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A Storyteller Who Died With His Readers : THE KING OF CHILDREN by Betty Jean Lifton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $24.95; 353 pp.)

May 22, 1988|Robert Coles | Coles teaches at Harvard and is the author of "The Moral Life of Children" and "The Political Life of Children" (Atlantic Monthly Press). and

Many of us in this country are inclined to attribute our contemporary interest in children to the development of psychoanalysis--its interest in the early years as decisive in shaping later behavior. Moreover, a pediatrician-writer such as Benjamin Spock clearly did owe much of his popularity to the manner in which he could draw upon Freud's work in such a way that ordinary parents could be the beneficiaries of a body of knowledge otherwise inaccessible to them. But there is another tradition of interest in children, no less important, though less known to Americans--the European passion for education reform that goes back to the work of Johann Pestalozzi in the 18th Century and was certainly evident in the work of the 20th-Century Polish physician and writer, Janusz Korczak, most of whose books and essays have not been translated into English.

Korczak was born Henryk Goldszmit in the late 1870s. (The exact year of his birth is unknown.) His father was a well-known Warsaw lawyer who belonged to a community of assimilated Jews--a liberal intelligentsia caught between a desire to be thoroughly Polish and an awareness of the special problems the 19th-Century Jews of Eastern Europe had to confront: centuries of unyielding anti-Semitism that even wealth and education could not render irrelevant. Nevertheless, Warsaw was not without a decent, thoughtful Christian world, anxious to read books, understand children, improve the quality of schools, and it was such a world that Janusz Korczak would eventually address with great success.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Korczak was a Polish hero, no matter his Jewish background. He had written educational essays, such as "How to Love a Child," and children's stories, the most famous of which, "King Matt the First," is indeed available in English--a marvelously compelling account of the royal rule of a child who is determined to make the world better by enabling, finally, the young and their parents, their teachers, both to understand one another and to regard each other as equals. This utopian fantasy, full of shrewd observations about children as well as a delightful, magical exuberance, revealed much about its author--his hopes for boys and girls, but his fear that in the end, the adult world will tolerate only so much independence among schoolchildren: Matt loses his throne, is exiled to an island, on the grounds of stirring children to revolutionary passion.

Of course Korczak was himself an earnest revolutionary of sorts. He believed that children deserved a kind of respect not then granted them. He encouraged the parents he knew to give their sons and daughters the freedom to explore nature, to read widely, to become, really, their very own persons. He strongly opposed the prevailing authoritarian view of family life--with its ideal of the child as a compliant instrument of existing social and cultural imperatives. Despite the conservative nature of the Poland that existed between World War I and World War II, so strongly controlled by a backward-looking landed gentry and a highly traditional Catholic Church, Korczak became an enormously influential public figure. His books and articles commanded a wide, eager, attentive audience.

He was allowed the rare privilege of a radio program--time to share his ideas and views on children, on other matters, too, with an entire nation. He had also established two highly regarded orphanages--one for Jewish children, the other for Catholics, and that effort became his last, ruling passion. He selected the children carefully, knew well how delicate a job it is to bring into a residential setting 100 or so already hurt, abandoned, troubled boys and girls. He observed the children carefully, weighed them, examined them, spent hours conversing with them. He was a healer--a bachelor whose family, in effect, was made up of the Polish orphans whose lives he so significantly influenced.

Those orphans were that gentle doctor's companions at the end--a terrible moment in the moral history of mankind: the elderly doctor walking the streets of occupied Warsaw with his young friends under the prodding of Nazi guns in August of 1942. Soon enough, the children and their beloved physician-protector would be in the notorious Treblinka concentration camp, where they were all gassed. Korczak had repeatedly been offered the possibility of secure hiding by various Polish colleagues but chose to stay with his children, die with them.

Though Korczak's story has a melancholy ending, he lived a memorable and edifying life--one well worth a biography. He was an exemplary intellectual and spiritual figure, and Betty Jean Lifton does a fine job of evoking his lively mind, his generous heart.

She herself is a first-rate storyteller; she has authored children's books, and in this biography, her narrative voice is strong, engaging, tactful. She has interviewed many of Korczak's one-time orphanage residents, as well as others who knew him, and the result is a book that successfully carries a complex and inspiring life across the barriers of time, culture and language.

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