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A Polish Hero

The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak

by Betty Jean Lifton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 404 pp., $22.50

King Matt the First

by Janusz Korczak, translated by Richard Lourie, introduction by Bruno Bettelheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 332 pp., $15.95

Matt was led through the city.

He walked down the middle of the street, still bound in golden chains. The streets were lined with soldiers, and behind them the people of the capital.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. Everyone had come out to see their king one last time. Many people had tears in their eyes. But Matt did not see those tears, though that would have made it easier for him to go to his death.

Those who loved Matt said not a word, because they were afraid to express their love and respect for him in the presence of the enemy. Besides, what could they shout? They were used to shouting ‘Long live the king!’ But how could they shout that now, when the king was going to his death?”

So run the last two pages of Poland’s best-loved book for children, King Matt the First, by Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit). It was first published in 1923. A generation of children, Polish-Catholic or Polish-Jewish, began to sob as they read of the last walk of the child who was King of Children.

On August 6, 1942, Janusz Korczak was led through the city of Warsaw. He carried a small girl on his shoulder and held another child by the hand. Behind him came the rest of his famous orphanage, some 190 children and teachers. The Warsaw Ghetto was being “liquidated”—taken by trainload after sealed trainload, day after day, to the unknown destination “in the East,” which was the gas chambers of Treblinka. On August 6, they came for the orphans. When he was told that they would not be spared deportation, Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat in the Ghetto, took his own life.

It was a hot day, and the sun was shining. The Jewish police of the Ghetto lined the streets and urged the marchers on, hustling them toward the place on the edge of the Ghetto where the SS waited with whips and dogs and boxcars with gaping doors. From the pavement, the Jewish population watched in horror. If Dr. Korczak and his children were going, then all would have to go.

The children and their teachers walked calmly, in ranks of four. It is said that they sang. One boy carried the green flag dedicated to King Matt. Korczak led the way, sometimes turning around to encourage the orphans behind him.

In the last lines of King Matt the First, the king is snatched away from death by firing squad, and his sentence is commuted to banishment on a desert island. But this did not happen to Dr. Janusz Korczak. He made certain, indeed, that it could not. Korczak had already turned down half a dozen chances to save himself and—possibly—some of the children. It seems that at the Umschlagplatz, the place of cruelty and pandemonium where between six and ten thousand people were driven daily into the trains, there were more chances: he could have appealed to the Judenrat, he could (this is probably apocryphal) have saved himself but not his charges. These, too, he rejected. He had said earlier, when the sky was darkening but before the Nazis came to Poland, “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” So he went to the trains with his orphans, and nothing more is known of them. What must have happened can be learned from accounts of the Demjanjuk trial in Jerusalem, or from the reminiscences of Franz Suchomel in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah. After the war, one story went that they had all escaped and had gone to live in the woods.

The power of the image—the teacher who preferred to die rather than to abandon his children—remains overwhelming. Its iconic force is at least as great in the Christian world, with its emphasis on life sacrifice and on the “Good Shepherd,” as in the Judaic. Knowing about Korczak only the manner of his end and his Polish-Christian pseudonym, I had not really appreciated his Jewishness until I read The King of Children. Betty Jean Lifton has spent many years doing research on Korczak, and her empathy in at least partially reconstructing the subtleties and contradictions of Polish society in the first half of this century is remarkable. With her help, the reader can move beyond the icon of Korczak’s sacrifice and encounter an extraordinary man and life.

A prolific writer for children and adults, a broadcaster of genius, a pioneer of progressive educational methods, Korczak was an elusive personality. He is impossible to categorize: by rejection or just by procrastination, he declined to conform to anyone’s image. His charm and persuasiveness were legendary. He could also be impossibly difficult, even maddening for those who had to work with him. He was very much loved, but seldom—if ever—loved another person in the way that he loved his orphans and children as a species. And yet in spite of all the screens and distorting mirrors he put up around himself, one feels—at the end of Betty Jean Lifton’s book—that this is a man whom one knows very well.

There are a great many Polish milieux that no longer exist. The one into which Henryk Goldszmit was born was the world of patriotic, assimilated, enlightened Polish Jews with socially progressive ideas. The date of his birth was either 1878 or 1879: the uncertainty—as in the case of the late Artur Rubinstein—arises from the practice of fathers whose sons were born in the Russian zone of partitioned Poland: one lied in order to defer conscription into the Russian army by one more year. His grandfather had preached assimilation to his fellow Jews; his father Józef took the same view. A Polish nationalist of the “Positivist” (nonrevolutionary) school, Józef worked for the social and educational emancipation of the Jewish poor so that they could enter the mainstream of Polish life.

This was the tradition which Henryk Goldszmit/Janusz Korczak inherited, and to which on the whole he remained faithful. His attitude to Zionism was at first affectionate but skeptical. Later, in the 1930s, the surge of anti-Semitism in Europe and in Poland itself brought him to the edge of emigration. He visited Palestine twice, half-assenting to settle in the kibbutz of Ein Harod. The outbreak of war caught him in Poland. Yet I doubt if he would ever have made that final decision. The very pressures in Poland and on Poland that made Palestine seem attractive also brought out other motives in him: his surprisingly militarist Polish patriotism, his reluctance to abandon “his” orphans as the skies grew dark. How does one classify Korczak? A Polish intellectual of Jewish extraction? He was that, but the “extraction” was never complete and he would not have wished it to be. Mrs. Lifton quotes the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki on how much harder it is to be both a Pole and a Jew than to be just a Pole or just a Jew. As she says, for some Jews Korczak came to seem a renegade who wrote in Polish, while for some Poles he was always a Jew. In a similar way, socialists and communists thought Korczak was fundamentally a wet liberal reactionary, while conservatives considered him a dangerous radical with Red associations.

Anecdotes and assumptions are the only way to reconstruct the formation of Korczak’s complex personality. His consciousness shaped itself around a sense of infantile grievance, which he very rapidly transferred to others. He felt guilt at the privileges of his middle-class childhood. He felt resentment that he was not allowed to play with the rough boys in the back yard (who wouldn’t let him bury his pet canary under a cross, on the grounds that it was a “Jewish” canary). He longed for an unconfined, physically exuberant life. He was unable to deal with the emotional paradox that while the needs of the Warsaw beggars were infinite, the extent to which it was “proper” to help them was limited.

This sense of grievance, originally subjective, was transformed very early in his life into a sense of the oppression of all children, a “proletariat” (as he put it) with which he identified himself. Half-hidden nightmares in other parts of his life insured that this identification would be permanent: to the day of his death, Korczak was to see himself as the “childish” leader of a children’s revolution against adult oppression. His father Józef became mentally ill, and died when Korczak was a teen-ager. Mrs. Lifton speculates that Korczak’s enduring fear of hereditary madness and his own suppressed sexuality may both relate to this death: the son may have attributed his father’s death to syphilis. His early novel, Confessions of a Butterfly, is pervaded by an ethereal homosexuality, while his behavior to women could at times be malicious. In his first published article, written when he was eighteen, Korczak accused parents of neglecting children for the sake of their own pleasure, and asked when mothers would come to prefer books on pedagogy to cheap novels.

As a young free-lance journalist, Korczak took his pseudonym from a character in a nineteenth-century Polish novel: a “Polish” rather than a Jewish name. He was now studying medicine, and also meeting the famous underground circle whose nucleus formed the “Flying University,” the forbidden academy run under the noses of the Russians by Polish intellectuals. It was with this group that he first learned the latest ideas and studies in child psychology, and with them that he first tasted that staple of Polish higher education: the police raid and the cell. The creed of the Flying University people was a democratic socialism which refused to accept divisions of class or race, but which at the same time stood without compromise for the cause of Polish independence. As Mrs. Lifton nicely puts it, “the Poland he felt part of was the one they represented.” This tradition belonged above all to the Polish Socialist Party.

In 1905, as a young doctor, Korczak was conscripted into the Russo-Japanese war. He shunted about Manchuria on a hospital train, learning Chinese—so he alleged—from a four-year-old girl. This was only the first of four wars in which he became involved: the First World War, the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, and the Second World War were still to come. As an army doctor at the front, he saw the worst results of conflict, but his thoughts about it were typically unexpected. At one level, he hated war for what it did to children: “We are responsible to the children for the wars that have been and will be,” he wrote in 1918. In 1939, during the German siege of Warsaw, he remarked: “After this war, no one will dare to hit a child for breaking a window. Adults will pass children with their heads bent in shame.” But he was anything but a pacifist. He loved playing the old soldier, and would happily spend hours with veterans exchanging campaign tales and competing in foulness of “soldierly” language. He was deeply proud that he had played a part in the defense of his country’s independence in the 1920 campaign, and during the Nazi occupation—even in the Ghetto—went around wearing his old Polish uniform.

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