Betty Jean Lifton has written about children a number of times; however, the subject of Janusz Korczak was new to her, as it will be to most American readers. After hearing about him from a European friend, she began to investigate his life and works. The result is a highly detailed portrait of a very unusual man who defended the rights and welfare of the child despite the ignorance, apathy, intolerance, and war that marked his era.
Janusz Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit in 1878 to middle-class Jewish parents in Warsaw. Lifton writes movingly about how young Henryk was not allowed to play with the rough children in the neighborhood and, therefore, had to create his own world in the drawing room to which he was confined. His early years were also marked by the increasing madness of his father. After his father was institutionalized, he had to become the man of the house. The result of these circumstances was that Henryk lost his childhood; he never had the freedom and innocence of the child. In an attempt to recover that lost childhood, he spent the rest of his life caring for children and living in their world.
Young Goldszmit went to medical school in Warsaw and was writing at the same time. He had decided to become a doctor rather than a full-time writer because “medicine is deeds” and literature only words. His first important work was Dziecko salonu (1906; the child in the drawing room). The book tells the story of a child who has “lost his soul” in conforming to his parents’ wishes. When he becomes an adult, he rebels and enters the larger world of experience among all classes of people; this choice finally leads him to discover his vocation as a writer. The book clearly reflects Goldszmit’s own experiences; he, too, was in the process of winning his independence from an overbearing mother by becoming an author as well as a doctor. He chose pediatrics for his specialty. As he was completing a residency, Goldszmit was conscripted into the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War.
When Goldszmit returned from the war in 1906, he found that he was famous as Janusz Korczak, the pen name he had chosen for Dziecko salonu. He put into practice his theories about children in his pediatric work and in his administration of a summer camp. At camp, Korczak (as he was now known) found that the children resisted the programs and instruction he presented to them; he learned that it was essential to have order and discipline so that children might benefit from any instruction. He acknowledged his naïve views and set about finding ways to correct the situation. After establishing discipline, he set up a children’s court and a newspaper, hoping that the children would govern themselves.
In 1910, Korczak gave up his lucrative private medical practice to become the director of an orphanage for Jewish children. He participated in the planning of the facility and the methods that would be used to educate the children. He went to a number of countries to investigate orphanages and how they dealt with the children; while in England, he came to a dramatic decision. He decided not to have a child of his own but to dedicate his life to “uphold the child and defend his rights.” This decision was the result of his own experiences as a deprived child with an irresponsible parent; moreover, Korczak was an eternal child and considered that he could love all the children with whom he came in contact better than one of his own.
The orphanage opened in 1912, and Korczak began to create the Children’s Republic of which he had dreamed. Children were to govern themselves, to have their own court and newspaper, and even to decide which of the teachers should be retained or dismissed. Korczak had some difficulties with members of the Jewish community, who thought that the orphanage was “too Polish” because Korczak had not limited the school to Jewish orphans. Korczak was a Jew but also a patriotic Pole, and he tried to overcome sectarian differences between the groups in Poland. Furthermore, in Korczak’s view a child had no divisive nationality or religion but automatically belonged to the world of children.
Korczak’s experiment in a workable community at the orphanage was interrupted by World War I. Once more, he was forced to serve in the Russian army. He did, however, make some use of this enforced tour by writing Jak Kocha dziecko (1920-1921; how to love a child). The book declares that it is first necessary to see the child “as a separate being with the inalienable right to grow into the person he was meant to be.” He was one of the first to see the child as having a separate identity rather than being...
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