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'King of the Children'

September 6, 2007 By:
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Janusz Korczak, a physician and prescient educator, spent a good deal of his time formulating odd, unconventional ideas. The notion at the heart of his strenuously unconventional philosophy was his concept of a Children's Republic, something he understood would hold little interest for the majority of adults.

But Korczak, who also happened to be a renowned writer and radio personality -- famous throughout all of Poland -- cared little about what his contemporaries thought. In fact, he conceived of adulthood as a privilege, one that gave elders carte blanche to tyrannize the young, and that the first step in opposing such inequality was to allow children, whom he conceived of as the world's oldest proletariat, to govern themselves.

His was, no doubt, a utopian vision. And yet, for a time, and despite overwhelming odds, he managed to transform his philosophy into a workable reality -- doing so in a three-story orphanage on the corner of Krochmalna Street in Warsaw during the 1920s and '30s.

Even when he was later forced to move his Jewish orphans into the Warsaw ghetto, he strove to keep them as safe as possible under the most wretched of conditions.

And, at last, when the Nazis came for them, Korczak, who could have easily saved himself, refused to leave his defenseless charges, accompanying them to the cattle car that transported them to Treblinka, where they were all herded into the gas chambers.

As Betty Jean Lifton noted in her biography, titled Janusz Korczak: The King of the Children, this unusual man "felt that within each child there burned a moral spark that could vanquish the darkness 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."

Korczak, a hero in Poland, is little known in the United States, though there have been efforts, like Lifton's, to make his ideas better known. Another attempt is editor Sandra Joseph's Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents, recently published by Algonquin Books, which deals with the doctor's thoughts on childhood and parenting.

But to understand all of its implications and its most resonant qualities, you must know a bit more background about this unusual man.

Korczak's life, even before the advent of World War II, was filled with incident and drama. He was born Henryk Goldzmit on July 22, 1878 or 1879. He was never certain of the year because his father, Jozef, a prominent lawyer, delayed registering his birth. Lifton has suggested that this may have been an early indication of Jozef's mental instability, which grew more pronounced as time passed.

It was through his father's behavior that the young, hypersensitive Henryk came to understand the cruel manner in which grown-ups could mistreat children. During the advanced stages of his nervous collapse, Jozef often called his son a "stupid ass." The contempt in his father's voice never left Henryk, who always feared that he might suffer the same mental anguish that inevitably destroyed his father, and so, at a young age, he decided never to marry. And he stayed true to his word, no matter the attentions of numerous women.

After eight years of emotional turmoil, Jozef was institutionalized, and the once comfortable life of the Goldzmit family unraveled. To help support the family, Henryk, then a teenager, tutored the children of wealthy friends and acquaintances. He soon realized that he enjoyed working with the young, and that he was able to forget his worries when he concentrated on their needs.

His love of children motivated him to study pediatrics; but he wrote all the while, a habit he'd begun in adolescence -- essays and fiction that received a measure of recognition. He began his medical career by working in various children's hospitals, before founding the Krochmalna Street orphanage. By that time, he was famous as Janusz Korczak, the pseudonym he began affixing to his essays and wildly popular books for adults and children.

Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a determined assimilationist, and so had an ambivalent attitude toward Zionism, which became a more potent force in certain Polish circles in the interwar period. He visited Palestine twice in the 1930s, as anti-Semitism became more dominant throughout Europe, and he toyed with the idea of making aliyah. But in the end, he insisted that his "real work" was back in Warsaw at the orphanage.

During the 1930s, Korczak also became a radio personality, dispensing wisdom in a folksy style, something akin to Will Rogers, as Lifton described it in the biography. But with the steady rise in anti-Semitic pronouncements in Poland, the right wing dominated the politic scene, and Korczak's Jewish heritage was exposed bit by bit, as if it were the original sin.

Diary of a Ghetto

Once he and the orphans were forced into the ghetto, life for Korczak became a mad scramble to make sure his charges had enough to eat and were shielded from the barbarity of the streets. Still, despite his Herculean efforts, which were extraordinarily time-consuming, he did manage to keep what was eventually published as his Ghetto Diary. It is perhaps his best-known work here, and takes the story right up until the moment he and the orphans were marched off to the umschlagplatz -- the departure point for Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Since knowledge of Korczak here is confined to the story of his life in the ghetto, Joseph decided to put together Loving Every Child, a series of brief passages culled from several of Korczak's works dealing with childhood and child-rearing, especially How to Love a Child and Respect for the Child.

Joseph states in her introduction that she's shown Korczak's writings to people involved with children -- parents, teachers, social workers -- and it's the young people she has counseled over the years, many of whom have experienced abuse and neglect, whose reactions surprised her the most.

" 'If only my parents had read Korczak, they could have seen things from my point of view. Instead of feeling so isolated and misjudged, I could have quoted his words back to them. Maybe then they would have understood me.' Korczak had always stressed the importance of 'learning from the child' but, beyond that, he emphasized the importance of bestowing upon children the same rights we allocate to adults."

Quoting Korczak is always the best way to enter the world of this fascinating individual. Here are just a few of the highlights that appear in Loving Every Child:

"A child is a piece of parchment which has been thoroughly covered with minute hieroglyphics, only a very small part of which will you ever be able to decipher."

"The child's thinking is neither more limited nor inferior to that of an adult. It is different. The child thinks with feelings and not with the intellect. That is why communication is so complicated and speaking with children is a difficult art."

"If a child trusts you with his secret, be grateful. For his confidence is the highest prize."

"The child never begrudges the time spent reading a story, having a conversation with the dog, playing catch, carefully scrutinizing a picture or retracing a letter. It is precisely the child who has got everything right, and we must give him freedom to drink his cup of happiness."

"Do allow children to make mistakes and to joyfully strive for improvement. Children love laughter, running about and playing tricks. If your own life is like a graveyard to you, leave children free to see it as a pasture."

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