Guide to Biography

Henryk Goldszmit/Janusz Korczak

Inspirations. Motivations. Achievements.

Guide to Biography

Childhood

The father was the central figure of Henryk Goldszmit’s difficult childhood.  We know this mainly from Korczak’s Memoirs written in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Józef Goldszmit, an attorney, delayed registering his son’s birth; that is why the exact date of his birth remains unknown. His exuberant father considered Henryk a weakling. It was often the grandmother who would stand up for the sensitive and introvert boy. A great role model that he was to both Henryk and his sister, the father would also initiate the most original games which he played with them.

The most traumatic experience of Korczak’s childhood and youth was his father’s chronic mental illness. For many years, Korczak himself was afraid of falling ill and being sent to a mental institution, the thought of which filled him with panic.

JOURNALIST AND WRITER

Henryk Goldszmit wrote his first texts, which were humoristic, mainly for money. With time, he started publishing in more serious magazines. However, two features stand out in his extensive journalistic output: he was always sensitive to the suffering of those excluded and he was tireless in seeking effective methods of helping them.

Thus, his first book entitled Children of the Streets was devoted to what we would call today marginalized children. Several years later, he counterbalanced this image with Child of the Drawing Room. Its protagonist, a young man from a rich family, tries to find a purpose in life by helping others.

His next books prove that Korczak liked to analyse a single subject from different perspectives. He wrote two excellent journalistic novels about summer camps, one about Jewish and the other about Polish boys. However; both groups were portrayed mainly through what they had in common, rather than through their differences.

Korczak’s How to Love a Child is a multifaceted analysis of a child’s life and education in the context of the family home, the boarding school, the Orphans’ Home, and summer camps. In this way, he offers parents, teachers, and tutors an opportunity to benefit from his experience. This book and The Child’s Right to Respect, where Korczak sets out the fundamental rights of children, form an integral whole.

In When I Am Little Again, Korczak demonstrates how difficult it is to respect these rights when one is no longer a child. The protagonist re-lives his childhood, while retaining his adult consciousness. This allows us to look at the boy’s dilemmas from an unusual, double perspective – that of an adult’s knowledge and of a child’s emotions, to which, as Korczak wrote, we as grownups have to reach up, stretch, stand on our tip-toes. As not to offend[1].

The main protagonist of King Matt the First, Korczak’s best-known novel, also struggles with this twofold nature and tries to extract from it the most precious elements. Matt can draw on his experience as a king of adults to introduce changes dictated by his emotions which are those of a child.

For Janusz Korczak, literature was not an area of free expression. Rather, he used it to present his views in order to foster more conscious, responsible, and empathic attitudes on the part of both children and adults.

DOCTOR AND ACTIVIST

Korczak always verified his opinions in practice. This motivated him to study medicine and, afterwards, to work in a Jewish children’s hospital. His contribution to community life involved working for free in libraries or as a tutor at camps for the poorest children, who later became the protagonists of his books. Korczak knew that the problems he was grappling with had often been successfully resolved abroad. Consequently, he travelled to Switzerland, Berlin, Paris and London visiting hospitals, schools, and orphanages and talking to foreign scholars. He was capable of working and studying in every situation, even the most difficult one. As an army doctor during the Russo-Japanese War, he went as far as Manchuria, where the local children taught him Chinese. Also as a doctor but this time behind the frontlines of World War One, he began to write his next book – How to Love a Child.

Korczak’s work for the Jewish “Orphan Relief” Association represents a turning point in his life. As he became more and more involved in the Association’s activities, its ad hoc campaigns were replaced by more systematic and long-term educational work. He came up with the idea of building an orphanage – called the Orphans’ Home — for the Association’s children. Later, he became the orphanage’s director, giving up his work at the hospital. Earlier when in London, he made a lifetime decision not to found a family. Difficult as it was, this sacrifice enabled him to devote his life to caring for the children at the Orphans’ Home, as well as to promoting children’s rights.

AT THE ORPHANS’ HOME AND IN OUR HOME

Janusz Korczak shared his responsibilities as director of the Orphans’ Home for Jewish children with Stefania Wilczyńska. He also assisted Maria Falska in running Our Home, an institution for Polish children that was supported by the Our Home Society. Korczak saw these institutions not only as orphanages, but also as a kind of laboratory that enabled him to implement his pedagogical theories and study their practical effects. He was a firm believer in children’s independence and initiative; trusted their wisdom and ethical intuition, and fully recognized children’s subjectivity. These ideas were part of the so-called New Education Movement, which spread around the world and was closely followed and highly regarded by Korczak himself.

Children would learn Korczak’s ideas mainly through action. In the Children’s Court they would find out that they were not only subject to laws but could also enforce these laws with respect to their peers and adults. Rules laid down by Korczak did not entail the use of threats or violence.

New arrivals were assigned guardians who would help them get used to the rules of life at the Home. Both sides would benefit from this scheme – guardians were happy with the trust placed in them and their charges felt safe in the new environment in no time. The tasks that children were given during their shifts in the kitchen, in bathrooms or in corridors were respected. This was reflected by the special prominence that Korczak gave to floor rags and brushes – they were hung in a visible place by the main dormitory door. There were various channels of written communication. They comprised a mailbox for children’s letters to their tutors, a bulletin board for notices, and a newspaper read every week to all the children.

The first year during which these innovative rules of coexistence governed the child community at the Orphans’ Home was a difficult one. Unaccustomed to modern amenities, children were ill at ease in the new environment and would break appliances and tiles. As regards the Children’s Court, in its first year it caused more chaos than order. For this reason, Korczak decided to temporarily suspend it to introduce necessary modifications.
When faced with obstacles, Korczak would seek more effective ways to accomplish his ideals (e.g. giving up violence) or goals (e.g. introducing self-government), rather than abandoning them. The effects were astonishing. After the first year, children and adults came up with a system that allowed them to jointly run the Orphans’ Home and loyally share their responsibilities.

KORCZAK AND THE NEW MEDIA

Korczak’s relationship with the cinema, which became popular when he was on the verge of adulthood, was rather loose. This was despite the fact that in private Korczak was an avid moviegoer who wrote about using the camera to observe children and predicted the spread of television (however, he thought it would mainly be used for educational purposes). He was also planning to film one of his books, Kajtus the Wizard. The project was not completed, however, for shortage of money.

Newspapers and radio were the new media that Korczak employed. He saw in them effective tools of disseminating and fostering his educational efforts (which resembles his approach to literary work). At the same time, he was aware of and exploited the potential of what is known today as interactivity. In his work with children he did not want to be an orator but an interlocutor; rather than lecture to them, he preferred to talk with them.
This is best illustrated by the Little Review, which no other newspaper in the world can match even today. Its consecutive issues were composed of letters or excerpts from letters sent by children, as well as replies to readers’ questions. Initially, Korczak would also publish his own texts.

As Korczak emphasized himself, the Little Review was set up to make children more self-assured and encourage them to write. In his editorial, the Old Doctor declared that the paper would defend children and make sure they received fair treatment.

The results were beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. For example, in 1929 the paper boasted around 3,200 contributors and a readership from all over Poland. More than just an ordinary paper, the Little Review was an experiment and a successful attempt at dialoguing with a substantial number of children and young people.

Korczak also experimented with the radio. Under the nickname “Old Doctor” he developed his distinctive style of addressing the youngest audience, which probably drew on his many years of storytelling to children. He was natural in his speech, would not rush and made frequent pauses. Unfortunately, his broadcasts did not survive the war. However, passages from How to Love a Child can give us some idea as to what his storytelling could have been like. In this book, Korczak discusses the way fairy tales are told by ordinary people – with patience and respect for the story and for the listener’s abilities and imagination.
And that was exactly the way he would tell simple stories on the radio – e.g. How we made scrambled eggs or Worry, such a big worry. Simple as they were, they became extraordinary to the listeners.

Yet sometimes he would employ quite different methods, e.g. in his report on a summer camp he once incorporated an orchestra of seven hundred children’s voices.

Due to the rise of anti-Semitism, in 1936 the Old Doctor lost the job of radio host. Two years later, he returned to the radio and would address the audience in the first days of September 1939, following the war’s outbreak.

JEW AND POLE. A MAN

Henryk Goldszmit/Janusz Korczak, who referred to himself as a Pole and a Jew, had a double Jewish-Polish identity. To some extent, he inherited this identity from his grandfather and father, who made sure he learned the customs of the Catholic majority. Henryk Goldszmit’s mother tongue was Polish. He decided to study Hebrew only in the 1930s, and his knowledge of the Jewish language, or Yiddish, which was spoken by the majority of Poland’s Jews, was limited to a few expressions that he probably picked up from children.

As a physician, lecturer, tutor, and social activist, he divided his time and efforts between Jewish and Polish communities and thus managed to establish a certain link between them. But he published principally in Polish – texts for Yiddish or Hebrew-speaking readers account for only a small portion of his oeuvre.

The Jewish part of Korczak’s identity grew important to him in the 1930s. At that time, he was going through a crisis, both privately and professionally. However, thanks to two trips to Palestine he overcame the crisis and was planning to visit the country again in the autumn of 1939. The outbreak of the Second World War made him cancel his plans.
The wartime fate of Korczak and the children from the Orphans’ Home was determined by their Jewishness. Condemned to death by Nazi Germans, they were forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto. Then, during a massive liquidation of the Ghetto, they were transported to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Rather than focusing on national or religious differences, Korczak always attached more importance to what people have in common – solidarity with fellow men and responsibility for their fate. He would demonstrate this attitude on many occasions, and it is also reflected in his Ghetto Memoirs, whose last lines read as follows:

I am watering the flowers. My bald head in the window. What a splendid target.

He has a rifle. Why is he standing and looking on calmly?

No orders.

And perhaps he was a village teacher in civilian life, perhaps a notary, a street sweeper in

Leipzig, a waiter in Cologne?

What would he do if I nodded to him? Waved my hand?

Perhaps he does not even know that things are as they are?

He may have arrived only yesterday, from far away….[2]

[1] Korczak, J. When I Am Little Again and The Child’s Right to Respect. Lanham 1992, translated by E.P. Kulawiec

[2] Korczak, J. Selected Works. Warsaw 1967, translated by Jerzy Bachrach

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