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Response to The King of Children

(All page numbers refer to Betty Jean Lifton, King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.)

I would like to introduce you to my newest friend—and perhaps my biggest hero: Janusz Korczak (KOR-chock). He is the man I dreamt of being long before I knew him. In some ways, I succeeded; in some ways, I failed.

Born in Poland in 1878 as Henryk Goldszmit, he was raised in a secular Jewish family wanting for little. "He was a dreamy child who would play for hours on his own" (14). "To escape the tensions in his troubled household, the boy disappeared...into the world of his imagination" (26). After graduating from medical school, he quickly became known as Warsaw's best children's doctor. Although his clientele included some of the city's most prominent families, he always reserved time to minister to the poorest and most neglected little ones, seeking them out wherever they could be found. He wrote, "I am a person concerned above all else with the problem of uplifting the lives of children" (34).

Soon he began to write books for adults and children, taking up the pen name Janusz Korczak, the name by which he would eventually best be known. As a doctor, he called for basic hospital reforms; and as an author, he celebrated the life and rights of the child.

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. (45)

"[I]t was not so much the medicine as the magic of Dr. Goldszmit's way with children that made them well" (46). He initiated a children's newspaper to give the children of his city a voice. He set up a children's court at the summer camp where he began to work in order to allow children the chance to judge their peers. And he volunteered his time at a local orphanage. "The orphans would scream with delight at the sight of the slim, modest, balding doctor whose pockets were always filled with candy and magic tricks, and whose repertoire of riddles and fairy tales was limitless" (60). His experience with the orphans soon persuaded him to become the director of a brand new orphanage. "[R]ather than renouncing medicine for pedagogy, he could combine the two disciplines.... 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'" (62).

Korczak strove to create The Children's Republic with this basic philosophy: "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" (62). His decades of work in the orphanage came to define his legacy. "He reveled in his role of storyteller.... [The kids]...pulled him to the ground, fought over who would sit next to him, and hung breathlessly on his every word" (74). In his journal, he noted "how differently children perceive things from adults.... We have difficulty finding a common language with children because even though they use the same words we do, they fill them with an entirely different content" (84). Nonetheless, he was masterful at bridging that gap, bringing "world politics down to size" (98) by giving each orphan his or her own drawer or closet where no one else could go without their permission.

In life at the orphanage, "[n]othing concerning children was too trivial for Korczak's attention" (119). He made games out of things that were boring or stressful, gave extra attention to those children who were not popular or needed encouragement, and even created a casino where the kids could place bets on how much better they would act in the upcoming week. He knew that a "strategy that was effective with one child might not be with another" and that "an educator should also be part actor" (126). He would bargain over the prices he would pay for their teeth and then use them to build a tooth castle. He would chastise the junior teachers he had hired if they threw away a child's collection of junk, knowing full well that such little odds and ends can be immensely important to a child.

When asked to teach a class on pedagogy at a nearby university, he refused to use textbooks or give tests. He taught the student teachers the importance of observation and emphasized the fact that "adults are insensitive to the suffering of children" (145). When asked to help start another orphanage, he made it his second home.

"The children of Our Home [the second orphanage] would wait for Korczak by the windows or down at the gate. A boy might want to sell a loose tooth; an older girl might need his help in getting permission to go to a real beauty parlor for her next haircut; others might just want to have a piggyback ride, or to look in his pockets for the candy he always carried." (164)

And back home: "Whenever the doctor ran out of his office, he was immediately surrounded by children flocking to him like chickens to a mother hen.... [He] laughed with them [and] listened to their nonsensical chatter with great interest" (166).

"At forty-seven, he was aware of the passage of time, that he was slipping toward the half-century mark—not a respectable age for a child. The fact that his body had betrayed him by growing into an adult shape was one of the strange ironies of his life. For walk as he might among adults in their hypocritical world, resemble them as he might with his 'watch and mustache and desk full of drawers,' he knew that he was really an imposter" (170). He wrote: "You are mistaken if you think we have to lower ourselves to communicate with children. On the contrary, we have to reach up to their feelings, stretch, stand on our tiptoes" (172). Children who knew him would later recall that "he gave you the feeling he was talking to a colleague," and "Korczak would talk to us, understand us. Sometimes his face was that of a dreaming child" (177). "The children felt there were no barriers with Korczak" (178).

Ending a visit to Palestine, he left his new friends with five commandments: "Love the child, not just your own. Observe the child. Do not pressure the child. Be honest with yourself in order to be honest with the child. Know yourself so that you do not take advantage of a defenseless child" (203). He said of himself: "If I'm with a group of children I can always pace myself, I know instinctively when they are going to laugh, cry, or ask questions" (208). "He spoke to children as if they were adults, and to adults as if they were children" (230). "[H]e quoted a Talmudic scholar: 'I have learned a great deal from my teachers and colleagues, but I have learned most of all from my students'" (231).

And then came the occupation of Poland by the Nazis. The walled off Jewish ghetto went from bad to worse, and yet "[t]hose who visited the orphanage found it an oasis in the midst of hell" (274). With everyone suffering from malnutrition, he kept them busy and distracted by writing a play and finding ways to celebrate the holidays. It was "his way of transcending the evil around him" (333). But eventually their day came. On August 6, 1942, the Germans entered Korczak's orphanage and ordered everyone out. Korczak "encouraged the children to line up quietly in rows of four.... He had to try to reassure the children as they lined up fearfully, clutching their little flasks of water, their favorite books, their diaries and toys. But what could he tell them..." (339). "Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children's republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and [another child] by the other" (240). "As the children followed Korczak away from the orphanage, one of the teachers started singing a marching song, and everyone joined in: 'Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high'" (341). After a long, hot march, they arrived at a train station. Because of his reputation and high-level connections, Korczak was given an opportunity to escape and hide. "But [he] wouldn't consider it; if he left the children even for a moment in this terrifying place, they might panic" (344). "Unlike the usual chaotic mass of people shrieking hysterically as they were prodded along with whips, the orphans walked in rows of four with quiet dignity.... As Korczak led his children calmly toward the cattle cars, the Jewish police cordoning off a path for them saluted instinctively.... Korczak walked, head held high, holding a child by each hand, his eyes staring straight ahead with his characteristic gaze, as if seeing something far away" (345).

That was the last that anyone saw of Janusz Korczak or his children. The train they boarded took them straight to Treblinka, the extermination camp where people were gassed or shot immediately upon arrival. Even though Our Home, the other orphanage that Korczak helped to start, was not a Jewish orphanage, those children were evacuated to a small village in southern Poland where they waited out the war and survived by begging. "After the war,...the orphanage was restored. It still operates under the system of self-government that [its director] and Korczak initiated" (350).

© 2006 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written August 2006