Commentary Magazine


Guardian Angel

In memory of Dr. Janusz Korczak

My friend Henry took me aside to say his child had turned up in France and was coming to New York. He asked me to help him find the child a home. He was frightened—it was a mixture of tenderness and helplessness. Joining us, his wife repeated the whole story, and she too asked my help in finding a home for the child.

All of this was unexpected: I had not known anything about a child of Henry’s in France. It turned out that in 1939 he had left a baby just a few months old in Paris with its mother, a Polish painter with whom he had lived for his last two years in France. The mother had died a martyr’s death at Auschwitz, but before being deported from France she had entrusted her child to the janitor of her building. The janitor had looked after the child as if it were her own, and after the war had managed to get in touch with Henry through a friend of his, an American major. Spotting the major on the street the day the Allied armies entered Paris, she had asked him to her place, shown him the handsome boy, and made him solemnly promise to look up Henry and persuade him to bring the child to America, where it would be better off—after all, Henry was its father.

The major apparently understood his friend; soon after arriving in New York, he went to a party at which Henry and his wife happened to be among the guests; requesting the attention of everyone in the room, the major told the story of the child that had been left behind. No one except Henry and his wife had known about the child. Henry wept, swore that he would look after the child, and made his wife do the same. The major, who was a lawyer in civilian life, took care of the formalities.

Now Henry and his wife Mary stood helplessly before me, asking me to find a home for their child, although they were both native New Yorkers and I was the foreigner. Although they had no other children, it had not occurred to them that the child could live with them (actually they themselves did not even live together—Henry had his apartment, and Mary had hers). Henry was Mary’s second husband; she had had a child by her first marriage but it had died in infancy as a result of her negligence, or so rumor had it. After the child’s death, the couple had divorced and Mary had decided that her vocation was to be a nurse, and that a nurse must not have a family of her own.

Henry was an art historian, but despite his forty years he was still awaiting maturity. In the meantime, he made picture frames—quite lovely ones.

Both Henry and Mary felt it was my sacred duty to help them find a home for the child, and that the fulfillment of this duty would be a pleasure for me. It was my duty in their opinion because the child’s mother had been my compatriot and a victim of Nazi persecution, and I should therefore be even more concerned about its well-being than its own father. And now it suddenly occurred to me that in all my thinking about Nazi murderers, I had somehow forgotten about the children—as though there had been no children among the millions of Nazi victims. Apparently, the concept of millions of martyred children had been more than I could endure.

Could I possibly feel guilty toward them? Since the enemy had been so bloodthirsty, weren’t we exonerated with regard to the children? Or do we all feel like swindlers and traitors where children are concerned? After all, if we had always borne our children in mind this catastrophe would not have occurred. It is we who organize the world, not our children, and when we organize it in such a way that children, instead of growing up, must die, we betray life itself, we conspire with death against the young.

How could my imagination sustain the thought of innumerable children’s corpses? The survivors themselves almost never mentioned the martyred children, either their own or other people’s, and if they did, it was mainly to suggest that the high mortality rate of children under such circumstances was quite comprehensible—they would say this as if it were we, the inexperienced ones, rather than they themselves who were in need of such an obvious explanation. Those who had been there dreaded the subject of children as much as those who had not. (I was told of one young woman who, while being transported to a death camp, had thrown her child into the river from a bridge, in order to increase her own chances of survival.)

I have never had children of my own, but my sister’s children and my brother’s and hundreds of children of more distant relatives and friends were killed by the Nazis. Moreover, in my student days I had once worked for a year as a counselor in a Warsaw orphanage. My parents had just died, and I was still young enough to feel terribly orphaned among the crowd of orphans, the oldest of whom were only a few years younger than I was. The children in the orphanage were serious, but not sad, and confident about the future. The director of the orphanage—a man who had devoted all his life to children—was one of the most eminent pedagogues of the century.

He was a physician descended from a wealthy intellectual family, and the author of unique, beautiful books for and about children; he himself was unmarried and childless. He lived in a small attic room in the orphanage he had founded many years before, after convincing a group of philanthropists that a new type of children’s home was needed in which new educational methods could be tried out; its findings would benefit not only other such institutions, but parents also. The “Doctor,” as we all called him, was motivated by compassion not only for orphans and children of the poor, but for all children. He believed that children are oppressed by adults, that the adult understands the child less than the child understands the adult, and that child-rearing must be based on cooperation between adults and children—in other words, that the child must participate. (The children of our institution practiced self-government, with splendid results.)

The orphanage was sunny and comfortable and equipped with all the modern conveniences, including a small hospital and a Turkish bath (one must remember that it had been founded before World War I). It was admired by specialists in the field from the most advanced European countries.

When Henry asked me to find a home for his child, I began thinking about the children from that orphanage, and wondering what had happened to them. I remembered how the first time I visited the bathhouse together with other members of the staff, the Doctor had suddenly approached me and appraising my body with his clear eyes, said in a soft warm voice: “So you’re proud of your youth? Well, I ran away from youth, as from an insane asylum. . . .” Stubbornly, the question kept recurring: What did the doctor mean by this? Why had he said that he ran away from his own youth “as from an insane asylum,” and why had he told this to me? Had he been afraid of youth, had he hated it? When does childhood end, and youth begin?

I did not understand why these questions preoccupied me so when my principal concern was with the fate of the orphans under Nazi occupation.

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Not far from New York City, in the painters’ colony of Woodstock at the foot of the mountains, a Frenchman, a certain Monsieur Ange, ran a small school. I was told about the school by my friend Alfred, a Polish painter, who had a house in the town, and I decided that this was the place for Henry’s little son; I was sure that Monsieur Ange, who selected his pupils very carefully, would be interested in the boy. My artist friend, Alfred, was childless, and all the children of his relatives had perished in Poland and other German-occupied countries. Alfred too became interested in Henry’s son, and drove me to Woodstock one day to visit the school.

It was early spring, and the vacationers had not yet arrived; the residents of the town, mostly painters, walked slowly through the streets, often stopping for no reason, like children or animals; they conversed in a relaxed way as if singing little songs to one another; clouds drifted across the sky, first white, then gray, and we strained our necks watching them. Woodstock, after New York, seemed like a soft dream. At night, as we sat by the glowing fireplace, Alfred said suddenly: “We live like little children here.” (Later in the evening another painter came by to discuss with Alfred the idea of organizing a painters’ union. The two of them did in fact resemble a pair of children who had decided to defend themselves against adult brutality—little boys conspiring in a criminal world.)

We were alone, Alfred’s wife had remained in New York. His house, one of the oldest in town, was called “Mrs. Whitehead’s Inn,” and in the second half of the 19th century it had actually been an inn, frequented by almost all the prominent American painters. The proprietress, it was said, had thought of painters as helpless children, looking after them like a mother, and giving many of them meals for nothing; after her death, she was made the official patron of the local painters.

Alfred warned me that occasionally the ghost of Mrs. Whitehead appeared at night, but always for beneficent purposes; most often she appeared to guests who were spending the night in her house for the first time—and occasionally she enjoyed playing a prank on them.

In my sleep that night I felt an icy hand pressing my own, and I continued to feel it even after I awoke. With an effort I stopped myself from screaming, and pushed the strange hand away with my other hand. Suddenly something heavy fell on my pillow. I was about to scream again when I realized that the heavy object was my own hand on the pillow—it had been dead and was coming back to life. When I described the incident to Alfred later on, he said: “Mrs. Whitehead played a trick on you, the old lady treats us like children.”

The morning was green and silvery. There was no sound except for the chirping of birds, who also seem so childlike, as the Doctor used to say in our orphanage in Warsaw. The morning seemed to be a world ruled by the laughter of children.

Monsieur Ange’s house stood somewhat apart, on a wooded hill, and was accessible by a dirt road from the town. When we got there the children were just sitting down to breakfast. It turned out that Alfred and Monsieur Ange had spent time together as children in the same village, and now they behaved like childhood friends.

Monsieur Ange’s school housed fifteen children between the ages of five and ten, including two of his own. A large collie remained constantly at the children’s side, as calm and alert as if it were guarding a flock of sheep.

During breakfast I noticed that the children ate their meals alone: Madame Ange merely brought in the trays, then the children helped themselves, with the older ones serving the younger. Afterward, I realized that they had eaten in absolute silence. I thought at first that the silence was accidental, but the same thing was repeated during dinner and supper.

When I spoke of it to Monsieur Ange, he said: “Ah, we insist on silence during meals, absolute silence. You can’t teach a child to speak just a little during meals; if you tell him he mustn’t talk while eating, you must mean it literally. Silence during meals is a variety of rhythm, a rest, a diversion. We try not to separate discipline from playing; discipline is a game, and games are discipline. This silence during meals suits the children perfectly; we have animals here, and the children follow their example. And look how convenient it is for me: I sit in an adjoining room, working, and when I hear the slightest sound coming from a child’s mouth, I know that something is wrong.”

The Anges employed no help. In and around the house, few words were spoken. When Monsieur Ange was with the children, he was part of the group, like his dog, and seemed to direct the children wordlessly, through his personality alone. The day at Monsieur Ange’s left in me a distinct rhythm—an impression of dance. The children seemed like a well-trained group of dancers. Curiously enough, for a group of active children, the impression left was one of motion, rather than sound.

_____________

 

Monsieur Ange was handsome, of sallow complexion like a gypsy, almost tall, and very strong. He was educated and profound. I had never met anyone in whom thinking manifested itself to such an extent as a physical function—perhaps because his words were marked by the same economy and strength as the motions of his body. He dressed like a farmer and looked like a villager, as did his wife, an American woman who had been brought up in a French convent. She was pale, small, and had a strong and shapely body. She spoke rarely, but whenever she did, her words had two striking characteristics—they were the only words possible under the circumstances, and their tone was placating, regardless of what she was saying, as if this were their actual purpose.

Both husband and wife were the same age, and although he did not look any older than she, he seemed to be her father—she seemed to have been made out of one of his ribs. They were enormously civilized and subtle, and yet they reminded me of animals, a male and a female buffalo. Their physical animality aroused confidence and respect, and after a while one thought of them as a worthy peasant couple.

Monsieur Ange had graduated from the famous Ecole Normale in Paris and before the war had been a physical-training instructor in an aristocratic, semi-military private school for boys in France. It was only his great love for children that had induced this exceptionally well-educated man, with a profound knowledge of physics and mathematics, and in the prime of life, to become director of a children’s home. He charged minimal fees for his pupils, just enough to cover his expenses and support his family. Each and every one of his carefully selected children was associated in some way with a tragic incident connected with the war.

_____________

 

Henry’s son was exactly Monsieur Ange’s kind of pupil, and when we showed him a photograph of the boy, Monsieur Ange thanked Alfred and me for having remembered his school—as though we had done him a great favor. The boy was eight years old, dark-haired, and blue-eyed like his father, and his name was Jan. Henry and Mary did not call him by a diminutive, and pronounced his name “Ian” in the German, rather than the English manner.

Jan spoke French and English, had perfect manners, and was tastefully dressed (for the past two years Henry had been sending money for his upkeep and education, and his guardian in Paris had sent the boy to an excellent school). He had apparently arrived with the idea of winning his father over, and after a few days in New York he made the same decision about Mary, his father’s wife.

Soon after the boy arrived, Mary asked for a leave of absence from her job, took him into her flat, and began showing him off everywhere. (Parental feelings reach the human heart in diverse, occasionally circuitous, ways.) She suggested that Jan call her “mother,” and the boy agreed at once: apparently he had brought love with him, and had not merely come in search of it. He often looked at Henry with an expression suggesting that he, the child, intended to take care of his father.

Henry’s fear and embarrassment vanished: he began to be proud of his child, as if to say, “Look what a son I’ve brought up.” When the time came to take Jan to Monsieur Ange’s, he did not even suggest that I go along, although he had never been there before—to do this would have offended his fatherly pride; and when he told Mary she could accompany the two of them, he spoke as if he were doing her a favor.

Henry referred to his son with respect, not because Jan was an exceptional child, but because he symbolized a great tragedy, a memorial, and a warning.

_____________

 

When Henry took Jan to Monsieur Ange’s place without asking me to go along, I felt like a father who has suddenly lost all his children. I thought of my brother’s little daughter, of my sister’s little son, and of the orphans in that Warsaw orphanage in which I had once worked under the great Doctor. I was sure that those orphans had been killed under the Nazi occupation, and I wanted to know how they had died. Since they were a group, they must have been slaughtered en masse, and the business must have been organized with German precision. I told myself that if I could find out how the children of our orphanage had died, I would know exactly how millions of other children had died. Then one day I came across a book from which I learned everything.

Under the Nazi occupation, the orphanage had been moved to the Warsaw Ghetto, and the great Doctor, who was of Jewish ancestry, though not a practicing Jew himself, continued to direct it. War was nothing new to him—he had fought in the Russo-Japanese war, World War I, and the Polish-Soviet war. Accordingly, on the first day of the war, in 1939, he put on his colonel’s uniform and wore it to the very end. In the meantime, this great educator and old soldier continued to do his work, thinking that after all the children were children, and they would somehow survive the massacre.

Then one day the Angel of Death appeared to him in a German uniform, and declared that the children must go, but that he, the Doctor, could remain behind.

How could the children die without him?

The Doctor brought his orphans to the train, telling them they were being taken on a trip to the country where they could play in the fields and woods. Throughout the journey, the children merrily sang Polish songs. When they got to their destination—Treblinka—the train stopped and the Doctor told his charges that in the country, one had to bathe; so saying, he led them to the gas chamber. The guards at first tried to keep the Doctor from entering, but he insisted, telling them that the German authorities in Warsaw had given him permission to die with his children. When they were inside, and the door was locked behind them, the Doctor told his children to lie down on the floor with him and breathe deeply. Thus the orphans died with their Doctor, and their bodies were burned at the German crematorium at Treblinka.

_____________

 

I recalled my first meeting with the Doctor in the bathhouse of the Warsaw orphanage. Why had he said, “I ran away from youth as from an insane asylum”?

I had lived with the Doctor under one roof for a whole year, and I kept in touch with him for several years after that. I know what a great man he was and am happy to have had the privilege of knowing him. Yet when I read about his fate and the fate of the orphans, I could not help thinking of the sheep in the Chicago slaughterhouse, which are led to their death by a specially trained sheep called the “Judas” ram.

Is such a ram really a Judas, a traitor, or has he merely lost his instinctive fear of death, going willingly because he is not afraid and thereby causing the sheep to follow him?

I recalled how, long before Hitler, the Doctor, during one of his regular talks to his staff, had described with horror how in nurseries in the Soviet Union children were sometimes given opium in order to keep them quiet.

What a terrible irony of fate!

_____________

 

I had been waiting a long time for the chance to tell Jan’s guardian about the tragedy of the Warsaw orphans and their guardian. When Henry had first asked me to find a home for his son, I had expected to become very involved, but nothing had come of it. When Henry and Mary first took Jan to Monsieur Ange’s, without even asking me along, I was left with a sense of unfulfillment. I felt the need to do something for this child, but what? Then one day Henry and Mary invited me to visit the school, and it became clear to me that the most valuable and natural thing I could do for Jan would be to tell Monsieur Ange about the fate of the Jewish orphans. This would be my gift not only to Jan but to the whole group of Monsieur Ange’s children. (Monsieur Ange himself had lived as a child in a number of Central and Eastern European countries, and somehow each of his pupils came directly or indirectly from one of those countries.)

I had taken along Witold Zechenter’s beautiful poem about the death of the Jewish orphans and their noble guardian, and I read it aloud in my own rough translation at Monsieur Ange’s. The children were asleep, and Monsieur Ange, Madame Ange, Henry, Mary, and I sat on the porch, surrounded by darkness. As I read the poem, the tears bloomed in our eyes, as naturally as blossoms on trees in the spring. I told them of the question that kept haunting me: why had the Doctor said, “I ran away from youth as from an insane asylum”?

Monsieur Ange got up from his seat and stood very straight. “An educator must not be glad that he has his youth behind him,” he said. “That is like being glad he has his life behind him, that he finds himself beyond the children’s world. An educator must not look at the children’s world from another world. The leader must be one of the herd. The shepherd should be, so to speak, the first sheep.”

We sat talking until late at night, and before we went to sleep, Monsieur Ange led me to his cellar for a drink. There I saw a great variety of homemade liqueurs, tools for carpentry and metal work, and a long table with two benches next to it; on the wall hung a fowling piece, a rifle, and an automatic. Noticing my look of surprise, Monsieur Ange smiled, and said: “I am here in the wilderness with a flock of sheep. We don’t know when the wolf may come, and in what disguise.”

We spent three days at Monsieur Ange’s—he had several guest rooms for visitors. The children were cheerful, and were enjoying themselves, but at the same time they seemed to tower above us adults by their calm, their peculiar rhythm; there could be no doubt that we were inferior to them. Occasionally their peculiar rhythm seemed to communicate a sense of strangeness toward us, a certain reticence.

I called Monsieur Ange’s attention to this fact.

“Children know perfectly well that we are stronger than they are,” he said, “and that we take brutal advantage of our greater strength. By their behavior, their reserve, they try to arouse our respect for them, and thus protect themselves against us. They know they have only one remedy against our savagery—charm. They know that they oppose our physical superiority with spiritual power alone.”

He pointed out the sensible and systematic way in which Jan had gone about winning over his father and stepmother. Monsieur Ange was convinced that Jan would eventually open their eyes, that Henry would decide to raise a family and take his son in to live with him, that Jan would get what he wanted. Children are very intelligent, he said, and it is best for the educator to remain a child; that is perhaps why he should have children of his own.

It happened that Monsieur Ange had heard a great deal about the Warsaw Doctor and had read some of his works. In his view the Doctor had been a saintly man, pure and saintly to the point of forgetting how far human brutality could go. But the children had not forgotten, as could be seen even from Zechenter’s poem. (Monsieur Ange asked for a copy of my translation.) The children had sensed the danger, like sheep, but they had followed their leader, who no longer feared death because he had run away from youth as from an insane asylum.

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