Janusz Korczak: Legacy of a Writer & Teacher
In 2012, Poland celebrated the life and work of Henryk Goldszmit, better known by his pseudonym Janusz Korczak. Today, he is remembered primarily for his contributions to education, as a great authority on custodial pedagogy, yet he was also an accomplished writer. He wrote about varied social topics, from medicine and pedagogy to hygiene, politics and interpersonal relationships; he wrote for both adults and children alike.
Janusz Korczak (born in 1878 or 1879) debuted in 1896 in the satirical weekly Kolce with the humorous sketch The Gordian Knot. His last piece of writing were the final entries in his Diary on 4th August 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. Between 1896 and 1942, he wrote many extraordinary pieces, for both young readers, learning about the world around them as well as older readers, who read and praised his articles and books concerning professional matters such as pedagogy. Unfortunately, today his work is still not well known enough to be given the credit it deserves.
His body of work includes literary works, social journalism, pedagogical essays, plays and personal document literature, such as letters to friends, notes, documentation of his educational practice, private documents and the diary from the last months of his life. Altogether, this amounts to over twenty books (novels, stories, poetic prose and essays), over 1400 various texts printed in magazines (journalism, small literary forms, interviews) and over 300 pieces preserved in the form of manuscripts or typescripts. Thanks to the fact that Korczak’s field of activity was so diverse and prolific, a relatively large part of his writings survived the war.
A publication of a sixteen-volume edition of Korczak’s collected works, prepared by the KORCZAKIANUM Centre for Documentation and Research, a department of the Museum of Warsaw, began in 1992 when the first volumes appeared in print.
There are no children – there are people
One of the most important parts of Korczak’s writing is his books and stories for children. Children were his favourite people. His children's books are probably most well-known today – some are required reading for Polish school children. Among them are the two-part series King Matt the First and King Matt on a Desert Island published in 1923, Bankruptcy of Little Jack in 1924, Kajtuś the Wizard in 1935 and numerous stories and articles printed in children’s press, some of which were published by the newspaper Mały Przegląd (Little Review).
Mały Przegląd was a newspaper for children written and edited by children with a little help from grown-ups, including the editor-in-chief Janusz Korczak. The newspaper was a Friday supplement to Nasz Przegląd (Our Review), the largest Polish-language Jewish daily published in Warsaw before World War II.
All of Korczak’s pieces for kids were written based on his knowledge of children and their worlds. Thanks to his work with children at the Orphanage, he knew what and how to write to appeal to the youngest imaginations. His researcher’s instinct guided him, enabling him to closely observe and learn about the psyche and needs of a child. Through interactions and conversations, he obtained the ability to enter a child’s world. Thanks to this ability, he was able to reach out to kids – his simple writing style mimicked children’s speech. In his books for his youngest readers, he uses many repetitions which serve to emphasize the importance of particular parts of the story and substitutes synonyms, just as in children’s actual spoken language. This monotony and repetitiveness perfectly reflect the language of children, which despite a semantic poverty of means and lexical forms is capable of conveying profound emotions and the drama of experience.
Given the diversity of his work, it often proves difficult to talk about Korczak’s writing in general – each piece is unique and has a certain ambience; even finding a common denominator just between pieces for to children poses quite a challenge. Effectively, each piece of writing will, to a certain extent, not be representative of the rest of Korczak’s works. However focusing on one chosen text helps to reflect on Korczak’s universally appealing style and his special way of describing the world.
The biographical story The Stubborn Boy was published in 1938. However a shorter version of story about the main character, Louis Pasteur, was published by Korczak as early as 1923, perhaps in honour of the hundredth anniversary of the scientist’s birthday in 1922. The story came out in conjunction with the commemorative 21st edition of the well-known French Pasteur biography, which Korczak also drew inspiration from when writing The Stubborn Boy. Korczak mainly used the book as a biographical background but he also quoted some of Pasteur and his family’s letters and personal documents in the story. Therefore the book, even though initially addressed to children and written in simple language, remains extremely informative.
One may wonder what made Korczak write such a story – a story of hard work and fulfilled dreams. It might be best to let him speak for himself. Zerubawel Gilead reminisces that when he went to Korczak to congratulate him on the book he was told:
I wrote The Stubborn Boy now – in these times, when cruelty and spiritual slavery weaken us, when the Nazi madness is rising around us. I wrote it so the children growing up today knew that there are also other men in the world, men who have sacrificed and keep sacrificing their lives not to destroy other men, but to enrich and ennoble the human being.
Pasteur's depiction is at once unique and realistic. He is a man gifted with an extraordinary mind and a relentless will to learn, but at the same time is also very emotional and committed to family life. He is modest, disinterested while demonstrating an intuitive approach to research and above all diligence. His creative pursuit of the unfamiliar based on the admission that ‘he doesn’t know’ reflects a Cartesian spirit. His childhood adventures, science experiments and interest in psychology make him an inspiring figure for youth thinking about their future.
It is a very inspiring book, which encourages effort and the search for truth. It tells the story of Pasteur’s beautiful dreams, his persistence and striving to be as thorough as possible. It is neither pompous nor filled with false idealism. His scientific work isn’t portrayed in an idyllic fashion. Korczak writes both about Pasteur’s everyday troubles and struggles and the success which he achieved. The moral of the story was undoubtedly the encouragement to work hard and to strive to be the best version of yourself. But it also sheds light on the wonders of the world and on knowledge itself. Through Pasteur’s biography, Korczak shows kids that they can dream big and that fulfilling their dreams is a matter of effort and persistence. For children in the interwar period in a country that had just recently freed itself from the shackles of the partitions, Pasteur’s example must have been very uplifting. Furthermore, this wasn’t just a boring biography nor a comic book about a superhero. This was a tale of a man that really existed, who faced dull reality, poverty, the envy of others and his own limitations. The main theme of the book is Pasteur’s constant, endless and exhausting fight for truth and knowledge – knowledge which could make peoples’ lives better.
Another appealing aspect of The Stubborn Boy is the way in which the author engages the readers. On one hand, he describes facts from the scientist’s life in detail, on the other he asks many questions and leaves room for thought. ‘It’s a pity that I don’t now…’ he writes in certain places, which stimulates the imagination and is an invitation for further inquiry. After publishing The Stubborn Boy, Korczak is said to have surmised:
Maybe only a few children shall read it. It’s addressed to troubled readers, dreaming of great deeds, knowing how to work persistently.
He may just as easily been referring to himself.
The Stubborn Boy is different than other children’s books by Korczak. Contrary to Jack, who went bankrupt, Kajtuś, whose magical powers brought him a lot of suffering and Matt, whose plans to remodel the world didn’t exactly work out, Louis Pasteur achieved success. Real success, because the other characters were fictional and their failures never happened, while the Stubborn Boy actually lived and breathed. His actual story turned out to be even more beautiful than his dreams.
In his lifetime, Korczak was adored by his pupils and respected amongst people in his field. Over 70 years after his tragic death at the Nazi death camp in Treblinka, Korczak continues to be an inspiration to many, proving that hard work, inquiry and dedication are the tools with which to understand the world and society at large.
Written by Agnieszka Witkowska (Korczakianum); translated by MK, 9 Jan 2012, updated by NR, 22 Feb 2017. Fragments of Zerubawel Gilead, Trembling Earth in Memories of Janusz Korczak, edited by L. Barszczewska, B. Milewicz, are used in the text.