NUMBER 1079 • 6 NOVEMBER • The orphanage
Although the orphanage was radically progressive in a period when children were beaten and starved in many institutions, it appears highly structured by contemporary standards. Korczak believed that structure was therapeutic for children, as long as they had their freedom within it. The house ran like clockwork: Korczak considered the clock equal in importance to the scale and the thermometer, believing that a person who is careless about time cannot work well.
An alarm rang promptly at six each morning. There was a fifteen minute grace period for those who needed it. Children who jumped out of bed instantly earned special merit points; the habitually tardy had that noted on their record.
After washing, dressing, and making their beds, the children went downstairs at seven for a breakfast that usually consisted of cocoa, bread, fruit, and an occasional egg. On their way out to school they walked by a large basket filled with sandwiches for their midmorning break, to tide them over until they returned for lunch at about two o’clock. They also had to pass inspection by Stefa, who stood in the doorway checking that ears as well as shoes were clean, that shoelaces were tied, and that no buttons were loose or missing.
When the children returned from school, they ate their big meal of the day: soup with a piece of meat, kasha, noodles or potatoes, and a vegetable. Stella Eliasberg was usually down in the kitchen tasting and seasoning the soup herself before it was sent upstairs to the dining room on the dumbwaiter (a wooden shelf on a pulley that as often as not had a stowaway child who couldn’t resist the forbidden ride between the two floors). After the tables were cleared, the children did their homework at them, and then went on to their work duties. In the late afternoon there were a variety of activities, including sports, games, and music lessons. Hebrew and Yiddish lessons were offered, at the request of some of the philanthropists, but they were not mandatory.
If he was free, Korczak would look in on what the children were doing. He would ask, “How are you getting along?” or “Why do you look so sad?” in a seemingly casual way. He knew from his own experience that children don’t like questions, that they respond with reluctance or cool reserve: “Okay” or “I’m not sad.” He might touch one or another lightly in passing to show his concern, for he also knew that children don’t like effusive caresses. If someone looked pale or flushed, he was sure to say: “Show me your tongue.” Sometimes he joined the children in a game of jump rope or ring-around-the-rosy, going round and round, singing “Romazia, the nice boy who had a hole in his pocket.” When it was his turn to be in the center, he always chose a child who was not popular or who needed encouragement.
He might just sit on a bench with the children in the courtyard, in the shade of one of the chestnut trees, to watch a race or a game. “I always wanted to be alone with him,” Sabina Damm, who was fatherless, recalled. “But it was impossible, because everyone wanted him. When he sat down I would go around his chair and embrace him from the back it was the best position. ‘You’re going to choke me!’ he would squeal.” Sometimes one of the smaller children would climb up onto his lap, caress his goatee, and eventually lean his head against Korczak’s chest and fallasleep. “Don’t you think I look like an old tree filled with children playing like birds in my branches?” he would ask. When the games were over, the children would gather around and tease Korczak for holding the sleeping child. “Nanny! Nanny!” they’d call. He’d screw up his face and scold them mockingly: “Shh, don’t disturb us. My little one is tired. Let him rest and build up his energy for tomorrow.”
BETTY JEAN LIFTON
Lifton, B.,J. (1988) The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak. U.S.A and Toronto, Collins Publishers, pp. 120 – 122.