Janusz Korczak, a successful pediatrician and well-known author in his native Warsaw, gave up a brilliant career to devote his energies and talents to the care of orphans. A charismatic educator and pioneer in child welfare, he acquired international renown and shaped the lives of hundreds of children: as he put it, he became the "sculptor of their souls." On August 5, 1942 he accompanied his charges to the Unschlagplatz and from there to the gas chamber of Treblinka. This great man and his orphans had to march to their death and the sound of those steps still resonate all over the world when we remember the Holocaust.
The following account is from the book, "Ghetto Diary" and is from the foreword written by Aaron Zeitlin.
At 10 years of age.
During his student days, he had made a short trip to Switzerland. There, he had met a Jewish girl from Warsaw, who had been studying in Switzerland and Belgium. Her name was Stefania Wilczynska. She was tall and self-assured, and she had a mischievous sparkle in her dark eyes. The daughter of a wealthy family, she was beholden to no one and defiantly waited for someone who would be able to make her do his bidding. She was younger and taller than Korczak, but the mischievous little flames that danced in her eyes began to flicker in humble wonderment as if swept by a gust of wind, when Korczak, sitting beside her on a park bench one day, said to her: "You know, I am the son of a madman," and , with a grimace that had been intended as, but in fact was not, a smile, he added that he had resolved, at the very first opportunity, to become the "Karl Marx of the children."
She listened quietly to his monologue, interrupting him only with a word now and then.
He told her that he had come from a wealthy, assimilated family which had come to grief after his father, a well-known lawyer, had become insane and had had to be placed into a mental hospital. As a result, the full burden of supporting the family had fallen upon him, the oldest of the children. Still almost a child himself, he had learned early what it meant to have to turn to grownups for help. Even more than before his father’s illness, when his father insulted him and called him a stupid ass, the boy had felt the insensitivity and cruelty with which the grown-up world treated its children and its young people. He had never forgotten the cold, idiotic contempt with which one Polish writer, the editor of a well-known magazine, had flung back into his face one of his first rapturous attempts at poetry. As might have been expected of a youth his age, it had been a love poem: in it , he had written that he was ready to die of despair. And the great editor had asked him," So what’s keeping you?"
"And do you know," said the young student to the girl on the park bench, speaking more to himself than to her, "why this man had the effrontery to speak to me like that? Simply because he was a person of privilege. Not just because he was an editor and a famous writer, too, but because he felt that he was speaking to a mere boy." Adulthood in itself is a privilege, and therefore the first step in any struggle against privilege would have to be eradication of this false privilege.
"That sounds interesting," the young girl said. "Tell me more about your father."
For answer, the young man launched into another monologue. He recalled that whenever he had visited his father in his hospital cell, the sick man would say to him over and over again: "Man is forever under siege… and who will lift that siege? No one, no one ever."
For years, it turned out, his father had been hounded by creatures whom he had named "the mockers." Their mockery had been so grotesque that it had made even their victim laugh. He had discovered that these creatures hated it when a mere human returned their laughter. Whenever he started to poke fun at them, they would disappear. They would return again and again, but it did them no good. However, there were others who had made his father truly miserable: these he called the tormentors. "You will never be able to destroy their kind with laughter," his father had told him. The sick man’s first encounter with one of them had been in the courtroom. He had been defending a prisoner whose innocence had been so obvious that he would never had been found guilty, had it not been for the man-like demon whose shadow had appeared behind the judges. The mockers wanted to make others feel small, to show them their nothingness, their inability even to understand that there was something amiss with them. They were the wags, the magicians, the acrobats of a mysterious circus, and their god was a pinhead. But a man’s real enemies were the tormentors. They found their servants and minions among living men. Injustice, misfortune, bloodshed- all this was their work. When their servants, the living people, died, these , too, turned into demons, and as long as this would continue, there could be no justice in the world. They were the ones who dictated the law and, as any freshman at law school can tell you, law and justice are not the same thing. The sick man had seen more than his share of tormentors in the courtroom. "Man, the human species, is forever under siege," he had told his son.
"There they are!" the father had cried out. "There they are, the tormentors! Can’t you see them, fool?"
The father had cowered in a corner, hidden his ashen face in his hands and trembled. Then he had leaped to his feet, grabbed his son by the shoulders, shaken him and thrown him out of the room.
Now, as he told the story, the student cast sidelong glances at Stefania from time to time. He could sense every tremor that passed through her body.
"Do you know," he said to her, almost solemnly, "I felt that there was some truth in my father’s insane imaginings."
"Yes," he replied, with a half-sad, half-mischieveous look,
"Man is forever under siege from powers that are not human. Sometimes the mockers visit me, too. After all, I am my father’s son. And how do I deal with them? I do exactly what my father did. The prescription is simple: laugh back into their faces. As for the tormentors, I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting any of them- I mean those tormentors whom my father saw behind the backs of the judges and the police. But I have the honor to inform you that I have inherited from my father other symptoms of abnormality, which he showed even when he was still normal. However, abnormality does not remain the same forever. It is , in fact, sub-normality. My ambition is to become super-normal."
"A genius, then?" Stefania asked.
"I don’t know. Let us not use such words lightly. As far as I know myself, I am blessed with a paradoxical sense of humor. But at the same time I have inherited from my father a melancholy streak. In me, that streak brings forth flashes of lightning. But if I should ever marry and have children, they would inherit only the streak and only add to the misery already in this world."
Stefania Wilczynska gave him a long, curious look.
"What do you intend to do, then?" she asked, not realizing that she was addressing him intimately instead of formally.
"What do I intend to do? I will fight against those who attack men and against those who do the bidding of these creatures. I am my father’s son, but I am not a weakling. I will not surrender. I will not hide in a corner and tremble. Let the enemies be afraid of man, and not man afraid of them. We must work with the children. We must see to it that the children should break the siege ring within which man has been confined. To begin with, children must have the right to govern themselves- the right of absolute self-governemnt."
Stefania smiled. "Why, even the grownups can’t help themselves, and yet you expect that children…
"Yes. That is what I want."
"But that’s absurd."
He laughed. "I have already told you that I am my father’s son and that I also have some abnormalities of my own. For instance, one day there was a student’s meeting. I listened to the speeches and kept quiet. Then, all of a sudden, I got up from my seat and asked for permission to speak. And what did I say? Nothing, really. Only one sentence:" I hereby wish to inform my colleagues that they and all the other careerists can go to hell." That was all. With that, I left the hall, whistling a tune… All this happened quite suddenly… No one had expected it and , frankly, neither had I."
The little sparks in Stefania’s eyes began to flicker merrily. "But that was just a game."
"But I didn’t just say that they could go to hell; I said something that cannot be repeated to a lady."
"I went off to the proletarians and tutored their children without pay. May Day, the ‘Red Banner,’ the Revolution! I still like the ‘Red Banner,’ but red is not my color. Proletarian misery, indeed! What are the proletarians after? The affluence of the rich.
"I wandered through the dark streets of the Old City of Warsaw. I sought out the worst of the misery, the corners where the prostitutes were standing by the streetlights. I myself felt like an ancient whore dragging along some ancient drunkard, against his will, because not even he wanted any business with her. I wanted to become a prophet of their kind of misery, which I saw as the misery of all mankind. At night, in a tavern in the Old City, I saw a man beating another until he drew blood. The mob inside was enjoying the spectacle. I rushed up to the two and kissed the aggressor on his vicious, pockmarked face. I begged him to stop beating the other man. Taken aback by my kiss, the man stopped for a moment. There was thunderous laughter. They were all laughing; the knife pullers, the lushes, the pimps and the whores- everybody."
"And the man who got the beating?"
"He was laughing at me also. And at that moment I saw it all in a flash which refused to vanish. Their laughter recalled to me how the grownups had laughed at me when I was a child, whenever I said something that children know but grownups do not understand. Misery? Proletariat? The world’s oldest proletariat is the child. This, the oldest underdog in the world, is suffering at the hands of those who call themselves grownups. The child is hounded even by those who love him. Kisses, too, sometimes can kill. We must make a start with the oldest underdog in the world- the child.
This one goes out to the children…
The Castle Lady loves you