King Machush The First And The U.S., Part 2.

In the first part, I tried to convey a sense of Janusz Korczak’s children’s novel.  In this part, I will attempt to show why this novel has not gained acceptance in the U.S.

Polish history is a major factor in this lack of acceptance.  Towards the late eighteenth century, Poland was seized and divided into three parts by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.  It remained occupied until 1918.  Whatever Polish government there was, was regulated by the desires of the three countries.  It is not a coincidence that Korczak mentions three foreign kings in the Machush novel.  Furthermore, Korczak himself stated he would never marry, because he didn’t want his family to be prisoners.  This notion of an intruder taking over is deep in the Polish conscience, but has no parallel in American culture.  There is almost a kind of paranoia in Polish culture that any individual at any time can take over and bring the country to chaos.  In the U.S,. the individual is a sign of hope.  There is a feeling that one person can change the world for the better.  This was especially true in the 1970s.  American and Polish cultures could not be more different.  The news reporter destroys King Machush’s attempts to create a better world, but when John Merrick enters his nieces’ life, in L.Frank Baum’s series, Aunt Jane’s Nieces, he brings support and love.  Chaos in government is also a major theme in Polish thinking.  A government out of control occurs in many of Korczak’s works.  In one of Korczak’s later works, Kaitush the Wizard, Kaitush is attacked by his own government after attempting to do good.  But in the U.S., government has been relied on and it’s strength has always been emphasized.  Polish government has been seen as chaotic and weak, while American government has been seen as possessing order and stability.  The contrast is evident.  Korczak also believed in introducing children to the harsh realities of life: poverty, cruelty, injustice.  King Machush disguises himself as a peasant, so he can learn about the reality of war in his kingdom.  Machush, although a child, is never spared taunting, hunger, pain, abandonment, betrayal.  American culture has tried to protect children from such indignities.  Indeed, in the 1950s, one couldn’t mention child abuse in many schools.  Even today, certain topics are considered taboo and reasons for a teacher’s dismissal if they are brought up by the teacher.  There could not be a greater difference in outlook towards childhood.  Finally, Korczak was a firm believer in children’s rights.  He believed children should have their own parliament, their own form of government.  However, he never idealized children and emphasized that order comes from discipline and hard work.  In the 1950s and later, America was one of the few major countries to refuse to sign the United Nations Charter on Children’s Rights.  Public schools in America have been largely totalitarian in nature with strong centralization.  Corporal punishment was a given through the 1950s.  Student government was limited to one token representative who had absolutely no power.  Matters are improving, but Korczak’s manifesto of children’s rights would still strike a dagger in many a parent’s heart.  I would argue that for an American to fully appreciate Korczak, s/he would need to be aware of the many inherent differences that exist between Polish and American culture and have the desire and the openness to look beyond them.