Sunday, December 1, 2013

Korczak Child of the Drawing Room

Child of the Drawing Room

    He made his first moral decision at the age of five.
    Peering down at the courtyard around which his fashionable Warsaw building was wrapped like a fortress, Henryk Goldszmit confided to his maternal grandmother, the only one who understood him, his "bold scheme to remake the world." He would do away with all money, but how to do it and what to do next, he had no idea. The problem was perplexingly difficult, but the goal was clear. to fix things so that there would be no more dirty or hungry children like the janitor' s son and the gang down below with whom he was forbidden to play. "My little philosopher," said his grandmother, slipping him a raisin. He never knew the exact year he was born-July 22, 1878, or 1879 -because his father, Jozef Goldszmit, a prominent lawyer in Warsaw, delayed registering his birth. "I suffered a few difficult moments over that," Korczak was to write. "Mother called it gross negligence."
    Jozef may already have been showing signs of the instability that would eventually erupt into mental illness, or his procrastination may have been deliberate. Warsaw was then part of the Czarist empire (Poland having been partitioned over a century before by Austria, Prussia, and Russia), and many parents falsified their sons´ ages with the hope of postponing, even avoiding, their induction into the Czar´s army But though he hadn´t officially registered the birth of his first, and only, son, Jozef sent announcements to friends at home and abroad. He was extremely proud of a letter of blessing from the Chief Rabbi of Paris:
    "Your son will be a great man of Israel." Korczak kept the letter throughout his life, although he was aware that there had been little in his early behavior to give his father confidence that he was raising a great man.

    He was a dreamy child who could play for hours on his own. The large household was dominated by women: besides his mother, there were his younger sister and maternal grandmother, a cook, a maid, and a series of French governesses. Outside was a world where men had power, but in this elegant apartment of ornately carved chests and tables, plush sofas, and oriental rugs, "that stern regiment of women" held sway. In those days there were few places a child could play. Saxon Garden, in the heart of the city and not far from his home on Senatorska Street behind the National Theater, had no playgrounds with swings or soccer fields where a child could stretch his legs and work off his energy. Janitors took a broom to anyone who dared bounce a ball near their gates, and the police chased those children who made a sport of jumping on and off the red horse-drawn tramcars that clanged through the streets. Because it was considered bad manners for a child of good family to play in the courtyards, a sensitive, overprotected boy like Henryk could do nothing except sit indoors and "harbor secrets," or press his nose against the dining-room window and envy the janitor´ s son and the other roughnecks in the courtyard below.

    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."
    It was also considered bad manners for a child to hang around the kitchen, but sometimes when his parents were out Henryk would sneak in to ask the cook to tell him a story. This imaginative woman would set him up on a high stool by the table where she was working-as if he were "a human being and not a lapdog on a silk cushion."
    "So it is to be a fairy tale? Well, all right. What was I going to say? Oh, yes, it was like this. Just a moment, let me see. " She seemed to know he needed time to make himself comfortable before she started.
    "So she is going through the forest, " the cook might begin, as if continuing where she had left off before. "It is very dark, nothing can be seen, neither trees nor animals, not even a stone. It is pitch black. And she is so afraid. Well, she crosses herself  once, and that helps a little. She makes the sign of the cross once more and goes on . . . "

    She knew when to pause to let him catch his breath, when to rush on. He never forgot the warmth of her style, the dramatic suspense, as natural to her as the rhythm of her fingers kneading the dough. He would always be grateful for her patience when he interrupted with a question, the respect she had for both the tale and the listener. it was she, he knew, who was responsible for the magical ingredients that went into his own talent as a storyteller.

    Not all of his experiences with the household staff were positive. One night when his parents had gone to the theater, Catherine, his French governess, had a visitor in the kitchen, a strange man with high boots. When Henryk started to cry that he wanted him to go away, his governess told him to apologize. The boy refused. "If you don´t, we´ll leave you here alone," the governess threatened. "I will turn out the light, and you'll be in the dark. An old beggar will come and grab you, and put you in a large bag."
    He stood there helplessly until his parents came home. "Why isn't my son sleeping?" his mother asked the governess. And then to him: "Were you crying? Your eyes are red."He shook his head no, and kissed her. The drawing room was another place that was off-limits to children. During the day the gauze curtains filtered out the rays of the sun but not the clip-clop sounds of the horse-drawn carriages passing over the cobblestone street below. Like all fashionable drawing rooms, it faced the front rather than the dark courtyard. Only at night when there were guests did the room come to life under the candlelit chandeliers.

    • Sometimes Henryk was summoned to meet the guests and recite the Romantic ballad by Adam Mickiewicz that all good Polish children were required to memorize for such occasions: "The Return of Daddy." He would stand pale and awkward as he began: "Daddy is not coming back! Daddy is not coming back!" -becoming as he spoke the child who feared his father would be killed by bandits on his way home from a business trip. The father was eventually spared by the bandits, who were moved that a child was waiting for him. But little Henryk was never spared the "false smiles" of the men with prickly beards who blew cigar smoke in his face, and the strong perfume of the women who tried to draw him onto their laps. (Until he was reprimanded for it, he wiped his face thoroughly after each kiss.) He was embarrassed by the senseless ques- tions and hollow laughter: Whom did he resemble? Oh, he was such a big boy! Just look how he'd grown! Didn´t they know that children don´t want to be touched or kissed by strangers? Even his mother and father seemed like strangers at such moments.

    His father had already become unpredictable. He tweaked Henryk´s ears quite hard despite the most emphatic protests from the boy´s mother and grandmother. "If the child goes deaf, it´ll be your doing," his mother would say. Once, when the boy had an exciting piece of news, he ran into his father´s study and tugged at his sleeve. Jozef exploded at him for causing an inkblot on an important piece of paper. Yet at other times his father would act like a friend, especially during the Christmas season, when he would take Henryk and his sister to a Nativity play. His mother was always nervous when the children were out with Jozef Sometimes it seemed to the boy that his charming, mercurial father was as dangerous as the janitor´s son. He exuded a reckless male sense of freedom that was both exciting and terrifying.
    Something in Henryk knew that there was reason for his mother´s concern. "Mama was right to be reluctant about entrusting her children to the care of her husband," he would say when looking back on that time, "but just as rightly my sister and I would welcome such excursions with whoops of delight and remember fondly even the most strenuous and disastrous pleasures sought with an amazing intuition by that not particularly reliable pedagogue-my father."
    One year when he went with his father to a Nativity play in the long, overheated hall of an orphanage, his father agreed with "a mysterious, strange lady" that his son would see better ifhe sat with the other children in the front row. Already overwhelmed by the air of mystery in the packed house, the boy panicked at the thought of being separated from his father. He also remembered that he was always terrified when the Devil and Death came prancing out.
    He called out helplessly as he was being led away. "Daddy!" His father, not comprehending, replied only. "Go along, silly boy" On the way to his seat, he kept asking the woman whether Herod and the Devil would appear, but she was as unaware of his anguish as his father. "Wait and see, " was all she said. It was not by chance that the future educator would instruct teachers: "Don´t force surprises on children if they don´t want them."

    Preparations dragged on and on before the curtain went up, and the faint sounds and whispers coming from behind it set his nerves on edge. The lamps were smoking. The children pushed and shoved each other: "Move over! Take that hand away! Keep your legs to yourself! Don´t lean on me!" A bell rang, and then, after what seemed a very long time, it sounded again.

    Writing about the incident years later, Korczak could not recall if the Devil was red or black, but he knew that never before had he heard such a laugh or seen such leaps, such a pitchfork, such a very long tail. "I even suspected, which may well be true, that hell really does exist." Somehow, he managed to survive the experience and even felt a pang of regret when the lights went up, revealing an ordinary room in Warsaw filled with cigarette smoke that made him cough.
    He had his father's hand in his again, but could not remember if they stopped to have ice cream or chipped ice with pineapple juice. He did recall that he lost his scarf, and developed a low fever for which he was kept in bed for three days. His mother let his father know that he was not to bring ice cream home until spring, and admonished him sternly when he tried to approach his son´s bed on the third day: "Your hands are cold, don´t go near him!"
    Jozef withdrew meekly, but threw his son a "conspiratorial glance." The boy answered with a "cunning, knowing grin." At that moment, Korczak would write, father and son were as close as they would ever be:
    "I think we both felt that in the end it was we men who held the upper hand . . . We were the masters, but we had to give in for the sake of peace. "

    There was another event during the Christmas season that Henryk both looked forward to and dreaded-the Nativity puppet show that the unemployed construction workers from Miodowa Street brought around the neighborhood. His father always invited them in over his mother´s objections that they would track in mud. While the men made their way to the kitchen entrance, the maid rushed about hiding small valuables, convinced that these yearly visitors were the reason for two missing spoons.

    The "regiment of women" was always in a high state of agitation as the puppeteers set up their little wooden stage in the kitchen. He watched from the doorway. It was not Death or the Devil prancing about to the accompaniment of an accordion or barrel organ that he had been dreading all year, but rather that moment at the end of the performance when the curtains closed and an old man appeared from behind the set with a sack to take up a collection.
    The boy had already changed all the money he had into tiny two-penny coins as his father had instructed; trembling with excitement, he tossed them into the sack. But as usual, after peering inside, the old man said, "Not enough, young gentleman, not enough! A bit more!"
    He had scrimped all year to avoid this terrible confrontation, even refusing street beggars their expected allotment so that he´d have extra coins. But the old man was as insatiable as his sack was bottomless: "It managed to devour every last penny. I gave and gave, always trying to see if finally he'd say enough."
    It was never enough. The old man with the sack was teaching him "the hopelessness of defense against persistent requests and unbounded demands that are impossible to meet."

    Henryk did not know that the puppet shows and Nativity plays had religious as well as cultural significance. By stressing the ethical rather than the ritual part of their Jewish heritage, his parents had not yet made him aware of that "mysterious question of religion." It took the janitor´s son and the death of his canary to do that.
    The canary had been the boy´s closest friend, caged in as they both were, neither allowed to fly free. (The bird might perish from the cold outside, just as Henryk might perish from some terrible disease.) But one day he found the canary lying stiff on the bottom of the cage. He picked up the little body, put the beak in his mouth, and tried to breathe life into it. It was too late. His sister Anna helped him wrap the dead bird in cotton and put it into an empty candy box. There was no place to bury it except under the chestnut tree in the forbidden courtyard below. With great care he constructed a little wooden cross to put over the grave.
    "You can´t do that!" the maid told him. "It´s only a lowly bird, lower than man." When tears streamed down his face, she added,"It´s a sin to cry over it. "
    But Henryk was stubborn, even then. He marched down to the courtyard with his box, his sister tagging behind him, and began digging the little grave. Then the janitor´s son came along, took in the scene shrewdly, and objected to the cross for a different reason: the canary was Jewish. And, what was worse, so was Henryk.
    It was a moment of revelation he never forgot:
    "I, too, was a Jew, and he - a Pole, a Catholic. It was certain paradise for him, but as for me, even if I did not call him dirty names, and never failed to steal sugar for him from my house-I would end up when I died in a place which, though not hell, was nevertheless dark. And I was scared of the dark... 


Who was Janusz Korczak? 

ch 1 Betty Lifton's bio

Janusz Korczak Biography » Index « » next «

Who was Janusz Korczak?

    "The lives of great men are like legends-difficult but beautiful, "
    Janusz Korczak once wrote, and it was true of his. Yet most Americans have never heard of Korczak, a Polish-Jewish children´s writer and educator who is as well known in Europe as Anne Frank. Like her, he died in the Holocaust and left behind a diary; unlike her, he had a chance to escape that fate-a chance he chose not to take. His legend began on August 6, 1942, during the early stages of the Nazi liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto-though his dedication to destitute children was legendary long before the war. When the Germans ordered his famous orphanage evacuated, Korczak was forced to gather together the two hundred children in his care. He led them with quiet dignity on that final march through the ghetto streets to the train that would take them to "resettlement in the East" -the Nazi euphemism for the death camp Treblinka. He was to die as Henryk Goldszmit, the name he was born with, but it was by his pseudonym that he would be remembered.
    It was Janusz Korczak who introduced progressive orphanages designed as just communities into Poland, founded the first national children´s newspaper, trained teachers in what we now call moral education, and worked in juvenile courts defending children's rights. His books How to Love a Child and The Child´s Right to Respect gave parents and teachers new insights into child psychology. Generations of young people had grown up on his books, especially the classic King Matt the First, which tells of the adventures and tribulations of a boy king who aspires to bring reforms to bis subjects.
    It was as beloved in Poland as Peter Pan and Alicein Wonderland were in the English-speaking world. During the mid- 1930s, he had his own radio program, in which, as the "Old Doctor," hedispensed homey wisdom and wry humor. Somehow, listening to his deceptively simple words made his listeners feel like better people.
    At the end, Korczak, who had directed a Catholic as well as a Jewish orphanage before the war, had refused all offers of help for his own safetyfrom his Gentile colleagues and friends. "You do not leave a sick child inthe night, and you do not leave children at a time like this," he said.
    I first heard of Janusz Korczak in the summer of 1978 when friends who had left Poland during the war stopped by my home on Cape Codwith a theater director who had just arrived from Warsaw. As she wasdescribing what it had been like for her troupe to perform in JanuszKorczak´s ghetto orphanage, I interrupted to ask who Korczak was.
    I couldn´t tell if she was more shocked at my ignorance or at my mispro- nunciation of his name, but she spent a few moments teaching me to say Kor-chock before answering my question.
    As we spoke about him that afternoon on Cape Cod, Korczak emergedas a utopian and yet pragmatic figure preoccupied with creating a better world through the education of children. I could also see him belongingto that unique group ofwriters, along with Lewis Carroll and James Barrie, who were most at home in the company of the children for whom they created their stories. With a difference. Korczak´s children did not romp with their nannies on the manicured lawns of Kensington Gardens butlanguished in the dark slums ofWarsaw. He set up orphanages and livedamong children in real life, not just in the imagination, for he saw themas the salvation of the world.
    It wasn´t that Korczak glorified children, as did Rousseau, whom he considered naive. Korczak felt that within each child there burned a moral spark that could vanquish thedarkness at the core of human nature. To prevent that spark from being extinguished, one had to love and nurture the young, make it possible for them to believe in truth and justice. When the Nazis materialized out of that darkness with their swastikas, polishedboots, and leather whips, Korczak was prepared to shield his Jewishchildren, as he always had, from the injustices of the adult world. Hewent with them into the ghetto, although he had been offered refuge on the Aryan side of occupied Warsaw, and spent the last two-odd years of his life protecting them and other orphans from starvation and disease.
    The theater director described how she had watched with others from behind shuttered windows in the Warsaw Ghetto as Korczak, head held high, marched by with his little band on that last day. It seemed to her then that this man, who behaved as if he had a divine calling to savechildren, had failed, much as his fictional King Matt had failed in hisattempt to make the world a better place. And yet, by remaining true tohis principles and not abandoning the children when they needed himmost, he had achieved his own kind of victory.
    Korczak wrote of life as a strange dream, and sometimes my own life seemed just that as I began learning about his. Until 1978 I had been neither personally nor professionally involved with the Holocaust, but in the fall of that year my thirteen-year-old daughter and I went to live in Munich with my husband, who was beginning his study of the psychology of Nazi doctors. It wasn´t long before our small apartment was filled with books on the Third Reich and I was foraging through this grim library.
    Plunging into Holocaust literature, especially in Germany, was like plunging into an abyss. I seemed to be living in two time frames at once, with the past often taking on more reality than the present. Waking up in the middle of the night, I would transform the smoke stacks of the neighboring brewery into crematoria; the localtrain would become a cattle car; and Bavarian men parading in colorful costumes would metamorphose into the SS goose-stepping through the streets in full regalia. As an as- similated American Jew who had never dwelt on my Jewish identity, I was now confronted with what it meant to be a Jew during the Third Reich in Europe -and, for that matter, through all of history.
    Often, in the volumes describing the murderous behavior of Nazi doctors, I would find references to Janusz Korczak´s last march with the children. I wanted to know more about this man -a good doctor- who had chosen to die rather than compromise the principles by which helived. What had given him the strength to uphold those principles in aworld gone mad?
    But something else drew me to Janusz Korczak. I identified with him as a writer -as one who has written fantasies for children, and workingas a journalist in the Far East, reported on war-wounded, orphaned, anddisplaced children in Hiroshima, Korea, and Vietnam. Many of my booksare concerned with the right of all children to know their heritage andto grow up in a world unthreatened by war.
    Yet I might not have pursued my interest in Janusz Korczak any further had my husband and I not been injured in a car crash in Paris and gone to the Sinai to recuperate. On our return trip by way of Jerusalem, I heard that some of the orphans Korczak had raised and the teachers he had trained were living in Israel. And in that city of strange dreams I made a sudden decision to remain for a few months with my daughter in order to interview them.
    I rented a small stone house overlooking the walls of the Old City and went about with an interpreter to interview Korczakians, as they call themselves. They ranged in age from the fifties to the eighties, all having lived or taught in his Jewish orphanage during different periods after its founding in 1912. Many were alive because as Zionists they had emigrated to Palestine in the nineteen-thirties; a few had survived ghettos and concentration camps or had spent the war years in remote towns in Siberia. Others had come to Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War in the wake of the "anti-Zionist purge" that essentially swept Poland of its remaining Jews.
    " I dont want to talk about the dead Korczak, but the living one ," they would begin, disturbed at his being remembered for the way he died rather than for the way he had lived. It was not the martyr whom they had known and revered, but the vital, fallible father and teacher. Listening to them, I could envision Korczak as a modest, disciplined man who dismissed with an ironic quip problems that would have over whelmed others. Traveling to the kibbutzim and the cities he had visited during the two brief trips he made to Palestine in the mid-thirties, I tried to understand his state of mind then. Although not a Zionist, Korczak had been forced, like so many acculturated Jewish writers in prewar Europe, to keep one step ahead of the malevolent thrusts of history. When the rise of extreme nationalism in Poland caused him to despair about the future of his work, he turned to Palestine but was deeply ambivalent about whether or not to settle there. Believing that, to avoid being a deserter,
    " one has to remain at one´s post till the very last moment, "
    he was still in Warsaw on September 1, 1939, when the Nazi invasion of Poland settled the issue for him.
    Who was Janusz Korczak? I have on my desk his two best-known photographs: one of himself as a young boy that he used as the frontispiece of his book King Matt the First so that his readers could see him as he was when he was small and vulnerable like them; the other of a man whose eyes are intense and sad and whose bald head disappears into white space because an impulsive orphan ripped the photograph out of the developer before it was ready.
    These are the two Janusz Korczaks-the young utopian King Matt who dreamed of making a better world for children, and the skeptical Old Doctor who knew that one always falls short of attaining the dream.
    " It will be hard to describe Korczak to Americans, " the Korczakians had told me in Israel. I was to hear the same sentiments from Korczakians in Poland-but for different reasons. " He was very Polish, " Igor Newerly, Korczak´s former secretary and now a prominent writer, told me. " But at the same time that he was part of the Polish intelligentsia of his period, he was alone. A man with his own individualistic style and beliefs. He was warm and witty, but he was also lonely and sad. He was everything, and you have to capture that. "
    To capture everything, I soon realized, meant to see Korczak as both a Pole and a Jew. to be both-in the words of the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki -is more difficult than to be just a Pole or just a Jew. The problem is revealed in the semantics of the issue:
    a Polish Catholic is called a Pole, but a Polish Jew is called a Jew, not a Pole.
    Perhaps because Korczak was determined to live as both a Pole and a Jew in prewar Poland, he was not above criticism in his lifetime: many Jews saw him as a renegade who wrote in Polish rather than Yiddish or Hebrew, while no amount of acculturation could make the right-wing Poles forget that he was a Jew. The radical socialists and the communists of the interwar period saw him as a conservative because he was not politically active, and the conservatives saw him as a radical because of his socialist sympathies. There were those who considered him an eccentric, even as they sang his praises and supported his causes: unmarried, asocial, he was as intolerant of pompous and self-aggrandizing adults as he was tolerant and forgiving of mischievous children.
    As I talked with people in Warsaw i pondered how to write this book about Janusz Korczak. Those who do not want their Biographys written burn their papers; history had done that for Korczak. The Warsaw Ghetto, where he was confined from late 1940 until mid-1942, was destroyed by the Germans during the uprising there a year after his death. Consumed in the flames were the notebooks in which Korczak had jotted down his thoughts in his microscopic handwriting; his letters and memorabilia; his observations on children's sleep patterns, and the weight and height charts collected over thirty years that were to comprise a book on child development; his library of both literary and scientific books in French, German, and Russian, as well as Polish; and his drafts of books he planned to write. The relatives and childhood friends who would have been able to fill in the details of Korczak's early life and provide some portrait of his parents and sister died in the camps.
    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 caf‚s, fine restaurants, and cabarets, was leveled by the Germans during the uprising 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 magazine articles, numbering over one thousand, that he wrote throughout his life. 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 Korczak's 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.
    It 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 which 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 actions.