Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dr Janusz Korczak (1879-1942) Dr Janusz Korczak (1879-1942) was a man who took his convictions and sense of responsibility so strongly that he was prepared to go to his death rather than betray them. During the Nazi liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, having rejected countless offers from Polish admirers and friends to save himself, Korczak led his two hundred orphans out of the ghetto and on to the train that would take them to their deaths at the gas chambers of Treblinka. Korczak, who had brought up thousands of Jewish and Polish children, refused to desert them so that even as they died, the children would be able to maintain their trust in him and some faith in human goodness. Not surprisingly, most accounts of Korczak's life and work focus on this noble act. But it would be unfortunate if the legend of his heroic and tragic death was to obscure the richness of his life and work. Korczak left a legacy not only of living and topical educational ideas, he also achieved greatness as a writer. He was awarded Poland's highest literary prize, guaranteeing him a permanent place in the history of Polish literature and the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Polish readers, children and adults. One of Korczak's children's books, King Matt the First, is as famous in his native country as are Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan over here. Korczak was a renowned doctor, who specialised in paediatrics. Medical students would travel the country just to attend his lectures. His personality and unique teaching methods can perhaps best be illustrated by the account of a lecture he gave at the Institute of Pedagogy in Warsaw, entitled 'The Heart of the Child'. One of his students recalls: 'We were all surprised by Dr Korczak's instruction to gather in the x-ray lab. The doctor arrived bringing along a four-year-old boy from his orphanage. The x-ray machine was switched on and we saw the boy's heart beating wildly. He was so frightened - so many strange people, the dark room, the noise of the machine. 'Speaking very softly so as not to add to the child's fears, and deeply moved by what could be seen on the screen, Korczak told us: çüon't ever forget this sight. How wildly a child's heart beats when he is frightened - and this it does even more when reacting to an adult's anger with him, not to mention when he fears being punished?. Then heading for the door with the child's hand in his, he added: �âhat is all for today.? We did not need to be told any more - everybody will remember that lecture forever.' Korczak devoted one day each week to defending local destitute and abandoned street children, who were often on the receiving end of long jail sentences. 'The delinquent child is still a child,' he wrote. 'He is a child who has not given up yet, but does not know who he is. A punitive sentence could adversely influence his future sense of himself and his behaviour. Because it is society that has failed him and made him behave this way. The Court should not condemn the criminal but the social structure.' Pioneer Korczak was the director of two orphanages - one for Catholic children and one for Jewish children. For most of his life, he lived in the attic above one of the orphanages, receiving no salary. He promoted progressive educational techniques, including giving the children real opportunities to take part in decision making. His children's court, for example, was presided over by child judges. Any child with a grievance had the right to summon the offender to face a court of his or her peers. Teachers and children were equal before the court; even Korczak had to submit to its judgement. Korczak envisaged that in 50 years, every school would have its own court, and that they would be a real source of emancipation for children - teaching them respect for the law and individual rights. His insights into children were unclouded by sentimentality; they were based on continuous clinical observation and meticulous listing and sifting of data. Korczak founded a popular weekly newspaper, The Little Review, which was produced for and by children: 'There will be three editors - one oldster, bald and spectacled, and two additional editors, a boy and a girl.' Children and young people all over Poland served as correspondents, gathering newsworthy stories of interest to children. This was possibly the first venture of its kind in the history of journalism. Throughout Poland, Korczak was well-known as 'the Old Doctor' - the name he used when delivering his popular state radio talks on children and education. His soft warm and friendly voice, along with his natural good humour, brought him acclaim and a sizeable audience. In the words of one former child listener: 'The Old Doctor proved to me for the first time in my life that an adult could enter easily and naturally into our world. He not only understood our point of view, but deeply respected and appreciated it.' Children's rights Korczak spoke of the need for a Declaration of Children's Rights long before one was eventually adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. Of that declaration, Korczak said: 'Those lawgivers confuse duties with rights. Their declaration appeals to goodwill when it should insist. It pleads for kindness, which it should demand.' In 1959, the United Nations produced a second Declaration on the Rights of the Child, but it was not legally binding and there was no procedure to ensure its implementation. Twenty years later, it was Poland who proposed that a new convention should be drafted on a text manifestly inspired by the teachings of Korczak. On 20 November 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was eventually passed unanimously by the UN General Assembly; it had taken more than 50 years to hammer out the 'rights' that Korczak had set out in his writings long before. It is by chance that I stumbled into the world of Dr Janusz Korczak while studying psychotherapy. Alice Miller, who has received international recognition for her work on child abuse, had described Korczak as one of the greatest pedagogues of all time. So I tried to find out more about him, especially his theories on education and childcare. At libraries I drew a blank; I asked teachers, social workers, therapists - in fact, everyone I knew. No-one had ever heard of him. Eventually, however, through a strange set of coincidences, I was introduced to Felek Scharf, a fellow Pole, an expert on Polish affairs and one of the few living links with Korczak in the UK. He sat me down in his office and started to talk. Writer Scharf showed me two books by Korczak that had been translated into English. One was his famous children's book, King Matt the First; the other was Ghetto Diary, written at the end of his life. 'But what about his work on children?' I asked. Scharf shook his head. Very little had been published in English. Although I left that meeting with two treasured books, How to Love a Child and Respect for the Child, both were written in Polish. I realised that there was no way I could access Korczak's world until the books had been translated into English. One year later, Betty Jean Lifton's biography of Korczak, The King of Children, was published, and the brilliant film, Korczak, emerged from Poland's leading director Andrzej Wajda. And I set out to have some of his writings translated into English. Korczak's basic philosophy was a belief in the innate goodness of children and their natural tendency to improve, given opportunity and guidance. Childhood, he believed, was perceived largely as a preparation for adult life, when in reality every moment has its own importance; one should appreciate a child for who he or she is, not who he or she will become. Korczak believed in respecting and understanding the child's own way of thinking, instead of trying to understand the child from an adult's point of view. Children in the orphanage lacked the emotional support of a parental figure. As a result, they were likely to assert themselves on the basis of anti-social norms. Korczak's approach was geared to prevent such development. First and foremost, he knew the children needed to be able to trust and rely on adults; therefore, he made it his goal to return to these children the very thing that adult society had deprived them of - respect, love and care. Testimony In the 1990s, I went to Israel to interview his 'children' -- the few surviving orphans left, now in their seventies and eighties. Their faces lit up when describing Korczak. Without exception, they spoke of the feelings of warmth, kindness and love they felt in his company; of his smiling blue eyes and his great sense of humour. Korczak had been a loved father to them all, at a time when they desperately needed one. I asked how they would try to explain to people who knew nothing of him, why Korczak was such an important figure. One told me: 'It is difficult for me to explain to you in words the impact Korczak had on my life. He had so much compassion and a readiness to help all people. We used to say that Korczak was born to bring the world to redemption. What was so special about him was that he knew how to find a way to the child's soul. He penetrated the soul. The time spent at the orphanage changed my life. 'All the time, Korczak pushed us to believe in other people, and that essentially, man is good. He was an innovator of the educational system - the first to reach the conclusion that the child has the same rights as the adult. He saw the child not as a creature that needs help, but as a person in his own right. All this was not just a theory - he applied it in our orphanage. There were no limitations in the framework of the rules. The child had the same rights as the teachers. 'For example, the court's first mission was to protect the weaker child against the stronger. The rules were based in such a way that only children had the right to serve as judges. The teachers did all the paper work. When the war broke out and I was starving and ready to do anything, I didn't because something of Korczak's teachings stayed with me.' When I asked if perhaps history had been kind to Korczak, or was he really a man like this, an elderly man with a broad smile answered: 'In my opinion, this was his very nature. Maybe it was because he had witnessed such poverty and hardship among abandoned street children when he was a doctor that gave him the strength to dedicate all his life as he did. 'I cannot remember any negative side to Korczak's character, even now, when I myself am a grandfather and teacher, and understand more about children and their education. I honour the memory of a man who was my father for eight years; a man who has healed my physical and psychological ailments and who instilled a code of ethics that served me throughout my life.'

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