Sunday, April 26, 2009

Henryk (Janusz Korczak) and the inhuman medical schools, and the urchins of poverty

An idealist, he was impatient of his medical training as dehumanizing and was willing to sacrifice himself for the impoverished children of the Warsaw streets. The novel Homeless People became his bible and text.They were street urchins with sad tales brushed off by most who heard them except for Henryk.How could the children of the street be saved? By education in their early years.Henryk wrote a novel of his encounters, Children of the Street.He published in Thorns and then in Voice Magazine.

Henryk had committed himself to a medical career, but he was impatient with
his training. He considered most of his professors pompous, insensitive men who
seemed detached from the suffering of their patients. As far as he could see,
medical schools dehumanized doctors. Students were taught little more than "dull
facts from dead pages," and when they finally received their degrees, they
didn't know how to cope with sick people. His critical attitude toward the
system did not go unnoticed by his professors, one of whom told him: " Hair will
grow on the palm of my hand before you become a doctor. "
Because of his
extracurricular activities as a journalist and the mandatory hours of military
training he had to put in oVer a two-year period, it took Henryk six years
instead of the usual five to graduate
. Even that was an achievement given that,
like so many of his generation, he was caught up in the revolutionary fervor of
the time. Poland was in transition from an agricultural society to an
industrialized one, and Warsaw was rapidly changing as new factories were built
and tens of thousands of peasants crowded into the slums in search of jobs that
only a few would find. Successful writers devoted much of their time to
championing the cause of workers and peasants. Stefan Zeromski´s novel Homeless
People became a bible for Henryk and his friends; its protagonist, Dr. Judym,
gave up love and personal happiness to serve the poor: " I am responsible! " he
cried. " if I, a doctor, will not do it, who will? "

Henryk was equally
ready to sacrifice himself for the impoverished children he observed in the
Warsaw streets.
He saw them as the most disadvantaged proletariat of all because
they had no one to represent them: " Unkempt boys in run-down shoes, shiny
frayed pants, caps thrown carelessly on shorn hair, agile, slight,
undisciplined, practically unnoticeable. Not yet burned out by the heat of life,
not yet sucked dry by exploitation, no one knows where they manage to find
strength, these active, silent, numerous, poor little workers of tomorrow. "
The roguish little street beggars soon flocked to the medical student who
was willing to listen to them.
They besieged him with sad tales of hunger and
abuse, while holding out their hands for whatever they could get. Other
passersby brushed them off, but they knew that he would always have something
for them, if only a piece of candy, an encouraging word, or a kiss on the
A friend with whom Henryk was walking one day was amazed by an
urchin who came running after them, shouting that he wanted to return the twenty
kopecks he had received two years before.
" I lied when I told you my father
would kill me if I didn´t come home with the money i´d lost ," the boy
confessed. " I´ve been looking for you a long time so I could give your money
back. "As the child counted out the kopecks with his grubby little fingers,
Henryk asked how many times he´d used that trick:
" A lot.""Did it
work?""Most of the time.""Have you given the money back to the others,
too?""No.""Then why are you giving it back to me?""Because you kissed me on the
forehead. It made me feel sorry for what I did.""Was it so strange to have
someone kiss you?""Yes, my mother is dead. I don´t haue anyone to kiss me
anymore."" But didn´t anyone tell you that it's not good to lie and beg?""The
priest told me it´s not good to lie, but he says that to everyone."" And was
there no one else who cared enough to guide you?""No one," says the boy, no
longer able to hold back his tears. "I have no one."
Henryk set down his
encounters with these urchins, driven to lying and stealing by poverty and
neglect, in a novel, Children of the Street.
His message was that they could be
saved only if they were reached through education in their early years. But who
was to educate them? Certainly not their drunken, debauched parents, for no one
had educated them. If the process weren't interrupted, the evil would be passed
Not everyone appreciated his lofty ideas. When he wrote in Thorns: " I
am a person concerned above all else with the problem of uplifting the lives of
children, "
the editor (who was concerned above all else with entertaining his
readers) suggested he find another outlet for this preoccupation. From then on,
Henryk published in Voice magazine, a sounding board for intellectuals who
congregated around the Flying University

No comments:

Post a Comment