Grand Rounds in Literature - Cleaveland Original Essay

Ninety-two Krachmalna Street
By Clif Cleaveland

I am patient with my obsessions. I never rush them. For me they are like bonsai trees requiring years of pruning and precise fertilization before they produce desired forms. Even then they remain fragile and in need of dedicated attention. When demands of daily living intrude, I am quite prepared to warehouse an obsession so that it may be resumed at a more favorable time.

Twenty-two years ago when I first read of Dr. Janusz Korczak I had no inkling that he would join my panoply of obsessions. An essay in a Sunday New York Times described the final days of a Polish pediatrician and the Jewish orphans whom he protected in the Warsaw Ghetto. When on August 4, 1942 Nazi authorities ordered the evacuation of all orphans and other children from the Ghetto, Dr. Korczak presented to captor and captive alike an indelible image of courage. Carrying an infant, the frail physician led a procession of emaciated children from the orphanage that he directed on a hot, two mile trek to the freight depot where they would board a train for the Treblinka death camp. In contrast to the chaos and terror that reigned in the ghetto that day the children who followed Dr. Korczak walked in orderly lines behind their aged guardian. Each child carried a book or toy and a bottle of water. A teen-aged boy walked alongside the doctor, supporting a staff to which was attached a green flag. This was the flag of the Children's Republic, the name selected years earlier for the institution now being shut down.

The newspaper's essay alluded to the publication of a diary kept by Dr. Korczak during his and his children's two year confinement within the walls of the ghetto. My periodic searches for the volume proved futile. I located by chance a copy at the Coliseum Bookstore in New York City. Even before I completed the "Ghetto Diary" I realized that interest in its author would be obsessional and self-sustaining. A biography, brief references in histories of the Polish Holocaust, a translation of Dr. Korczak's novel, King Matt the First-slowly I constructed my mosaic of this marvelous man.

I thrilled in 1991 to a black and white movie, Korczak, a joint Polish and American production that interwove dramatized portions with contemporary newsreels of the ghetto. Such was the power of this film that as the houselights came up at the conclusion, the capacity audience sat quietly for a minute or so.

The opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington gave me access to a vast array of printed materials and photographs dealing with Korczak, the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka. Staff members in both the museum's library and photo archive seemed to share my passion. There my obsession gradually morphed into my hero..

Born Henryk Goldsmitz in Warsaw in 1878, Korczak's comfortable life fell apart with the mental collapse and subsequent suicide of his attorney father. Teen-aged Henryk tutored children of wealthy families to support his mother and younger sister. Possibly influenced by his surgeon grandfather, he elected to read medicine at the University of Warsaw. By the time he completed his studies he had built a reputation as a writer of short stories and satiric essays. He adopted the name "Janusz Korczak" for a literary competition. Gradually this supplanted his given name.

The young medical student spent his evenings prowling the slums of Warsaw where he observed repeatedly the wretched state of poor, often abandoned children. These observations would shape his subsequent literary and medical careers.

Following service in the Russian-Japanese War at the dawn of the twentieth century, Dr. Korczak returned to Warsaw where over the next decade he gained recognition as that city's foremost pediatrician and most distinguished writer. He shocked his supporters in 1911 when he abruptly closed his practice and announced his intention to build and direct a new kind of habitat for the Jewish orphans of Warsaw. Wealthy friends contributed funds for the new structure which would rise at 92 Krachmalna Street. Instead of confinement under harsh conditions orphans admitted to the new institution found academic and vocational classes, nutritious meals and health care. Students elected a parliament that set work rules and privileges, and a judicial board that dealt with those who ran afoul of the codes of conduct. The children published a monthly newspaper, worked the gardens from which their vegetables came, attended summer camp in rural Poland, and regularly staged plays for their classmates and neighbors in the centrally located auditorium. The Doctor named the new orphanage, "the Children's Republic." When at age sixteen children graduated from the Republic many entered trades; others pursued university studies. Several alumni returned to serve the orphanage as teachers and nurses.

Conscripted into service in the Russian Army, Korczak spent World War I as a medical officer on the eastern front where he observed the especial suffering of children under conditions of war. Near the end of this service, Korczak contracted typhus. His mother contracted the illness while she nursed her son back to health and died. For a time Korczak contemplated suicide. He composed during this interval, "Tete-a-Tete With God, Prayers for the Non-believer." He returned to his Warsaw children who in a way saved him from despair. In addition to full days of work in the orphanage where he now resided, he published instructional manuals on childcare and numerous articles dealing with childhood education and political reform. He lectured on the rights of children before students at the University and before courts of law. He hosted on Poland's national radio network a weekly program,"The Old Doctor." Each week he addressed the questions and concerns of the parents and grandparents in his radio audience. He accepted an invitation to direct a new orphanage for Warsaw's Catholic children. He never declined an opportunity to assist children.

By the mid 1930s a rising tide of anti-Semitism severely constrained the rights of Polish Jews. Dr. Korczak lost his radio program and the directorship of the Catholic orphanage. His writings fell from favor. He moved to Palestine with the idea of relocating his orphanage but could not resist the pull of his native land. He returned to Warsaw well aware that difficult times lay ahead.

Nazi forces poured across the western border of Poland on September 1, 1939. Russia invaded from the east two weeks later. In less than a month the nation had been partitioned between German and Russian commands. On Yom Kippur in 1940 the Nazis ordered the removal of Warsaw's 400,000 Jews into a cramped, walled ghetto surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. The systematic destruction of the world's largest Jewish community had begun. Dr. Korczak, his staff, and two hundred orphans had little time to pack food and belongings onto mule-driven wagons that would take them to the ghetto. Guards at the entrance to the ghetto hijacked the wagon bearing food. When Dr. Korczak protested the theft, he was severely beaten and imprisoned for a month. But for the intervention of influential friends outside the ghetto, he would have died in jail. Thereafter food would remain in desperately short supply. In 1941 the German authorities reduced the area of the ghetto by one third. The orphanage moved again, this time to a former merchants' club. Starvation, disease and random brutality claimed 5000 ghetto residents a day during the following year. Korczak assumed the additional duties of directing a dispirited public orphanage of a thousand children.

Against this backdrop Dr. Korczak insisted upon maintaining educational activities and civility within The Children's Republic. A visitor described the Republic as an island of sanity in a world gone mad. In late July of 1942, sensing that the end was at hand, the Doctor directed his children in the presentation of their final public performance, "The Post Office," by Rabindranath Tagore . The drama portrayed the nobility to be found in death by righteous children. Less than three weeks later the Doctor, the staff and children of the orphanage perished at Treblinka.

My personal portrait of my hero would remain incomplete until I could visit Warsaw, locate the sites of the orphanages, retrace the steps of the march to the train depot and finally make the thirty-five mile journey to Treblinka itself. I had the facts; I lacked the "feel" of the times and of the man and his children.

On a cold clear Saturday morning in November 2000 I began my visit to Poland. My sense of special mission briefly evaporated in the air terminal of Warsaw. Taxi drivers filled the lobby, pulling at the luggage of those of us who had just arrived. My guide-book had described bus service into the city. No one at the airport had ever heard of this. I pushed and shoved my way to a calmer, parking area reserved for licensed taxis. My driver spoke perfect English. During my twenty-minute ride he displayed his extensive knowledge of American politics and berated my country for having an electoral system that allowed a candidate with the smaller number of votes to claim victory in the just completed Presidential election. He had never heard of Janusz Korczak.

I had picked a hotel at the edge of the former ghetto, quite near the third and final site of Dr. Korczak's orphanage. Hotel staff seemed unaware of it. In the lobby I met the young Polish schoolteacher whom a mutual friend had arranged to serve as my guide. Prior to my arrival she had known little about Dr. Korczak. Her schooling under the Communist regime had emphasized German atrocities against the Polish people with scant mention of the Holocaust. She had read extensively about Korczak and the Warsaw Ghetto during the month prior to my arrival and shared my enthusiasm for setting out.

With our maps and notes in hand we entered the Ghetto, now indistinguishable from the bustle of surrounding streets. We would have four hours of daylight with which to work. We found the sites of both ghetto orphanages. We following stone memorials that marked the route northward to the site of the embarkation point for Treblinka. Along the way we located two fragments of the original ghetto wall and the shell of a building purported to be the largest structure remaining after the Nazis razed the ghetto in 1943. When we could not locate a particular site, my guide asked passersby for directions. None seemed to know or to care where historic points might be. Eventually, we located all of the landmarks outlined in our notes. At the northern edge of the ghetto we came to the open, marble monument where the train station. At each of our stops pedestrians hurried past. Perhaps they did not have time to read inscriptions or were already aware of the significance of the various landmarks. My guide seemed reluctant to leave each each way-station. Her thirst for information on Korczak seemed to match mine.

In the fading light of this November day, a single challenge remained, the location of 92 Krachmalna Street where Janusz Korczak founded his orphanage for Jewish children. This lay outside the ghetto. Because Russian and subsequent Communist authorities had changed many street names including Krachmalna Street, our task stiffened. With some navigational intuition and the aid of a pre-World War II map my fellow searcher and I reached the neighborhood where we believed the orphanage had stood. A contemporary guidebook described a statue of Janusz Korczak that stood before a school in this neighborhood. We asked shoppers and shop-owners where the school might be. No one seemed to know. They had other problems on their minds. We walked in circles and down dead-end streets. Streetlights came on. We were running out of time. Tomorrow would be devoted to Treblinka.

My guide sought directions from another pedestrian, a stooped, elderly man. He pointed us to a street two blocks away. Initially this seemed another false lead. A used car lot and a backyard garage bracketed the entry, and cars in various states of repair lined the street. Further along we encountered a store, a run-down, small office building and a large, dilapidated bus that blocked our view of the final structure on the right hand side of the street.

Rounding the bus, I stood before the orphanage. From photographs I knew how the structure appeared before the War. Except for some alterations to the façade above the third floor, the building was the same. I did not want to move. A granite bust of Janusz Korczak stood in the narrow front yard. A man swept the drive before the building. He professed little knowledge of what went on inside. He thought "some kind of school" occupied the building. We approached the building. Marble plaques on the front wall commemorated the achievements and heroism of the doctor and his staff. One plaque stated that the address had formerly been 92 Krachmalna Street. We tried the front door. It was unlocked. From a short hallway we entered an auditorium with an elevated stage at one end. Switching on ceiling lights, we saw framed, fadedphotographs from the pre-war days of the orphanage. The photographs identified this very room as the theater where the orphans assembled and staged their public performances. There were no chairs and no materials to indicate how this room was currently used.

Here imagination and fact merged. I could hear children moving into their seats. They fall silent as Dr. Korczak stands to announce the topics and locations of the evening's discussion groups. He presents ribbons to students who have excelled in their classroom work. The he gives a brief introduction to the play which features boys and girls from the middle grades. The curtain parts.

While I dreamt, my companion studied the photographs. Several times she dabbed at tears.

Apart from us the building was empty.

I imagined the curtain parting and the children of the Republic applauding in anticipation of what they were about to experience. Classmates filled the roles of the drama selected by Dr. Korczak and his staff for the evening's entertainment. Families from the neighborhood joined the audience. For forty-five minutes all eyes focused upon the orphans turned actors. Evil fell before the righteous cause of the children. The curtain closed, briefly parted for members of the cast to take individual bows. In a corner at the back of the auditorium Janusz Korczak smiled as he clapped. The evening had been most pleasing.

My reverie faded when a caretaker appeared and motioned us to leave.

We doused the lights and returned to the street. The spirits of the hundreds of children so loved by their Doctor would guard this place forever.