Tuesday, March 24, 2009

janusz korczak warsaw paris of the east

It was part of his nature to accompany the children to Treblinka and his life was of a pattern to make moral decisions defined by his actions.

It was not something to take account of, and he would not understand our magnifying of his actions.

He would write that children's' games were not frivolous but stretched their boundaries.

To go in search of Janusz Korczak, as i did, was to seek a man who was no
longer there in a place that was no longer there. His multi-ethnic world no
longer exists. Warsaw, once called the Paris of the East, vibrant with
fine restaurants, and cabarets, was leveled by the Germans during the
of the Poles in 1944. Rebuilt after the war (with the baroque
Palace of Culture,
an unwelcome gift from the Russians, dominating the
skyline), the city resonates
with economic and political discontent.
During my four trips to Poland and
my two trips to Israel between 1979
and 1986, the Korczakians were always
generous enough to delve into their
memories for one more detail about their
experiences with Korczak. in the
sparse archives in Warsaw and Israel I was able
to find a few books of
reminiscences by people who had known Korczak in one
capacity or another.
There were also copies of his twenty-four published fiction
and nonfiction
books-many of them autobiographical-as well as the newspaper and
articles, numbering over one thousand, that he wrote throughout his
Other than the six dozen letters written in the late twenties and thirties
that were saved by their recipients in Palestine, all that remains of
private papers is the diary that he wrote in the last desperate
months of his
life. Smuggled out of the ghetto after his death, it was
sealed up in the walls
of his Catholic orphanage in the Warsaw suburb of
Bielany and retrieved after
the war ended.
Although Korczak died a year
before the Warsaw Ghetto
Uprising, many of his surviving Jewish orphans and
teachers returned to Poland
from all over the world to honor him during the
commemoration of the Uprising´s
fortieth anniversary in April of 1983. They
came reluctantly, some because of
the imposition of martial law in 1981 and
the disbanding of Solidarity, but most
because of the pain of reliving the
past and of seeing how little remained of
the world they had known.
is this lost world of Janusz Korczak, and of
Warsaw's 350,000 Jews, that one
encounters when one visits the former site of
the Jewish quarter. It had
been walled in by the Nazis to make the ghetto, and
then burned by them to
make the barren stretch of rubble that for many years
after the war the
Poles referred to as the "Wild West." New buildings have
gradually risen
over the ashes and rubble. The Ghetto Fighters Monument sits in
the center
of this unnatural landscape, reminding one of the unnatural cruelties
were committed there.
The International Janusz Korczak Association, based in
Warsaw, invited its members to an unveiling of his bust that now commands the
front courtyard of the former Jewish orphanage. The irony would not be lost on
the Old Doctor that the four-storied white building, gutted during the war, was
restored in the mid-fifties without the garret room that had served as his
study. The stretch of roof is no longer broken by the graceful arc of the
three-paned window through which he had peered at the children playing below and
fed the wild sparrows who kept him company. When the unveiling ceremony was
over, the Korczakians wandered through the orphanage, looking-for what?
Themselves as children or apprentice teachers? For the Old Doctor? For Stefa
Wilczynska, who had been his codirector for thirty years?
The Polish orphans
who live there now moved like phantoms through the halls, making room for the
old phantoms who had come back. They invited us to sit in the large recreation
room, which had also served for dining and studying in Korczak's day, to watch
them perform two short plays: one a humorous skit based on a scene from King
Matt; the other a reenactment of the march by Korczak and the Jewish orphans to
the train that transported them to Treblinka. The Polish children became the
ill-fated Jewish ones they had heard so much about, walking slowly with Korczak
to their unknown destination, even climbing up into an imaginary cattle car and
gathering in a circle around him, swaying with the movement of the train, as he
told them one last story in which good prevails over evil.
On the chartered
bus that was taking us back to our lodgings, I sat next to Michal (Misha)
Wroblewski, a teacher who was the last among the survivors to have seen Korczak
alive. He bad been working on the other side of the wall -at a job Korczak had
managed to find for him- and returned to the ghetto orphanage late that
afternoon to find everyone gone.
Misha was silent for some time, and then he
leaned over to me:" You know, everyone makes so much of Korczak´s last decision
to go with the children to the train. But his whole life was made up of moral
decisions. The decision to become a children´s doctor. The decision to give up
medicine and his writing career to take care of poor orphans. The decision to go
with the Jewish orphans into the ghetto. As for that last decision to go with
the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature. It was who he was. He
wouldn´t understand why we are making so much of it today. "
As I worked on
this book back in New York City and Cape Cod, I came to see
Korczak as a man who walked without fear over what the Hasidim call the narrow
bridge of life, making at each stage the moral decisions that would inform his

The boy heard repeatedly from his mother that poor children were dirty, used bad language, and had lice in their hair. They fought, threw stones, got their eyes poked out, and caught terrible diseases. But he saw nothing wrong with the janitor´s son and his friends. They ran about merrily all day, drank water from the well, and bought delicious candy from the hawkers whom he wasn´t allowed to go near. Their bad words were actually funny, and it was a hundred times more inviting to be down there with them than in that boring apartment with his French governess and his little sister Anna. "A child is someone who needs to move," he would write one day; to forbid this is "to strangle him, put a gag in his mouth, crush his will, burn his strength, leaving only the smell of smoke."
"That boy has no ambition," his mother said when she saw him playing hide-and-seek with his sister's doll. She didn´t understand that while searching for the doll, he moved into dimensions beyond the narrow confines of his apartment.
"The doll wasn't merely a doll, but the ransom in a crime, a hidden body which had to be tracked down. "
"Children's games aren't frivolous," he would write. "Uncovering a secret, finding a hidden object, proving that there is nothing that cannot be found-that´s the whole point."
His father flew into a rage, calling him "a clod, fool, or an idiot" when he saw him sitting for hours with his building blocks. He didn´t understand that Henryk was constructing the solitary towers that would appear in King Matt the First "and other books as a symbol of refuge for the orphaned and the lost. "Feelings that have no outlet become daydreams," he wrote. "And daydreams become the internal script of life. If we knew how to interpret them, we would find they come true. But not always in the way we expect."

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