A Boy and His Dog, Both with Disabilities, Share Their Boundless Love

Back in 2015, my younger daughter told me about a book she was reading and with which she became entranced. It’s about two misfits, a little boy and a huge dog. Both have physical disabilities. And as each is endowed with a great heart and heaping dose of empathy, they understood each other perfectly. As I love both animals and children with disabilities, I had to buy a copy and read it. I am very glad I did.

 

Haatchi and Little B

Book reviewed: Wendy Holden, Haatchi & Little B (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014). ISSN 1250063183

He remembered the deafening roar of the train as it rumbled over him. Left for dead, an abandoned dog whimpered in the chilly night air. Fortunately, a kind-hearted rail supervisor spotted him and alerted the local animal welfare authorities. A series of veterinarians, nurses, animal shelter personnel, and animal advocates did everything they could to restore normalcy in his life. Everyone who met this dog was taken in by his large amber eyes, which belied his gentle nature. They did all they could for this unusual dog, but they could not save one of his hind legs and tail, making walking and communicating a major challenge for him. Now the problem was who would adopt a three-legged dog, an Anatolian shepherd, a breed most people associate with aggressiveness; even as a puppy, he was a very large dog. Those who met him knew he was a gentle giant. At one of the sanctuaries, the staff realized how loyal this dog was. They thought of a much-loved canine folk hero in Japan, an Akita named Hatchiko, who waited for his owner at a train station, even many years after he passed. They decided on an Anglicized variant, Haatchi. Little did they then realize that the name would suit him perfectly.

Will Howkins has a son, Owen, a boy with a very rare genetic neuromuscular disorder. The one dog he had was sweet-natured, but it was not in his nature to cuddle. Will and Kim, Owen’s mother, had divorced; Will was the boy’s primary care taker. Several years, later, Will met Colleen on line; like Will, Colleen loved dogs. One day, while browsing the Internet, Colleen was smitten by the face of an Anatolian shepherd staring back at her with enormous almond eyes. When the couple visited the dog in person, their feelings of love were even stronger. But how would Owen, Colleen’s “Little Buddy,” or “Little B,” react to a dog so much larger than he. They would have to give it a try. Little B was very shy and withdrawn, but when he and Haatchi met, they were in love; Owen became much more lively and outgoing. Soon, the story of the little boy and large dog spread, millions of people having viewed their account on Facebook. This is the book behind the story.

Haatchi and Owen had adapted to their disabilities, overcoming a great deal of painful surgery. The two inspired each other with their determination and positive outlook. Throughout the book, each experienced many more setbacks and challenges. In fact, the “happily ever after” is the astonishing positivity of all members of the family. Nobody knows the long-term future of either Owen or Haatchi; for now, however, both are extraordinarily grateful for what they have. That is the story of the family with the boy and his dog, who inspire each other—and will inspire anyone who takes the time to absorb this very enjoyable and highly readable true story.

An Unfished Chapter in a Life: A Review of The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepard

An Unfished Chapter in a Life

Occupied Warsaw, 1940-1942.  The Ghetto.

This is the cover of the May 2015 Quercus edition from England

This is the cover of the May 2015 Quercus edition from England

At ten years of age, only the first chapters of Aron’s life had been written.  His life was a work in progress.  Yet, at his tender age, Aron had literally experienced a lifetime.  The book of Aron was still being written.  Even so, like the Book of Jeremiah, the book of Aron was filled with foreboding, for the present as well as the future.  Would there be redemption?  Could there be redemption?  One could even draw a comparison with another prophet – Job.  Like him, Aron found himself questioning, asking whether there could be justice, as he confronted one tragic obstacle after another.

He was only 10.  Yet, Aron had to help care for his family.  When his ailing mother succumbed to typhus, Aron was forced to live by his wits.  Anyone who has read about life in the Warsaw Ghetto (or seen photos) will recognize the truth of the tremendous bravery and ingenuity of children like Aron in facing extreme danger to smuggle the most basic of goods from the world beyond, the world beyond the barbed wire-topped walls of the Ghetto.   When Aron was near death, our hero was saved by another hero, Dr. Janusz Korczak.

Janusz Korczak was a real person, the pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit, born in 1879 in Warsaw.  Korczak studied in his native Poland and abroad to become a pediatrician.  However, Korczak would gain fame by founding an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw and developing an educational system very far ahead of his time, when discipline consisted of corporal punishment.  It is no coincidence that Korczak’s most enduring nonfiction works bear these titles: How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect.  Korczak did not just write these beautiful words, he lived by them.  His orphanage was a model of respect for the dignity of the child, a place where young souls were nurtured, where everyone – Korczak included – had a role in the community, washing the floors and, at the same time, participated in his innovative Children’s Court.  It was a place where penalties for breaking the rules involved restitution to the community rather than punishment, expectations of self-improvement and learning from one’s mistakes rather than threats.  After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and created the Warsaw Ghetto the following year, Korczak was forced to abandon his beautiful building on Krochmalna Street and find new quarters.  Though the patchwork of ruined buildings on Sienna Street bore no physical resemblance to the original edifice, Korczak, his assistant Madame Stefa, and the dedicated staff worked tirelessly to maintain some sense of normalcy for the children.

So, in a sense, one hero rescued another, though in this story, the definition of heroism in the context of the purgatory of the Ghetto are in flux, in conflict to the very end.  And what lives on  in both Aron and Korczak is the latter’s most enduring legacy, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.  This was probably the easily overlooked redemption of the Prophets.

Gripping, first-hand accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto have come down to us, themselves miracles.  How does one write a fiction work of this terrible place and period?  Jim Shepard, through the genius of his writing, has succeeded admirably.  Shepard’s bibliography of original sources – diaries, memoirs, and Emmanuel Ringelblum’s historical archive, Shabbat Oneg (for which he ultimately paid for with his life) – and the best historic accounts is indeed impressive, enabling him to – in his ords “approach inner reality … through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford.”  Details abound: a sadistic SS guiard known as Frankenstein, the patched holes in the Ghetto, Korczak’s love of sparrows and geraniums, a theatrical production of Tagore’s The Post Office….  Indeed, those fine details all come together to cfreate the masterpiece that is The Book of Aron.

Reviewer’s note:  The copy I read was the British paperback edition, which appeared earlier than its US counterpart.  I am grateful to have been able to secure this edition.  However, this otherwise appealing paperback suffers from an editorial flaw:  the description on the back cover, aside from being somewhat obtuse, incorrectly states that the Warsaw Ghetto was established in 1939.  Warsaw was invaded in September 1939; the Ghetto was established a year later.  Aron’s age would have been 10 or 11, not 9, as stated.

A Sculptor of Children’s Souls

book review Sculptor Children's Souls biography

This wonderful book by former teacher and scholar Marcia Talmage Schneider, offers details of Janusz Korczak and his orphanage from the perspectives of several orphans and former teachers.

To the children he took in, Janusz Korczak was more than a teacher, doctor, or orphanage director.  He was, in the words of one of the young lives he touched, a “sculptor of children’s souls.”  The teachers who worked for him thought likewise.  Although all of Korczak’s children and staff during the World War II years perished with him at Treblinka, several earlier students and teachers managed to flee Poland and have survived.  Marcia Talmage Schneider undertook the arduous task to locate these survivors, most of whom were living in Israel, to obtain first-hand accounts of Pan Doctor.  By doing so, Ms. Schneider offers a valuable supplement to Betty Jean Lifton’s superb biography, The King of Children.

Although Ms. Lifton’s book is highly worthwhile, interested readers gain a good background knowledge of Janusz Korczak – who he was and what he believed – through Ms. Schneider’s fine preface and introduction.  Numerous historic photographs grace the book, enhancing the reader’s “picture” of Dr. Korczak, the orphans, and Dom Sierot, the orphanage at Krochmalna 92, Warsaw.  Locating the survivors in Israel was a labor of love, involving a great deal of research, especially the archives of Lohamei HaGetaot (The Ghetto Fighter’s House) and Kibbutz Ein Harod, shamor v’zachor, to observe and remember, to which Ms. Schneider adds ten eyewitnesses, as follows:

  • Yitzhak Belfer, one of Korczak’s orphans who went on to become a famous and highly respected artist whose drawings and bronzes highlight the life of Janusz Korczak and his love for children
  • Mira Caspi, an orphan who became a bird enthusiast, a remembrance of the great love Korczak had for the tiny sparrows he fed from the window of his attic office
  • Shevach Eden, a teacher who trained at Dom Sierot, who went on to serve as president of the Israel Korczak Society and write a book (in Hebrew) about the man who had such an impact on his life
  • Yehuda Kahane, who like Dr. Eden was an educator and active in the Israel Korczak Society and wrote a book about the Old Doctor
  • Sarah Kremer, another orphan with a son “just like Korczak”
  • Erna Friedman Lador, a teacher and counselor at the orphanage who became a respected children’s psychiatrist
  • Klara Maayan, a teacher at Dom Sierot who remembered the flowers Korczak gave, forget-me-nots
  • Schlomo Nadel, an orphan who was inspired by Korczak to undertake photography, his profession and life’s passion whose most prized possession was a walnut that Korczak and Stefa gave him
  • Dov Netzer, a retiree whose children and grandchildren would have made Korczak proud
  • Scnuel Nissenbaum, an artist who, like Belfer, devoted many of his sculptures and paintings to the memory of Dr. Korczak.

Each spoke with passion and clarity on what it was like to be an orphan or a teacher at Dom Sierot, adding a personal vision and perspective to all that made Korczak so memorable – the newspaper, the court, Stefa, mealtimes, stories, and summer camp.  The common theme, however, is how Korczak influenced and inspired each member of this diverse group, not only in their professional lives, but also in the way they chose to live and raise their children, their very moral and ethical codes.  It was there, this book makes clear, that Janusz Korczak had the greatest effect.  With Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Children’s Souls, Korczak is more than a legend; he is a very real person.

The Book of Aron, a New Novel by Jim Shepard, Features Korczak in Cameo Role

Author Jim Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, has just been published. It is an acclaimed National Book Award finalist.  Most notable is that Janusz Korczak is a featured character in this otherwise fictitious work.  The New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR gave the book highly positive reviews, and the Huffington Post profiled its author.  I look forward to reading the book and reviewing it in this space.

Book of Aron with Jim Shepard

They Called Him “Mister Doctor”

A review of:  Mister Doctor: Janusz Korczak & the Orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto. Story by: Irène Cohen-Janea; Illustrations by: Marizio A.C. Quarello.  Toronto: Annick Press, 2015

Mister Doctor 2015

Janusz Korczak was a pediatrician who gave up a potentially lucrative practice to found an orphanage for the children he loved.  And the children loved him; the nickname they gave their mentor was “Mister Doctor.”  In this book by the same title, his story is told from the perspective of one of the orphans—who could be any of the orphans or all the orphans.

The book opens with the last days in final period of the famous orphanage on Krochmalna Street; the Nazis invaded Warsaw on September 1, 1939, and shortly thereafter ordered the city’s Jewish population into the Warsaw Ghetto.  The journey is one fraught with darkness and fear, as shown by the somber illustrations showing barbed wire.  They walk past the house of horrors they know as the Black Palace.  (I believe the author was referring to the infamous Pawiak Prison; I doubt the children actually passed that landmark, as it was on the opposite side of the Ghetto.  However, the episode adds literary value to the narrative.)  The horrors of the trek are in marked contrast to the soft, warm hands of Doctor Korczak and illustration of his favorite fairy tale character, Puss in Boots, bounding over a barbed blockade.

Their new home was the best Korczak could find, but “the house of tears” at 33 Chlodna Street is clearly nothing like their beautiful old home; in one illustration, even the houseflies on the window sill are dead.  Though flashbacks, the narrator recalls all the Old Doctor’s innovations: the children’s court, their newspaper, the bulletin board, postcards….  In the Ghetto, everyone clings to hope by celebrating their Jewish heritage and identity.  Some children learn Hebrew.  A professor teaches the children a poem, “Brothers,” by the great local poet, I.L Peretz, which they make into a song: “Light and dark, and in between/ All the colors come together./ We are all sisters and brothers/ From one father and one mother,/ And God created all of us./  The whole world is our nation. / We are all sisters and brothers.”

The most poignant part of the life of Janusz Korczak is the final march, which has been remembered in diaries, poems, movies, and statues.  In Mister Doctor, the last walk is portrayed in a beautiful fold-out.  But the story does not end there; the Rights of the Child would be taken up by the U.N. and given global stature.  Perhaps little Henryk’s canary wasn’t buried after all.  Perhaps he flew up into the heavens.

About the Physical Book:
Mister Doctor is a picture book, but with the amount of text on each page, it is more suitable for older children to read on their own.  The illustrations are beautifully executed and complement the narrative perfectly.  The book is a little pricey, but the quality of materials is exceptional; it is issued in a library binding.  Clearly, this is a book to be kept and treasured.  It is curious that Mister Doctor is also available as an e-book.  I fear an electronic medium would not do justice to the work of art this book is.  The title is noteworthy, as it is the same as the first Polish biography, the one written by Hanna Olczak, who knew Korczak and Madame Stefa personally.  A two page biography of Janusz Korczak puts the narrative in perspective; that, along with a short bibliography, will help students doing a book report—or a report on Mister Doctor himself, to pass his legend on.

The Man Who Created Light to Overcome Darkness – A Review of The Gate of Light, by Adir Cohen

Though Betty Jean Lifton has written the definitive English-language biography of Janusz Korczak in the form of her excellent The King of Children:  The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak, Adir Cohen here offers an in-depth and insightful portrait of the Polish educator who devoted his life – and ultimately perished for his love of children. He thoroughly covers this beloved children’s advocate’s philosophy of life and learning, as well as how his writings and practices reflect the man, his thoughts, and his personal, ethical, and religious values.

The book starts out with Dr. Korczak’s background and early childhood, both of which were formative in his declaration of his desire to change the world, first as a doctor and later as an educator. The new orphanage at 92 Krochmalna (Warsaw, Poland) is discussed, as is the life of the orphans there. Cohen also chronicles Korczak’s later years – his visits to Kibbutz Ein Harod in Palestine and the increasingly difficult life for Jews under the ominous dark clouds of the rise of Nazism – culminating with the hell that was the Warsaw Ghetto. The primary sources are How to Love a Child and The Ghetto Dairy.

The second chapter explores Korczak’s religious life. Though Korczak was not a member of a temple or other religious institution, Cohen portrays him as a man with an intense religious longing an acute seeker of perfect justice and ideal moral values and behavior. He postulated that one’s perception of God is highly personal, especially as God lies within the soul of each living person, which includes every child. Jewish ritual was a very important part of life at the orphanage, but prayers were always kept in silence, allowing each child and teacher to express or her religious belief individually.

The third chapter discusses his early work in children’s camps and how, though intense reflection, sought to learn from his mistakes as a new teacher. Korczak himself discussed these experiences in a separate chapter of How to Love a Child and how listening to the voice within would become central to his ways as an educator.

Chapter 4 covers the orphanage as “a home and house of education.”  Janusz Korczak sought to discern three elements in the orphanage, namely fulfilling children’s immediate biological needs and protection from outside dangers; ensuring and environment in which each child will be able to develop his or her physical, social, academic, and spiritual talents (with the Alderian concept that each child is unique, with his or her similarly unique background which must be taken into consideration)

Chapter 5 goes into internalizing the father and mother as role models in building the personality of the child. Cohen also discusses the Children’s court, with its focus on education through forgiveness rather than punishment, and the importance of communication through the children’s newspapers and bulletin board, as detailed in How to Love a Child. This theme is explored further in Chapter 10.   Also central to Korczak’s philosophy was that one should not preach but, rather, express a generous (and forgiving) attitude, that corporal punishment in any of its manifestations is wrong, and that learning right from wrong is more important than any academic matter. In short, children must be viewed as persons worthy of respect who should be accorded full human rights.

In Chapter 6, Cohen discusses the importance Korczak placed on child’s play as a moment that belonged entirely to the child, a time in which he or she could realize childhood dreams, especially those they were not sure adults were willing to take seriously.

How Korczak incorporated his background in medicine in his teaching is the topic of Chapter 7, mainly in that he did his best to educate the child but realized he had little control in the child’s ultimate outcome beyond the positive moral values he sought to instill. He went on to show how “to do no harm,” or “to touch without burdening” in Chapter 8.  The educator is obliged to know the secret of giving, the secret of surrender, the secret of devotion.   Moreover, the educator must learn from his mistakes and extend that privilege to his students.  Korczak was very much a progressive educator, in the manner of John Dewey, whereby children are encouraged to learn from experience and free activity rather than being handed orders from above; here Chapter 9 is in a way an extension of Chapter 7, in that children are encouraged to take advantage of life’s opportunities now rather than prepare for some nebulous future. Moreover, children should be encourage to explore and search for new learning rather than rely on material handed down. In addition, Cohen reports that Korczak warned against following a single school of thought in teaching, something that corresponds to his warning not to rely on books – especially a single book – on child rearing.

The remainder of the book explores Korczak’s writings. The Drawing Room Kid exposes the hypocrisy and decadence of the Polish bourgeoisie, especially in their attitudes toward the poor.  Published in 1925, When I Shall Be Little Again, is Korczak’s description how he is able to relate to children on their terms, first imagining himself being little among the adults in his life and then himself as the adult and his peers as children, a feat of literary philosophy that has never been replicated with the skill that Korczak has shown. Korczak also devoted special attention to the relationships among the children, both their compassion and their malice (and how the two polar opposites could seemingly coexist). He has succeeded in showing both how adults view children and how children view adults. In The Senate of Madmen, Korczak explores insanity in multiple manifestations, including his autobiographical memory of his own father, who died in an institution. Cohen quotes other authors’ commentary on how this work is also a metaphor for the madness of institutions in society. Cohen’s chapter on the Ghetto Diary is surprisingly short, but it does a good job in exploring Korczak’s attempt to find meaning in the face of death – what it will mean to him, his orphans, the Jewish people, and humanity overall. This remarkable short book is deep on reflection, almost an abbreviated autobiography. Finally, Cohen explores Korczak’s two-part masterpiece of children’s fairy tale fiction, King Matt and , how these remarkable books have enchanted children and adults who can empathize with children for decades. Unlike most fairy tales, there is no happy ending, except for hope; perhaps that is where happiness ultimately lies. That was certainly true of Korczak himself, as Adir Cohen’s superb study so aptly shows.Image