Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Korczak Haskalah and leaping the fence

Janusz Korczak's grandfather was an exponent of Haskalah and in that way confronted his Jewish identity. He was a dreamer and man of action as was his grandson Henryk. Hirsh cut off his beard and side locks, took off his caftan for a western suit, and Polish became his mother tongue rather than Yiddish. This aping of the west was reflective of the Jewish young to burst the bonds of what they considered the confining ghetto, what the rabbis considered as fences around the Torah a necessity to safeguarding the Torah values they held dear and indispensable for identity. Cnturies of pogroms in the diaspora inbred among the Jews of Eastern Europe a standoffishness to Gentiles and a feeling of comfort among their own. "Don't get mixed with the outside and remain pure" the rabbis warned. Hirsh thought to become western in the Haskalah he could still maintain those Torah values. He leaped the fence got his medical degree married Chana Eiser and became the first doctor in his town of Hrubieszow. He gave his 3 sons and two daughters Christian names as well as Hebrew names.Hirsh remained a Jew however and did not convert and lived among an intransigent population for the most part of his peers who refused modernization and bridges with the west that he tried so hard to build . The Poles retorted with the all too familiar pattern of hard core resistance and suspicion to those Jews who tried to assume modernity in their dress and their imitation of the gentile culture.

Henryk had stumbled upon a problem -the Jewish problem- that confronted all
Polish Jews at some time in their lives. He would learn that his paternal
grandfather, Hirsh Goldszmit, after whom he was named, had spent his life trying
to solve it. Hirsh died at the age of sixty-nine in 1874, just a few years
before his grandson was born, in the provincial town of Hrubieszow, southeast of
Hirsh was a dreamer and a man of action, much as his grandson would
be. In the early nineteenth century he joined the Haskalah, the Jewish
Enlightenment movement that encouraged Jews to become part of the secular world.
The Jews had been welcomed into Poland by the Polish kings in the Middle Ages,
but they had remained isolated in the society.
Hirsh and his fellow maskilim
tried to convince them that if they cut off their beards and sidelocks,
exchanged their long caftans for Western suits, and made Polish rather than
Yiddish their primary language, they could still retain their spiritual values.
It was an arduous task Centuries of discrimination in the diaspora had made them
suspicious of Gentiles and comfortable only among themselves
. " Build a fence
around the Torah, and don`t get mixed up with anything from the outside " was a
popular saying.
Somehow Hirsh, whose father was a glazier and trader in
rabbit skins, managed to leap over the fence and make his way to medical school.
After receiving his degree, he married Chana Ejser, two years his junior, and
became the first doctor in Hrubieszow's small Jewish hospital. In true Haskalah
spirit, Hirsh gave his three sons and two daughters Christian as well as Hebrew
names, and as a leader in the Jewish community -whose three thousand Jews made
up half the town´s population- he took advantage of any chance to praise ways in
which Poles and Jews worked together. Soliciting funds for his small hospital in
the regional Hebrew newspaper, Hirsh commended the two rabbis who had gone about
like "beggars" collecting donations in spite of advanced age, poor health, and
little means of their own, as well as the Gentile on the charity board who
"spared no effort" in helping them.

But Hirsh´s claim that a secular education would not lead one´s children away from their own faith and into the dreaded jaws of conversion was weakened in 1849 when his eldest son, eighteen-year-old Ludwik, converted. Although conversion was not an uncommon occurrence in that impassioned period of Polish uprisings against the Russians, Hirsh himself remained a Jew, continuing to exhaust himself with projects that would build bridges between his people and the Poles.
It was not only the intransigence ofhis own people that made Hirsh´s task so frustrating, but the fact that a good many Poles did not consider a Jew, no matter how enlightened, a Pole. When Korczak´s father, Jozef, was born in 1844, Hirsh had to go to the Office of Non-Christian Religions with two Jewish witnesses to register him. He took the capmaker and the innkeeper. Four years later, he asked the synagogue caretaker and the ritual slaughterer to testify to the birth of his next boy, Jakub. Rather than converting like their older brother, Jozef and Jakub would carry on their father´s assimilationist mission by dedicating their lives to projects that would lift poor Jews into the mainstream of Polish society.
When he was a small boy, Jozef went to Hebrew school in Hrubieszow, for the maskilim believed in giving their boys a grounding in Torah before their secular schooling. He was attending a Polish gymnasium in Lublin during the failed uprising of 1863, reciting with the rest of his classmates the patriotic poems of Poland´s three great nineteenth-century Romantic poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasinski-poems he would pass on to his son, along with a yearning for national liberation from the Russians.
Little of Jozef Goldszmit in his healthy, productive years has come down to us except through his own articles and books. We haven´t even a photograph to divulge whether he was responsible for his son´s fair complexion and baldness as well as his patriotic fervor. In the Ghetto Diary Korczak writes: " I should devote a great deal of space to my father. I tried to put into practice the goals he strove for, and which my grandfather pursued with such pain. " But Korczak was never to fill in his complex feelings about this father who, like him, had literary aspirations as a young man.

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