Janusz Korczak Communication - Center
» Homepage «

 
Janusz Korczak Biography

[ back ] [ Index ] [ next ]

The Children´s Republic

The child-a skilled actor with a hundred masks:
a different one for his mother, father, grandmother or
grandfather, for a stern or lenient teacher,
for the cook or maid, for his own friends, for the rich and poor.
Naive and cunning, humble and haughty, gentle and vengeful,
well behaved and willful, he disguises himself
so well that he can lead us by the nose.

- How to love a Child

 

    Because the orphanage wasn´t completed on schedule, the children were unable to move in until October of 1912. They had already vacated their former shelter and were forced to wait in temporary quarters in the countryside long after it had been deserted by summer vacationers. Used to the bustle of the crowded city slums, they were filled with anxiety, imagining the surrounding woods to be full of cannibals and wild animals. When "those noisy, frozen, excited, impudent" boys and girls finally arrived at 92 Krochmalna one rainy afternoon, they were still carrying sticks and clubs from their woodland games and looked a little wild themselves.

    The four-storied white house, one of the first in Warsaw to have central heating and electricity, loomed before the orphans like something out of a fairy tale. They wandered breathlessly through the huge firstfloor room, with its tall windows and two-story cathedral ceiling, that was to serve as a dining hall, study, and play area, and stared in disbelief at the tiled bathrooms with toilets that flushed, and with gleaming porcelain sinks equipped with both hot and cold running water, all so unlike the foul, rat-infested outhouses they had known. Everything, even the tiled kitchen, was clean and beautiful, as if designed for very important people. After dinner, the children were bathed in the large porcelain tubs.

    Then, dressed in warm nightclothes, they were shown to their assigned beds in the boys´ and girls´ dormitories, which were separated by a small glassed-in room from which Korczak planned to observe and reassure them.

    The smallest children were given iron cots separated by wooden partitions, which Korczak had designed with a wide hole in the middle in case they woke in the night and needed to reach out for someone. But still they were scared, large and small alike. One of the girls, who had never slept without her two sisters huddled against her on their dirty straw pallet, burst into tears. And a boy who had never seen a bed with white sheets before crawled under it. Korczak and Stefa went from cot to cot, touching the children, kissing them, comforting them, until everyone was asleep. Setting up their little republic was to prove a sixteen-hour-a-day job-without breaks, holidays, or weekends, Korczak would say. And Stefa would recall that for the first few years she was so busy she couldn´t take part in the real life of Warsaw. she might as well have been living, in a provincial town. But for both of them all that mattered was that this shared experiment not fail.

    As it turned out, Korczak would refer to that first year of the Orphans Home as the worst year of his life. He had believed that after his camp experiences he could never again be taken by surprise, but he was wrong. Rather than appreciating their new accommodations and accepting the rules of communal life, the children had "declared war" even before he realized what was going on. For the second time he was confronted by a menacing community before whom he stood helpless. Overwhelmed by all his regulations, the children adopted a position ofabsolute resistance that no cajoling could overcome. Coercion produced resentment. The new home they had been waiting for so eagerly had become hateful.

    Only later did Korczak realize how difficult it was for the children to give up their old way of life. Shabby and imperfect as their former shelter had been, lacking light and adequate furnishings, they actually missed it. They were "dwarfed by the magnificence´' of this new setting. The "impersonal necessity" of a regular routine seemed to "erase" them. Those children who had been leaders wilted and failed; those who had been cooperative now balked at every turn. They were unmoved by Korczak's lofty sentiments about the dignity of work. (" A clean polished table is as important as a neatly written page.") They watched skeptically as he placed the mop and broom, which he proclaimed noble works of art, in a place of honor by the dormitory door.

    Refusing to bow down to a mop and a broom, they rebelled, became conspiratorial. They put pebbles down the washbasins, disconnected the bell, scribbled on the walls. They spread rumors at lunch that a worm had been found in the soup, and refused to eat. They took bread from the table, which was forbidden, and hid it under their pillows and mattresses. Things would get irretrievably lost or misplaced. Who did it? No one knew. Who spilled it? Who broke it? Silence.

    Sometimes, when Korczak was shouting-"Stealing again! I´m not going to waste my energy on the education of crooks!"-he found his voice breaking and his eyes smarting with tears offrustration. He consoled himself that every new teacher must experience this difficult testing hour. But he knew that, no matter how harassed he felt, he had to give the impression that he was in control of the community. He learned not to "fly off the handle, " even when one of the biggest rascals broke an expensive china urinal while cleaning it, and not long after a jar containing more than a gallon of cod-liver oil. His restraint paid off; it won him "an ally " Slowly the "collective conscience" was aroused. Day by day a few more children came over to his side.

    After six months, when everyone was finally beginning to settle in, fifty new children were admitted. Once again the little community was in turmoil as the newcomers rebelled and defied authority. The new staff also caused problems. A school had been organized in the home by the philanthropists, but the teachers they hired walked about like "aristocrats, " creating an "abyss" between themselves and the cook, janitor, and washerwoman, to whom they felt superior. Hating pedantry of any kind (he often said he would rather leave a child in the care of an old woman who had bred chickens for five years than with a newly graduated nurse), Korczak dismissed the teachers, who he truly did believe were less essential than the menial workers who kept the orphanage functioning. He sent the children off to schools in the area, retaining only one instructor to help with homework.

    It was almost a year before Korczak and Stefa felt they had established a firm base for the little republic. ("For want of a foundation, the roof fell in," became one of his favorite expressions.) They were exhausted but triumphant at finding themselves free of the troublesome personnel. The child could now become the "patron, the worker, and the head of the home."

    Not all of the orphans were from poor families. Grigori Schmukler, a violin prodigy, was admitted at the age of twelve after the death of his father, a doctor. Korczak, who loved music, arranged for Grigori to give small fund-raising concerts in the salons of some of the orphanage´s patrons. And at night, before the children went to sleep, he sometimes invited Grigori into the glassed-in cubicle between the two dormitories to play Gluck and Polish folksongs for everyone. After the lights were out, Korczak would sit in the semidarkness of the cubicle writing, like a pilot in a cockpit responsible for the well-being of his crew. He enjoyed the murmur ofmuffled voices that wafted in, for he understood "the deep, warm, spiritual yearnings of children for softly whispered confidences, melancholic reminiscences, and heartfelt advice."

    And he was curious. "What were you talking about in the dormitory last night?" he might ask the next day.
    The children were unselfconscious in their replies:
    "I was telling him what it was like when my dad was alive."
    "I asked him why Poles don´t like Jews."
    "I told him if he tried harder, you wouldn´t be angry with him."
    "i said when i grow up, I want to take a trip to the Eskimos and teach them to read and build houses like ours."

    Korczak responded warmly as the orphans spoke of their innermost feelings. No one knew more than he how paradoxical life was: he wanted them to have brave dreams, but he also wanted them to be realistic about the chances of those dreams coming true. "Dare to dream" he wrote in a book called Glory, about three children with high but unrealistic goals. "Something will always come of it." In The Unlucky Week, an imaginative boy, very much like Henryk Goldszmit, can´t do anything right in school or at home because his teacher and parents are incapable of understanding his feelings. The stories caught the fancy of the public. Korczak was the first in Polish literature to create a child as hero, one who spoke colloquially rather than in the stilted language that fictional children, always peripheral to the plot, had been burdened with in the past.

    While Korczak was recotding his orphans´ patois, he was aware that they managed to repress during the day. Walking among the beds listening to the "symphony of children´s breathing," observing the grace or torment of the dreamers' positions-even as he fretted over whether a cough was bronchial or just caused by nerves-he took notes for a "major book" on sleeping children and the night. Yet the thought crossed his mind: Did he have the right to observe these children when they were most vulnerable? "Why pry? ." he asked himself. "Let Nature keep her secrets." But the scientist had to pry, even as the educator brooded about the morality involved.

    Sometimes he would sit tormented in his cubicle, knowing there was nothing he could do to reassure a child who was mourning a dead parent or lonely for his brothers and sisters. Tears were inevitable, but he could never get used to the choked, hopeless, tragic sobs, which must have reminded him of his own at that age when he grieved over his sick father. He knew that there are as many kinds of sobs as there are children: from the "quiet and private, to the capricious and insincere, to the uncontrolled and shamelessly naked." "It is not the child, but the centuries weeping," he wrote in his notebook.

    An eight-year-old boy woke with a toothache. Grabbing Korczak´s hand, he spilled out his anguish:
    ". . . then my mother died. Then I was sent to my grandmother, but she also died. Then i was taken to my aunt´s but she wasn´t home. It was cold. My uncle took me in. Very poor. I was hungry. His children were sick. He put me in the storage room so I wouldn´t catch anything. My teeth always hurt at night. Then a woman took me for a short time, but she walked me to a square and left me. It was dark. I was afraid. Boys started to push me. Then a policeman took me to the station. Everyone was Poles. They sent me to my aunt. She shouted at me, and made me swear not to tell you everything that´ s happened to me. Can I stay here? I can? Aren't you cross with me for throwing the ball on the grass? i didn't know it was forbidden."

    "He fell asleep," Korczak noted. "It was strange, but for a brief moment I definitely saw an aura of light around his tired eight-year-old head. I had seen such a phenomenon only once before." And he added:
    "Even as I write this, i know that no one will understand. It is impossible unless one has been in a large orphanage dormitory in the still of night."

    The worst ruffians, who bad tried his patience all day, might break down at night. When he heard Moishe sob, he rushed to his bed. "Don´t cry. You´ll wake the others." Then, kneeling beside him, he whispered:
    "You know I love you. But I can't let you get away with everything. The wind didn't break the windowpane. You did. You tried to ruin everyone´s games, didn´t eat your supper, and started a fight in the dorm. I´m not angry . . . "
    It didn´t surprise Korczak that his words only produced a fresh flow of tears: "Sometimes consolation has the opposite effect-it can aggravate rather than soothe the child´s feelings." But although Moishe´s sobbing was of an even gyeater intensity than before, it was briefer. "Maybe you're hungry. Shall I get you a roll?" The boy refused. "Sleep now, sleep, son," Korczak whispered. Then he touched Moishe lightly. "Sleep."

    Korczak felt humble at this moment. If only he could shield his children from danger, "keep them in storage" until they became strong enough for independent flight: " An easy enough job for a hawk or hen to warm chicks with her own body. For me, a man and teacher of children not my own, a more complex task. I long to see my little community soar, dream of them flying high. Yearning for their perfection is my sad, secret prayer. But when I am realistic, I know that as soon as they are able they will take off-prowl, stray´ or plunder-in search of nourishment and pleasure."

    Some of the children did stray off the property for short excursions: several girls went back to the old shelter on Franciszkanska Street just to see it again, and three brothers walked out of town to visit their old house and the forest where they had played. They had to appear before the children´s court (which operated irregularly those two years before World War I) for breaking the rule about not leaving the gyounds without permission and being late to supper. The judges were lenient, and Korczak noted that "even children have nostalgia, a longing for that which once was and will not return."

    Predicting that, in the future, teachers colleges would offer courses in educational journalism, Korczak launched the orphanage newspaper, which he called the "alphabet oflife" because it linked one week to another and bound the children together. "With a paper, we´ll be able to know everything that´s happening," he said. "It doesn´t matter that we begin with a small handwritten one. Someday we´ll type it, maybe even print it. ´,

    The children waited eagerly for Saturday mornings when it was Korczak´s custom to read his special column in the paper aloud. (Generations of children would recall the vividness of his style and the warmth of his voice.) "Do you remember," he wrote in one column, "how you didn´t have any close friend when you arrived here, and you felt sad and lonely? Do you remember who pushed or hit you and told you to give him something and you had to obey? . . . Now there are new children who feel the same way you did, and don´t know their way around. We hope you will take care of your new comrades." And in another: "We waited for it to happen. And it is happening. Children are bringing gifts to their families from our horne. We wondered what sort of presents they would be: maybe needles, pencils, a bar ofsoap? But, no, they are very different! One girl told her brother a fairy tale she heard here, a boy sang a song he had just learned, another demonstrated how he could wash dishes, and a few reported what they had read in our newspaper."

    The children delivered their "gifts" every Saturday afternoon after lunch when they were permitted to visit whatever family members they had left. Korczak felt strongly that they should not lose contact with their relatives. "Children without a family feel handicapped," he said. "Even a bad family is better than none." However, as a health precaution, children were not allowed to stay overnight. When they returned at seven in the evening, they were checked for lice.

    There were rumblings in the Warsaw Jewish community that the Orphans Home was "too Polish." Korczak was accused of running an "assimilationist f actory" even though the orphanage kept kosher and observed the Sabbath and every Jewish holiday. It even invited many of its supporters to its annual Passover seders. Grigori Schmukler remembers the rabbi who conducted the first seder, and how disappointed he and the other children were when they dashed out the door that had been opened for Elijah and didn´t find anyone. But they did find the matzoh which had been hidden in a locker in the dining hall and were given candy as a prize.

    The children looked forward to Sabbath dinner each Friday night, not only because of the importance it had had in their own homes, but because Korczak made it so much fun. After their baths, after he had led them in a long line snaking up and down the stairs through the house, after the Sabbath candles were lit and they had a festive dinner, after they played lotto and won little candies, after they had put on their pajamas and were in bed, Korczak would come up to either the boys´ or the girls´ dormitory, depending on whose turn it was, to tell a story.

    He could easily have made up a new one each time, but he favored the old fairy tales, especially ."Puss in Boots." He never tired ofrecounting the pranks of that seemingly worthless cat who managed by cunning and ingenuity to win his poor master a princess and a kingdom. Korczak knew that children who feel worthless in a society that doesn´t value them, who feel angry and powerless because their parents, due to death or poverty, can no longer protect them, need to believe that there are magic forces that can help them overcome their difficulties.

    "I always thought in terms of obstacles," he wrote. "if I´m traveling somewhere by ship, then there´s a storm. IfI´m in charge ofsome project, I have trouble at first, and only in the end do I succeed. Because it´s boring if things go well from the start . . ." Fairy tales, with their obstacles that the hero or heroine must overcome through perseverance and strength of will, appealed to him because they were so close to life.

    "is it true?" he once heard a child ask while he was telling a story that involved a wizard, a dragon, fairies, and a princess under a spell. Another child answered in a superior voice: "Didn´t you hear him say it was a fairy tale?" Faced with the question ofhow children perceive reality, Korczak decided: "The story lacks reality for the child only because we have told him that fairy tales are not true."

    Korczak was drawn to the implicit moral of these tales-that simple, good people are ultimately rewarded for their virtuous nature while the wicked are punished. He reveled in his role of storyteller, describing Puss in his elegant breeches and high boots, the feather tucked jauntily in his cap, the tension when the King´s chariot appears with the Princess who will eventually marry Puss´s poor master. And no matter where he was in the plot, he wasn´t offended when the youngest dropped off to sleep, because, as he liked to say, he had learned a "lesson in humility" from a flock of sheep at summer camp. It happened during an outing after he gave in to the bovs´ clamor for a fairy tale. They had pulled him to the ground, fought over who would sit next to him, and hung breath- lessly on his every word. Just as he was getting to the most exciting part, a flock of sheep ambled by, bleating and kicking up dust, and Bromberg (who was always losing things, like his buttons) jumped up, shouting: ""Look, sheep!" All the boys immediately leapt up and ran toward the flock, forgetting the storyteller. At first, sitting there alone, Korczak had been upset, but later he realized that he had the sheep to thank for making him "less arrogant, even modest."

    When news of the progressive Warsaw orphanage experimenting with self-government spread beyond Poland to other countries, Korczak found that, along with everything else, he bad to cope with a constant parade of foreign officials and educators, including a team of Russian architects who spent days copying the layout of the house. Yet, despite its fame, the little republic was not immune to the "evil whisper of the street seeping in under the door."

    In 1910, while the home was under construction, there had been explosive outbursts of anti-Semitism. fueled by politicians like Roman Dmowski, the leader of the right-wing national democratic movement. "There is not room for two races on the banks of the Vistula," Dmowski preached, alluding to the fact that Warsaw´s three hundred thousand Jews made up one-third of the city´s population. The Jews were a foreign element in Polish society, Dmowski contended, and unsympathetic to national liberation. A militant nationalist told Korczak in a despairing tone over coffee: "Tell me, what is one to do? The Jews are digging our grave." And another Polish acquaintance lamented: "Your virtues are a death sentence to us."

    As if reasoned words might have the power to stem the tide of rising anti-Semitism, Korczak wrote an article, "Three Currents," for a major Polish journal. Acknowledging that a complex relationship had always existed between the Poles and the Jews, and that the antagonisms came from both sides, he called for faith in the shared history that bound them together.

    There were three distinct currents running through Polish society, he pointed out. The first one, made up of aristocratic Poles whose names ended in "-ski and -icz," had always wanted to live separately from those whose names ended in "-berg, -sohn, and -stein." The second current, made up of "the heirs of Solomon, David, Isaiah, the Maccabees, the Halevis and Spinozas-lawgivers, thinkers, poets the oldest aristocracy in Europe, with the Ten Commandments as their coat of arms," also preferred to live apart.

    But then there was the third current, whose members had always declared: "We are sons of the same clay. Ages of mutual suffering and success link us on the same chain. The same sun shines upon us, the same hail destroys our fields, the same earth hides the bones of our ancestors. There have been more tears than smiles in our history, but that was neither of our faults. Let us light a common fire together . . ." He ended the article with his own personal avowal: "I am in the third current."

    Anti-Semitism continued to grow like a fungus in the shadow of Polish nationalism. Shortly after Korczak and Stefa moved the children into the orphanage in 1912, there were rumors that a group of Russian laborers working on the bridges over the Vistula would start a pogrom. The lights in the Jewish quarter would be knocked out, and the Russians would come disguised in old Jewish robes, which, it was said, they were busily procuring from second-hand dealers. Korczak kept the small gate in the side wall unlocked for a fast exit should there be any violence.

    In 1913, anti-Semitic hysteria was kindled further by the Beilis trial then in progress in Kiev. Mendel Beilis, a minor clerk, was accused of killing a Christian in order to use his blood for a Passover ceremony. Similar accusations had been leveled at Jews for centuries in Eastern and Central Europe, but word of this one spread across Poland like brushfire. Grigori Schmukler remembers that some children threw stones at him and other orphans as they went to and from school, shouting: "Beilis! Beilis!" Even when Beilis was acquitted by the Kiev jury, the children continued their taunts: "Set the dogs on the Jews!"

    Korczak tried to keep good relations with the neighboring children by inviting them over to play after school with his orphans. The eminent German philosopher Hermann Cohen, paying a visit on the last stop.of his tour of East European Jewish communities in 1914, was amazed at what was being accomplished at the orphanage in such trying conditions. Unlike other assimilated Western Jews who looked with condescension on their Eastern brethren as being scarcely out of the Dark Ages, Cohen wrote glowingly in Martin Buber´s newspaper Der Jude: "I was deeply moved by my visits to exemplary orphan asylums, especially the one directed with ineffable love and modern understanding by Dr. Goldszmit of Warsaw."

    As rumors of impending war filled the cafés that spring and summer, Korczak tried a new kind of diplomacy. H e persuaded the Orphans Aid Society to buy two hundred pots of flowers for the children to distribute to their neighbors. The rest of Warsaw might be preoccupied with the possibility of world conflict, but up and down their end of Krochmalna red geraniums would blaze in the sun.

    [ back ] [ Index ] [ next ]