I REMEMBER JANUSZ KORCZAK
BY JOSEPH STEINHART(A KORCZAK ORPHAN)
I promised to write my childhood remembrances of Janusz Korczak, but I soon discovered that I knew very little about him. Let us face it, nobody would expect me, between the ages of 7-15, to qualify as a critic, and discuss his literary work. Even though I enjoyed the benefits of his pedagogical ideas, it surely did not make me an authority. Besides experts in both fields have already written analyses. Therefore, I will concentrate on the man behind the pseudonym, namely, Dr Henryk Goldszmit.
Dr Goldszmit will always have a soft spot in my heart, because he was a father to me, at a time when I desperately needed one. I summed up my feelings towards him in the following concluding paragraph of a letter I wrote to the publisher of a very large newspaper, who had never heard of Korczak, requesting that he print a feature article about him to observe the centenary of his birth: “My request may be unreasonable, but you can’t blame me for wanting to 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.” “Those were not empty words to make a point, they expressed my true feelings. Even my wife adopted him. Every August 5th she lights a memorial light (yortzeit licht), as for all departed close members of the family.
I first met Dr Goldszmit in I9I2, at the age of 7. From the first day I came to the Orphanage (Don Seirot, Krochmaina 92) I became a problem and a challenge to him.
I was the youngest in my family, and my father’s death was very traumatic. When the family was separating, I felt that my world was collapsing, and I withdrew into a shell. I kept to myself, and when I walked, I kept staring at the floor. At first, Dr Goldszmit believed that my behaviour was caused by the strange environment but when, after a few weeks, there was no improvement, he began devising solutions.
In those days, mens shirt collars were detachable. Many collars were made of rubber or plastic, to make them easy to clean.
He had me wear a high rubber collar, to force me to keep my head high. That did not work because I stood out like a sore thumb. and the children began poking fun at me.
The collar was removed, and he began to talk to me, in an attempt to build up my confidence, and to convince me that things were not as bad as I imagined them to be. He assured me that I was smart enough to handle any situation. It helped because I began to show an improvement.
During those talking sessions, Dr Goldszmit learned a great deal about me, but I also learned something about him, namely, that he cared about me not just as a patient, but also as a human being.
After a while he devised the ultimate confidence builder. At the Orphanage, the children had a place for their personal belongings. Young children had drawers, and the older children had little lockers with keys. I was not old enough to have a locker, but Dr Goldszmit gave me one anyway. The locker after all was a status symbol – something for the younger children to look forward to. To me. however, it was proof that he had confidence in me.
I did not have that locker very long because in 1914, at the outbreak of World War 1, Dr Goldszmit went into the army, and Miss Stefa Wilezynska took it away, and gave it to a girl. By that time, I was already out of my shell to tell her in no uncertain terms, what I thought of her, I must confess, that as a child, I was not very forgiving. For the rest of my stay at the Orphanage, I never felt close to her. As a matter of fact, I was suspicious of everything she did.
One of Dr Goldszmit’s greatest accomplishments was that he was able to create an atmosphere in the orphanage, that was free of fear. There was no corporal punishment, and all infractions were tried by a court of our peers. There were very few discipline problems, because the children had enormous love and respect for Dr Goldszmit and Miss Stefa.
To appreciate the accomplishment, we must remember that in the early part of the 20th century, children were made to conform through fear. In families, the father was the King. His orders were the law, and corporal punishment was common. Even religion was not taught through love of God, but through fear of retribution. It is, therefore, difficult to imagine a miniature free and just society – run by little people, at a time when all around us there was oppression, injustice and discrimination.
The children felt free to express opinions and criticism. My Polish has gotten rusty from 62 years of disuse, but I have never forgotten the complaint of a I0 year old boy. I can still see Dr Goldszmit smiling, as he listens to the boy tell him: “Ona Pana dmucha do ucho i Pan slucha (She (Miss Stefa) blows in your ear, and you, sir listen).
Sometimes criticism can overstep the limits of propriety. After one of the children’s court sessions, I felt that Miss Stefa exerted too much influence to get a guilty verdict. I critized her for it, but my criticism lapsed into a denounciation. She became furious, and suspended the court for about a month. During that period, she was on a warpath, and it made the children, including myself, appreciate the court more.
During my stay at the Orphanage, they were raising the liveliest bunch of critics in the world. Some were trivial, but others were serious. One such criticism confronted Dr Goldszmit when he came back, after the war. He discovered that the boys were unhappy about the treatment they received from Miss Stefa during his absence. It did not matter whether the boy’s complaint that she favoured the girls over the boys was true or not. The important thing was that the boys believed it.
Dr Goldszmit realised that this was an unhealthy situation, and something had to be done about it, and what he did turned out to be a beautiful solution. On a summer day, the boys were awakened at sunrise. We dressed quietly, and sneaked out of the building, without waking the girls. Once outside the gate, we had transportation and food waiting for us. We spent the entire day in the country, playing games, and having fun. The boys were happy that they put something over the girls. It also dovetailed with their imagination of adventure. The escapade provided a topic of conversation for many months, and all grumbling stopped. The Orphanage was back to normal.
The children’s health was always guarded. Dr Goldszmit kept meticulous records of every child’s weight and height. Periodically, he would check the children’s grip with some gadget. Some days he would sit in the main hall and plot the graphs of each child’s vital measurements, using a gold or gold-plated ruler he received from the Czarist government for his services to the wounded in Manchuria. The ruler had had commendations inscribed on it, but Dr Goldszmit handled it like a piece of scrap metal. Apparently, honours did not mean much to him.
To keep 100 healthy, active children happy, Dr Goldszmit had to have a sense of humour. One particular incidence will illustrate how he handled a funny situation.
Dr Goldszmit slept in a room that was situated between the boys’ and girls’ dormitories. The room served as a bedroom, a study and a dispensary, and had windows into both dormitories. Before sitting down to read or write, he would put his head through the window, and check if all is well. One night, he put him head through the window, and a boy relieved himself with loud noise. There was an outburst of laughter. Dr Goldszmit demanded to know who did it. A little boy, let us call him, Chaim, spoke up and admitted his guilt. The following night at the same hour he put his head through the window and said: Chaim, it is 9 o’ clock, you can do it again. There was again an outburst of happy laughter. The fact that he could laugh with them endeared him to the children.
Dr Goldszmit was a great storyteller. One true story he told made a deep impression on me. At the start of World War 1 he was attached to a regiment that was very badly mauled, when the Germans attacked. By a twist of fate, the entire command of the regiment was killed, leaving him as the highest ranking officer. Although he was a medical officer, he was forced to take command. He tried, without success, to rid himself of the responsibility.
The Russian high command did not even miss the regiment. So he kept retreating, until they ended up on the outskirts of Warsaw, which gave him an opportunity to return to the Orphanage. He waited, until the army decided what to do with the remnants of the regiment. With this kind of inefficiency, it was no wonder that the Germans occupied Warsaw soon after.
Dr Goldszmit was innovative, and could adapt to various situations. One particular situation sticks in my mind. It was the time he turned “detective”, and solved a “crime”. One day, a little girl lost what to her was the most precious possession. Most articles, belonging to the children and kept in drawers or lockers, had no monetary value, but had a great deal of sentimental value, since it was a tie to their families. She told Dr Goldszmit, in between tears, that somebody had removed it from her drawer.
Dr Goldszmit was determined to find the culprit, since it was the first time that anyone had anything missing. The polygraph had not yet been invented. He figured out a way to determine whether a child was telling the truth. The children were questioned individually, and during the questioning he held their hand. The children were under the impression that he was trying to make them feel at ease, but in reality, he was checking their pulse. He did find the “thief”. The article was replaced without anyone finding out who did it.
I was always very small for my age, but Dr Goldszmit and Miss Stefa considered me to be mature and reliable as a messenger when the need arose. I sometimes carried messages or small parcels to Dr Goldszmit’s and Miss Stefa’s mothers. One day I delivered something to Dr Goldszmit’s mother. During these visits his mother would ask questions and we usually talked. That day, I described what I saw at the Hala (Warsaw’s main market). She listened and then told me that as a small boy her son used to steal apples at the market. She was proud that he grew up to be such a good man, but there were times when she had her doubts.
To most children, Dr Goldszmit projected an image larger than life. When I found out that as a child he was as mischevious as the rest of us, I could identity with him even more.
There was never a problem to find who was doing some unauthorised harvesting from our walnut tree. The tree was located in the front yard, and had four or five tremendous branches. It was a very prolific tree. Some children could not wait for the official harvesting and did a little sneak harvesting. The children were not aware that the outer shell that covered the walnuts contained iodine, and when removed would discolour their hands. It was amusing to see a child with discoloured hands deny all guilt. From latest photographs, I see that the tree is gone, and I mourn it like a lost friend. The Nazi’s took away even that small pleasure from the children.
There were many good innovations at the Orphanage. We had a children’s court and a newspaper. But one innovation could be of practical use in today’s homes. It was the “silent period”. During that period all activities came to a standstill. The children had to be quiet, and engage in activities that would improve the mind. We could do our school homework, or read a book and newspapers. Today, especially in the United States, the children watch too much television. Their minds are minds filled with junk, and they become “street-wise”, too soon. A silent period would be a great improvement.
Some people criticized Dr Goldszmit and Miss Stefa because the children were not getting enough preparation to enable them to function after they leave the orphanage. The biggest complaint was that the orphanage was a training school for nursemaids for wealthy families. This criticism was not valid in the context of the period.
In the early 20th century there were few vocational or professional opportunities for girls in Warsaw. There was no public school system, and the orphanage operated its own school for the children. The Russians, who were occupying Poland, believed that it was in their interest to keep the people ignorant and illiterate. They not only did not provide schools, but prevented others from opening schools. The few schools that were operating had limited enrolment. Short of opening their own training school, there was very little that could be done.
I was one of only five boys who attended a vocational school. It was licensed as “4K7 Szkota Rzemiesinica pzy Towarzystnie Dostarczania pracy Ubogin Zydom” (4 year vocational school by the Society for Providing Work for Poor Jews). I graduated in 1920 at the age of 15 and a half. I was small for my age, and in a graduating class of 18, 19 and 20 year olds, I looked like a midget. My classmates treated me as an equal.
We called a meeting, and decided not to accept the diplomas with the above designation, since the Russians and the Germans were gone. I spoke to Dr Goldszmit about it, and he agreed that it was a valid protest, and that I did right to join it. Since it was too late to print new diplomas, the school decided to give us in addition to the regular diplomas, a certified typewritten copy with the above heading.
When writing about Dr Goldszmit, we must also mention the contribution made by Miss Stefa Wilczynska. They were a team. He was the ideas man, while she was the one to apply them. They behaved like parents in a family. Dr Goldszmit was the easy-going father, and Miss Stefa was the tough, taskmaster mother. As an administrator, she had no equal. She would get things done with firmness and dispatch. Dr Goldszmit would also get things done, but he used a great deal of psychology when dealing with the children.
Children usually live up to the expectations of their elders. It is the way we see children that makes a great difference. This reminds me of a cartoon I once saw. It depicted a child, in this case a boy, in two images. One, the way mother saw him and the other, the way his teacher saw him. To his mother he appeared as an angel, but the teacher saw him as a devil. That boy probably lived up to both expectations.
I don’t know in what image Dr Goldszmit saw me. It surely was not as a devil. He made me feel close, and even had a pet name for me. He used to call me “Niedzwigdak” (small bear), which would make it the American equivalent of “teddy bear”.
On the other hand, I never felt close to Miss Stefa, and it was probably my fault. I simply could not forgive her for taking my locker away. Over the years, she was very kind and understanding. Looking back, I realise that she took a great deal of undeserved nonsense from me – like a mother would. I can still see pictures of her standing with a pressing iron, trying to smoothen my drawing that someone had crumpled. I can’t help wondering in what image she saw me.
Compared to the scholarly essays that have been written, my writing may appear to be insignificant. Those scholarly writings concerned themselves with Korczak (Dr Goldszmit) the author and pedagogue. I, on the other hand, concern myself with the person.
After living with him for eight years, I did get to know him well. By describing various situations, and the way he handled them, tells a great deal about his personality.
During my stay at the Orphanage, Dr Goldszmit was still young, and full of ideas. It was also the first opportunity that he had to test his pedagogical theories. From my descriptions, we can see how well they worked. It also shows that he was one of those rare people who practiced what they preached. Dr Goldszmit was a special person, and everyone who came into contact with him was affected by his humanity and wisdom. I was.
Holiday Florida U.S.A. March 24, 1982.