Janusz Korczak Communication - Center
» Homepage «

Janusz Korczak Biography

[ back ] [ Index ] [ next ]

The Decision

    By the time Korczak arrived at the shelter in the dilapidated former nunnery on Franciskanska Street, the program in honor of Maria Konopnicka, a poet and children´s writer, had already begun. He stood in the back watching the pale, spindly performers with their shaven heads, their clean but ill-fitting clothes, reciting the poems they had been rehearsing all week. He was so moved by their shy smiles, he could hardly hold back his tears.

    They were not all full orphans. Most of their fathers had died of consumption, malnutrition, and overwork; their widowed mothers, unable to manage, were forced to put them in shelters like this while they went out to work. The older ones were already streetwise and tough, with the same sorrow in their sunken eyes, in their uneasy high-pitched laughter, that Korczak had observed in the Polish waifs of the Warsaw slums -"rare children who bear not only the weight of their ten years, but deep in their souls the burden of many generations."

    Korczak noticed Stefa standing to one side coaching them, her lips moving with theirs. Whenever a child finished, he ran to her for a hug, and then stayed close, clinging with the others like magnets to her long skirt.

    No one would have called Stefa a beauty, even then. At the age of twenty-three, she was eight years younger than Korczak and a good head taller. Her dark, serious eyes - the best feature in her broad, plain facerevealed both warmth and strength. In a picture of her taken at the time, a short functional hairdo frames an intense, no-nonsense expression, which already suggests the woman who is destined to carry responsibility for hundreds of children on her shoulders for thirty years. A white Peter Pan collar rests without artifice on a black sweater that covers a plump figure bordering on the matronly.

    Stefa´s acculturated background was in many ways similar to Korczak´s. She spoke no Yiddish and had little knowledge of Jewish ritual. She, her older sister Julia, and her younger brother Stanislaw (Stash) occupied a six-room apartment with their parents in a building that had been part of her mother´s dowry. The two oldest daughters had already married and moved out. Stefa's father, the owner of a textile factory, was in fragile health, and left much ofthe responsibility for raising the children to his wife. in a period when few women received a higher education, Stefa´s mother, an ardent Polish patriot, saw to it that her two youngest daughters went to Mlle Jadwiga Sikorska´s exclusive private school for girls-where Polish culture was taught surreptitiously-and then to the University of Liege in Belgium rather than to the Russian university in Warsaw. While they were away, she busied herself adding to their trousseaus, which she kept in large hope chests in her bedroom, little imagining that neither of them would ever marry. Everything was fastidiously prepared, down to the last properly sewn button; she judged the character of a person by how tightly his buttons were secured. Tied to home by her young son and her husband, this energetic woman who loved to travel contented herself with touring remote areas of the city by tramcar. She would come back refreshed, as from a long adventure. It was from this unconventional mother that Stefa absorbed many of her values and her organizational ability.

    Stefa´s degree was in natural science, but her real interest lay in education. When she returned to Warsaw and noticed the small Jewish shelter near her home run by the Orphans Aid Society, she immediately volunteered her services. Before long, she became so indispensable that Stella Eliasberg put her in charge. (The director who ran the shelter before the Society took over had used its meager funds for her own purposes, dressing and eating well, while the emaciated children, clad in rags, crawled about the filthy floor grabbing at rotten potatoes that had been thrown to them.) Stefa´s only assistant was an energetic thirteen- year-old ward of another orphanage, Esterka Weintraub, who had become like a daughter.

    Stefa had also become very close to the Eliasbergs in the course of her work. When they told her that Janusz Korczak was going to attend the shelter´s party, she had no doubt that this famous advocate of children´s welfare would be interested in their project-but how interested she could not have anticipated. Korczak began stopping by the shelter at odd moments to chat with her and play with the children. The orphans would scream with delight at the sight ofthe slim, modest, balding doctor whose pockets were always filled with candy and magic tricks, and whose repertoire of riddles and fairy tales was limitless. They made an effective team: Stefa with her ability to bring order to the dark, ramshackle quarters, and he with his natural way with children. His love, which he would one day call "pedagogical love" (not sentimental, but based on mutual respect), embraced them all, and especially little Esterka Weintraub, whose sweet, helpful disposition made her as appealing to him as to Stefa. When they talked ofsending her someday to Stefa's university in Belgium, it was almost as if they were discussing the future of their own daughter.

    Life in the shelter became more important to Korczak as life outside became more harassed. On July 22, 1909, which happened to be his birthday, Korczak´s sister´s husband, Jozef Lui, died at the age of thirtynine. (Nothing is known of Lui -whose odd name adds to the mystery- or of his marriage to Anna, who by then was a French legal translator.) It was a bad period for everyone. In a new wave of Czarist repression, thousands of the elite of Polish society-among them intellectuals, socialists, and members of the revolutionary party-were either imprisoned or sent to Siberia. The universities were closed, and most of the reforms won in the abortive revolution of1905 were abolished. Society magazine, which Jadwiga Dawid had started when Voice was closed by the police four years earlier, was itself forced to stop operating. Whatever the cause, political pressure or Dawid's involvement with another woman - or a combination ofboth-Jadwiga had a nervous breakdown. She would throw herself into a well the following year, at the age of forty-six.

    Korczak was rounded up with many other writers and incarcerated In the same cell with in Spokojna prison. He was relieved to find himself. Ludwik Krzywicki, the renowned sociologist, whom he knew from Flying University days. A radical socialist who had translated Marx into Polish, Krzywicki was as acquainted with jail cells as he was with classrooms, where he was known for his dazzling lectures - many of them prepared behind bars. Going in and out of prison had become an accepted way of life for him, one that he didn't question, unlike Jan Dawid and Waclaw Nalkowski, who had long felt the futility of political activity as a means of solving Poland' s internal problems.

    Krzywicki had learned to endure life in cramped windowless cells where his "longest walk" was seven paces and his only companion a fly (about whom he wrote long letters to his son). Korczak was amazed at how the professor was able to shut out the irritations of the environment and to concentrate on keeping his inner self intact. He spent each day as if he were in his own study, spreading his papers and maps over the grimy floor and tracing the migrations of ancient tribes. During the two months they spent together, it is believed that Krzywicki encouraged his young friend to pursue his goals. (Korczak was to draw upon the discipline he learned from Krzywicki when he was incarcerated, years later, by the Nazis.)

    Released from prison through the intercessions of a highly placed Polish family whose child he had treated, Korczak once again spent as much time as he could with Stefa and the children at the shelter. Eliasberg and his wife confided to him their dream of moving the children from that inadequate building into a large, modern orphanage. Stefa had agreed to assume general management, they said, and if someone like Korczak was involved, they were sure that the Orphans Aid Society could attract more patrons and raise the large amount of money needed. The Eliasbergs had caught Korczak at the right moment; discouraged by the political situation and still restless at the hospital, he was ready to make a radical change in his life.

    In 1910, Warsaw society learned, with some surprise, that Janusz Korczak intended to give up a successful medical practice and literary career to become the director of an orphanage for Jewish children. Few people understood that medicine alone was no longer enough for this visionary pediatrician - that it did not, as Erik Erikson said of Gandhi´s law practice, "feed his reformatory zeal." The orphanage would give him a chance to put some of his educational ideas into practice, and though it might appear he was making a sacrifice in taking it over, it did not seem so to him. "The reason I became an educator was that i always felt best when I was among children," he told a young interviewer many years later. But the decision had not been easy. "The road I have chosen toward my goal is neither the shortest nor the most convenient," he was to write.
    "But it is the best for me-because it is my own. I found it not without effort or pain, and only when I had come to understand that all the books I read, and all the experiences and opinions of others, were misleading."

    Part of the difficulty in making his decision lay in assuring himself that he was not betraying medicine by leaving the hospital for the orphanage. (It was a conflict he never fully resolved.) He wanted to believe that rather than renouncing medicine for pedagogy, he could combine the two disciplines. Using the orphanage as a laboratory for clinical observation, he wanted to work out an educational diagnostic system based on tangible symptoms. Just as a doctor diagnosed disease by the complaints of the patient, so the teacher had to be aware of the moods of his pupil: "What a fever, a cough, or nausea is for the physician, so a smile, a tear, or a blush should be for the educator." Medicine was concerned only with curing the sick child, but pedagogy could nurture the whole child. As an educator, he could be the "sculptor of the child's soul."

    His little republic would not be as ambitious as the School of Life he had once envisioned on the shores of the Vistula-a utopian center with shelters for the homeless, a hospital to provide knowledge of the suffering of the body "without which there is no education," a bank for practical instruction on handling money, and a pawnshop to teach "the transience of unessential things." But it would still be a just community whose young citizens would run their own parliament, court of peers, and newspaper. In the process of working together, they would learn consideration and fair play, and develop a sense of responsibility toward others, which they would carry with them into the adult world. In helping his orphans to respect others, a first step toward gaining self-respect, Korczak was a pioneer in what we now call "moral education." He was concerned not with teaching children their ABC's - they would go to public school for that-but with the grammar of ethics.

    The underlying philosophy of the children´s republic was: children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals, not as masters and slaves. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be: the "unknown person" inside each of them is the hope for the future.

    Had Korczak been given a choice, the little republic would have comprised an integrated group of Jewish and Catholic children, but that was not possible. Each religious denomination was responsible for its own, and the Orphans Aid Society was a Jewish philanthropy. Still, Korczak hoped to bridge the religious gap by being active in the Polish Teachers Union and presenting his work as a possible model for all boarding homes, Polish and Jewish alike.

    A plot of land was purchased in a poor, mixed Catholic and Jewish working-class neighborhood at 92 Krochmalna Street. Like so many Warsaw streets that reflected the haphazard way the Jews and Poles had accommodated to each other over the centuries, Krochmalna had a split personality. (Isaac Bashevis Singer, who grew up at No. 10, called Krochmalna "a deep stratum of an archaeological dig which I could never uncover.") The sprawling tenement houses at the notorious lower end indiscriminately harbored thieves, racketeers, and prostitutes along with poor Hasidic rabbis (such as Singer´s father), pious housewives, and more than its share of Warsaw´s three hundred thousand impoverished Jewish porters, shoemakers, and artisans.

    The upper end ofKrochmalna, by contrast, was less populated. There was even a small orchard on the orphanage´s piece of land, which was bordered by small factories, shops, and wooden houses, and in the midst of them a simple Catholic church.

    The planning of the orphanage was a "momentous experience" for Korczak, who met a few evenings a week with the two architects at the Eliasberg home. For the first time he understood "the prayer of work and the beauty of real activity," He was not merely designing a building with walls and windows; he was creating a spiritual space. He wanted to get as far away as possible from "the cages of city apartments" and the unhygienic boarding houses that, "combined the defects of the convent and the barracks." His goal was a spacious, light, and airy structure that satisfied the individual need of every child. He marveled that "a square on the blueprint today becomes a hall, a room, a passageway tomorrow."

    But he learned to be cautious in his enthusiasm: "Every snap decision was a directive to the artisan, who gave it permanent form." Every idea had to be weighed in terms of money, feasibility, and utility. He decided that a teacher is not entirely proficient unless he or she understands building materials: "A small shelf a metal plate, a nail in the right place, each may solve an acute problem."

    The eldest of the Eliasbergs´ four daughters, Helena, remembered how she and her sisters looked forward to the nights the funny doctor came to work with the architects: "We had never seen a grownup like him. He kissed our hands when he arrived as if we were ladies, and came over to us from time to time to laugh and joke. He even let us draw on his bald head with the colored pencils he was using on the blueprints."

    While waiting for the orphanage to be built, Korczak spent about half a year in Paris, training with pediatric specialists and looking at orphanages and detention centers, much as he had done in Berlin three years earlier. Paris had a long history of sheltering émigré Polish writers and artists, and one can imagine that Korczak visited with some of them.

    He would tell friends later of his walks along the Seine and visits to the galleries and museums. He came away from his experience realizing that he felt temperamentally closer to the French than to the Germans. Berlin had taught him "to simplify and be inventive in small matters, to concentrate on what he knew step by step, and, systematically, to go forward from that," but Paris taught him "to think of whatever we do not know, but should like to know, must and will know" Berlin was a workday filled with small worries and efforts, but Paris was the festive tomorrow with brilliant premonition, powerful hope, and unexpected triumph. In Paris he pored over the "wondrous" books of the French clinicians and, flushed with excitement, dreamed of writing the definitive book on the child.

    The death of Stefa Wilczynska´s father in January 1911 probably brought Korczak back to Warsaw. It was an inauspicious beginning for the new year. Then, in February, Waclaw Nalkowski, Korczak"s mentor from the Flying University, collapsed on the street at the age of fifty-five and died a few days later in the hospital. The loss of Nalkowski sent shock waves through Warsaw´s intellectual community' or what was left of it. Dawid was in Cracow, a lonely man after Jadwiga' s suicide, writing on the psychology of religious experience. And now Nalkowski, with his uncompromising principles that made him foes as well as friends, could no longer give Korczak sustenance. In his eulogy at the funeral, Korczak sought to console the large crowd of Polish patriots.

    A happy man died-a man who lived the way he wanted, and died the way he wanted, in a hospitalbed. He was not killed by those who today, like cowards, sing his praise. He was not killed by those who lived and got fat eating the crumbs of his thought. He was not killed by those who could not see his greatness. He did not fight any of them. He merely dismissed them with a toss of his head. It was Death who felled Nalkowski. Let us rejoice that he lived on Polish soil.

    Helping Nalkowski´s widow, herself a geologist, organize his papers and seeing to last-minute details of the orphanage plans did not lift Korczak´s spirits. Right after the cornerstone of the building was laid on June 14, 1911, he left for England to visit orphanages there-but also, one suspects, to shake his depression. He was to have an experience there that appears to have given him a clearer sense of the direction his personal life was to take. It began with a refreshing ride from London to the suburb of Forest Hill to visit an orphanage. He was struck by the large windows and wide benches of the trolley, the smoothness of the ride. He was equally impressed at finding Forest Hill an affluent suburb with rolling green lawns as far as the eye could see. He felt like a country bumpkin as he admired the clippers on long poles which the gardeners were using to cut hedges, and paused for a while to see how a lawn mower worked.

    But the biggest surprise was the orphanage, "two little one-story houses sitting together like twins, thirty boys in one, thirty girls in the other." Why would an affluent area like Forest Hill have orphans? he wondered. What do the people die of in a place like this? The director greeted him politely and showed him around "with no trace of German arrogance or French formality." He saw the carpentry shop where the boys trained, and the laundry, sewing room, and embroidery workshop for the girls. Every child had his or her own garden plot, and kept rabbits, doves, or guinea pigs. There was even a museum next to the school that held, among other treasures, one small mummy.

    On leaving, he signed the visitor´s book-Janusz Korczak, Warsaw. He didn´t need language to know what everyone had been thinking as he was shown around: ´Warsaw? A strange guest from far away. Why is he looking at everything with such interest? The school? But there are children, so there must be a school. The orphanage? But there are orphans, so they must have someplace to stay. Swimming pool? Playground? But all of this is necessary.´

    He was conscious of his threadbare clothes and worn shoes and felt like a beggar who had wandered in by chance. Walking back to the trolley stop, he was again overwhelmed by the luxuriant green lawns, the manicured parks, and the large community swimming pool. Suddenly perceiving his life as "disordered, lonely, and cold," he saw himself as a shabby stranger, alienated and alone. And it came to him with sudden clarity that the son of a madman, "a slave who is a Polish Jew under Russian occupation," had no right to bring a child into the world.

    This realization "cut through him like a knife," he would write, and immediately he felt as if he had "committed suicide." The child he might have fathered died with him at that moment, but there emerged a "revitalized" man who took for a son "the idea of serving the child and his rights." He who was ambivalent about so rnany things had now settled once and for all on remaining childless. He was giving up the responsibilities of marriage and family at which his father had failed-and for which, in truth, he, Janusz Korczak, had never shown any inclination. Though he could not remain a child´ he would inhabit the world of childhood, but as the "responsible pedagogue"> his father was not. He was thirty-three: almost the same age his father had been when he was born.

    "Out of a mad soul we forge a sane deed," he wrote in later years. The deed was "a vow to uphold the child and defend his rights." No religious order had asked him for such a vow-but he was to uphold it as conscientiously as any priest.

    [ back ] [ Index ] [ next ]