyone was finally accounted for. It was then he learned that keeping order depends entirely upon the ability to anticipate -"having foreseen, it is possible to prevent." His nerves were on edge that first night. One of the boys who was unaccustomed to sleeping alone on a narrow bed slid with a thud off his freshly filled hay mattress onto the floor. Others moaned or talked in their sleep. The next day was no better. When the boys weren´t squabbling over seating at the tables or who slept where, or attacking each other with belt buckles, they were baiting him with noises in the semidark dormitory to see what he would do. Flustered by his inability to maintain either discipline or order, he announced he would punish the next one who made a noise. Grabbing "the bold whistler" who took up the challenge, Korczak pulled his ears, and even threatened to lock him out on the veranda, where a fierce watchdog was loose.

    It was his lowest moment: "I was not a novice in the educational field; I had been tutoring for years and had read numerous books on child psychology. Yet there I was helpless" confounded bv the mvstery of the šberschHE HE eries."collective soul of a child´ s community." He had come filled with "ideals," but the boys´ sharp ears had caught the "ring of a counterfeit coin." Conspiracy, rebellion, teachtery, reprisals were life´s reply to his "reveries." As he struggled to win the confidence of the campers, he knew he would never again be naively romantic about children.

    By the end of the first week, the most unlikely boys had emerged as leaders and the most unruly ones began to show consideration for others. Aaron, who had weak lungs and lived with his mother, a factory worker, was in his glory recounting the fairy tales he had heard while convalescing in the courtyard of his tenement. Weintraub, who lost a leg after being shot on the street, had learned to play checkers in the hospital and organized some tournaments. Chaim, the biggest troublemaker, always defended Mordko, who had sad black eyes, was awkward at games, and conversed with a cuckoo in the woods. Ugly Anzel came to be accepted as someone who had become nasty and fat because of the mean way he had been treated by other children. And the gentle nature of twelve- year-old Kruk, who already worked in a factory and looked after his incorrigible eight-year-old brother at camp, won him the title of Prince among the boys.

    "In life there are two kingdoms," Korczak wrote. "There is the kingdom of pleasure, balls, salons, and beautiful clothes, where for centuries the richest, happiest, and laziest have been called princes. But there is also that other kingdom of hunger, troubles, and hard work. its princes know from early childhood how much a pound of bread costs, how to take care of younger brothers and sisters, how to work. Kruk and his friends are princes in the kingdom of sad thoughts and black bread-hereditary princes."

    Korczak was gratified to see how rapidly his young princes blossomed in that wholesome environment: "Yesterday-a caveman; today-a good sport. Yesterday-timid, fearful, solemn; a week later-bold, lively, bursting with initiative and song."

    One morning, as the children were on their way to a distant forest, they stopped to eat by a railroad track. The cinders stirred up by the wind fell into their breakfast. A peasant passing by said: "Children, don´t sit where it´s so dusty. My field is much nicer."

    "But if we walk on your land, we´ll trample whatever is growing there," one child replied.
    "Oh, how much harm can you do if you´re barefoot? Go along. It´s my field, I give you permission."
    Korczak, the counselor, was moved by the offer. He was thinking:
    "Oh, Polish peasant, look at those boye more closely. They are not the children you think they are. They are Jewish bastards who are not allowed to play in the city parks. Coachmen hit them with their whips, pedestrians push them off the sidewalks, superintendents chase them from their courtyards with brooms. These are not children, these are Moshkis- little Jews, yes. And not only aren´t you chasing them from under your trees, you are inviting them into your field."

    "What kind of things do you do in Warsaw?" the peasant asked the boys. And he told them where they could find the best berries.

    Such encounters helped the young campers´ Polish as well as their spirits. They may have heard only Polish curses in Warsaw-"Jewish bastards!" "Drop dead!" -but in the country, Korczak wrote, "the Polish language smiles at the children with the greenness of the trees and the gold of the wheat. It is mixed with birdsong, starlight, and fresh river breezes. Polish words, like wild flowers, rearrange themselves into meadows."
    The same was true for Yiddish-"so noisy and full of curses on the streets of Warsaw"-which became softer, even poetic, as the children played together in the countryside.

    The campers were amazed when a W arsaw newspaper arrived with news about them on the first page: "Mamelok climbed up to the window and looked into the kitchen; Hawelkie and Szekielewski don>>t want to eat kasha; Boruch had a fight with his brother Mordko; Butterman forgave Yemen for hitting him; the new dog escaped his chain, but Franek grabbed him." There were also articles about the joys of going barefoot in the country, and the history of summer camps.

    The older boys caught on that the counselors had written the paper, but the little ones were very impressed that their activities were being reported in Warsaw. And Janusz Korczak, whose idea it was, had his first chance to test the effectiveness of a children"s newspaper.

    He also tried out a system in which, once a week, the boys were to grade their own and each other>> s conduct, rather than being graded by their counselor. When Korczak asked everyone what grades they thought they deserved-on a scale from one to five-some tried to be honest, but Mort, who had thrown stones at the camp"s dog, demanded a five. The other boys decided he could get a five only if the dog forgave him. But how could they know?

    "The dog is on a chain, so Mort should go up to him with a piece of meat," one said. "If the dog takes the meat instead of biting him, it means he is willing to forgive and forget."

    Everyone agreed it was a fine plan. Luckily for Mort, the dog was in a "wonderful" mood. it wagged its tail as he approached, and took the meat from him. Satisfied that the dog had forgiven him, the boys gave Mort a five. But Mort felt guilty.. The next day he asked for a lower number.

    Setting up a children´s court was to prove a more difficult challenge. While still a child, Korczak may well have imagined himself going off to court to defend workers>> rights, as his father had; he may have heard his father complain about the injustices of the legal system. Now he had a chance to create a children>>s court in which there would be true justice: a boy who was pestered by a bully could sue him, and other boys, acting as judges, would decide the case. He expected the campers to be as enthusiastic as he was about their court of peers, but it didn´t turn out that way. They couldn´t grasp the concept that suing someone was more effective than punching him in the nose, and they didn>>t like tattling on each other. It wasn´t until Korczak himself sued some rule breakers that the court could begin to function.

    Choosing judges was a random process at first. Korczak announced that anyone who wanted to be a judge should meet on the veranda at 1 p.m. He was deliberately half an hour late, and most of the boys had wandered off by the time he arrived. The ones who had the patience to remain became the judges.

    Civil and criminal cases were heard once a week on the veranda or in a clearing in the forest. One counselor acted as prosecutor, another as defense lawyer, and three campers as judges. The most serious infractions were: going alone into the woods ("Forbidden because a bull might attack you") and not responding to bells ("We cannot go out and drag everyone by the nose to the table´").

    In the Case of Picking Flowers, two boys charged with being late to breakfast after they wandered off to pick flowers, were acquitted because it was taken into account that they did not have such an opportunity in the city, and it was their first offense. The judges were not so lenient in the Pinecone Case because Fishbein showed no remorse over throwing pinecones with small stones in them at another boy. The prosecutor had a difficult time getting him to admit his motive.
    "Why did you do it?"
    "Because i had a lot of pinecones and didn´t know what to do with them."
    "Why didn´t you throw them away?"
    "Because it would have been wasteful."
    This got a laugh from the spectators. "Are you sure there weren´t small stones among the pinecones?" "I don´t know."
    Because Fishbein was one of the younger boys, he was sentenced to only ten minutes of detention.

    Korczak carefully recorded the trials and the children´s response. He was improvising as he went along, though he must have been familiar with the early experiments in children´s courts in Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. The National Commission of Education (the first such ministry in Europe) had recommended "Courts of Arbitration" in which students could settle their own arguments - punishments included not being allowed to wear one´s sword with a senior uniform during holy days - but the courts were in operation for only a short period after the partitions. It took a half century before the famous educator Bronislaw Trentowski rediscovered them: "If any one of your students breaks the rules, get some pupils of his own age to judge him. Everyone wants to be judged by his equals. Kings by kings, scientists by scientists, and children by children. The verdict will infuriate him less than if it comes from you, and will exert a greater influence." Trentowski´s court was short-lived like those earlier ones, and, in truth, Korczak´s court had not made much progress by the end of the camp season.

    On the day before the boys were to return to Warsaw, Oscar, the camp poet, wrote:

      The children celebrate because they are going horne.
      They will exchange the green forests for the dank walls.
      Theflowerslaugh in the sun now,
      But when winter comes>> they willfade.

    That night the boys surprised their counselor by presenting him with a stork´s nest. Then they all sat around a campfire watching their last sunset. Tomorrow in Warsaw they would not see such a beautiful sight, Korczak reminded them, only the ugly yellow lanterns that lined the streets. It was the lamplighter who changed day into night in the city, while in their camp it was the sun itself that turned off the light and turned on the night.

    As the sun dipped into the horizon, disappearing little by little, a few boys cried out, "It>>s gone!"

    "No, there"s still a little left,´>> others shouted.

    "And now we should take each other by the hand, sing our song, wave our flag over our heads, and begin walking," Korczak told them.
    "But not back to Warsaw."
    "Where? Where should we walk?" the boys wanted to know.
    "To the sun."

    Everyone was surprised.
    "It will be a long journey but we can do it. We´ll sleep in the fields and earn money along the way."
    The boys entered into the spirit. Gerson could play his violin in exchange for some milk, Oscar could recite one of his poems and Aaron one of his tales in exchange for bread.
    "We will walk, walk, walk for a very long time," their counselor told them. "If Weintraub gets tired, we´ll make a wheelchair and take turns pushing him." "And then what?" asked the boys.
    The bell rang, calling them to supper before he could answer. The next day they made their way by train back to Warsaw, and shortly after that Korczak left for almost a year in Europe.

    In going to Berlin that fall to do advanced work in pediatric medicine, Korczak was following in the tradition of Jan Dawid and other Polish intellectuals who had looked to Germany for "light and knowledge." Berlin, the capital of the prosperous German Empire, had one of the best medical systems on the continent: it was known for its highlv developed program in community hygiene and its infant and orphan services. While deciding whether or not to make the trip - it meant taking a leave from the Children>> s Hospital and from his mother as well-Korczak discussed the pros and cons with his colleagues, some ofwhom felt he would benefit from study there, and others that he would be disappointed. Of all the suggestions given him about how to behave with the Germans, he chose to take only two seriously: not to indulge his penchant for shaking hands indiscriminately with everyone regardless of rank, and to change his collar twice a day.

    Korczak did not arrive in the capital city as a famous writer but as a poor student. He found a modest room that was clean and offered a regular change of towels - breakfast was included but some nights he had only enough money for two glasses of milk and bread.

    He admired Berlin´s good bus system (which Warsaw lacked) and its many free libraries, open twelve hours a day, but the city seemed "indifferent" to his presence. From August to September he took vacation refresher courses for doctors sponsored by the Berlin Medical Association. He was impressed that the professors, like the buses, were always on time, but he hated the idea ofhaving to pay for lectures. Selling knowledge made the university into a "marketplace." Nevertheless, he chose special courses, along with other foreigners, in neurology and electrocardiography, and studied the latest findings on tuberculosis and other childhood illnesses. Watching how the Germans checked urine and took blood, he couldn>>t help comparing their advanced medical techniques with the less developed ones in Poland. Yet, by the end of two months>> he felt he was in a "factory." Reading over bis notes, he wasn´t certain that he had learned very much that would help him in his own practice; they only confirmed what he already knew. that he had to rely on his own observations, and not accept any theory that he had not tested himself.

    Korczak also spent two months each studying under the world-famous German-Jewish pediatricians Heinrich Finkelstein and Adolf Baginski, one month in a home for the retarded and another in Theodor Ziehen´s psychiatric clinic at the Charité. He made shorter visits to insane asylums and detention centers for so-called juvenile delinquents. Leaving Germany in the late spring of 1908, he stopped off in Switzerland, where he interned for one month in a neurological clinic in Zurich. When he re- turned to Warsaw in the early summer of 1908, he was struck by how poor and provincial the city was.

    Before resuming work at the Children>>s Hospital on Sliska Street, Korczak treated himself to four weeks at a camp for one hundred and fifty Polish boys, where there was "no lack of authentic rascals." In the book he wrote about this experience, Jozki, Jaski, and Franki, his readers were once again charmed by the adventures of the awkward, bespectacled counselor trying to reach street urchins set loose in nature for the first time. But though he was playing the buffoon in print, he was still trying to develop the strategies he had worked out the year before at the Jewish camp. These children of poverty, many with drunken fathers and invalid mothers who could not care for them, also set snares for him, but this time he was prepared. He carefully memorized everyone´s name and made notes on his initial impressions, spotting the most aggressive boys, who were certain to be troublemakers. On the second day, when the boys became raucous in the dormitory before dawn, he heard one proclaim:
    "I am the Minister in the Blue Shirt!" Instead of being angry, Korczak stomped in dramatically and asked;
    "All right, who is the Minister in the Blue Shirt?" The tension lifted as he burst out laughing.
    "Like Napoleon winning a battle with one successful attack," he had won the trust of the children-a trust "without which it would not only be impossible to write a book about children, but also impossible to love, rear, or even observe them."

    Experimenting further with his court, he noted that when three of the meanest boys were outrageous enough to steal berries from little Jasiek, who was weak and stuttered, the judges acquitted them because they had already been punished by the other campers who refused to play with thieves. Two of the culprits became friendly and kind right after that, but the third didn>>t until he heard "the forest´s prayer" -that moment when the trees speak and the sky answers. Whoever hears it "feels funny in his soul" and bursts into tears although he´s not sad, and doesn´t know why. And the next day he wakes up much better than he was before he heard the prayer.

    As he worked to help his Jozkis overcome their problems, he was reminded of the struggles of his Moshkis. Years later, when the Jewish Monthly asked him to compare Jewish and Polish children, he quoted John Ruskin´s opinion that one should look for the similarities and not the differences in children. With wry self-mockery, he contrasted himself to the "true scientist" who would test 32,000 mice to the eighth generation to find out the influence of alcohol on the mouse, while he had access to only two hundred children a year. And even ifhe believed in psychological tests, how could he trust the results? True, he had heard it said that Jewish children were more emotional than Polish, but he had seen tears of joy and sorrow in both groups watching the same movie-and without counting the tears one by one, he would not feel qualified to verify the emotional superiority of either group. He preferred answers based on personal experience.

    Back at his post at the Children>>s Hospitalthat September, Korczak found his old despair waiting for him. What was he doing there? What good was it to cure sick children when they only returned to their unhealthy surroundings? When a colleague, Izaak Eliasberg, a highly respected diagnostician in dermatitis and venereal disease, told him about the Orphans Aid Society, to which he and his wife, Stella, belonged, Korczak listened carefully. The Society was holding a fund-raising party for a shelter it supported. They could draw some wealthy philanthropists if he were able to come.

    Korczak accepted, little knowing how fortuitous the occasion would be. He was to meet Stefania (Stefa) Wilczynska, a woman who would not only share his dream of creating an ideal haven for poor children, but would help make it possible.

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