Bangkok’s Korczak

A Catholic priest in the slums of the Thai capital puts into practice the teachings of Polish Jewish pedagogue Janusz Korczak



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, April 13, 2009



The “Children’s Court” at the Mercy Center orphanage is in session. Squatting on the floor of a dorm room, the five dozen residents of Home 6 are gathered to decide on the appropriate punishment for a nine-year-old girl accused of stealing a friend’s brightly colored keepsake pocketbook.

Father Joseph Maier with children in his Mercy Center orphanage


“Let’s cut off her hand,” a Muslim boy suggests, eliciting a giggle among Buddhist children. “Let’s take away her pocket money for a week,” another child counters more charitably. “Have her clean the bathrooms,” a third opines. Hands are raised in a vote and the children impose the latter penalty on the culprit. “I just wanted to have a diary,” the girl apologizes before she makes amends with the pocketbook’s owner, embracing her. Justice served, play then resumes merrily before bedtime lights-out.


Joseph H. Maier, aka Father Joe, is pleased. “The Children’s Court, isn’t that wonderful!” he says. Maier is a Catholic priest whose four decades of good works on behalf of orphans, street kids and abused children in a notorious Bangkok slum has earned him a reputation as a boisterous saint. “Let the children make their own decisions,” he explains. “Let them be wrong, but love them and forgive them — that’s from Janusz Korczak.”


A Polish Jewish pedagogue who perished in the Holocaust may seem an unlikely inspiration for a Redemptorist priest from rural South Dakota living in Buddhist Thailand. Yet Maier regards Korczak, nee Henryk Goldszmit, as a spiritual mentor. The Warsaw-born orphanage director’s ideas about childcare and street kid outreach have had a formative influence on the Catholic priest, whose Mercy Center provides shelter and care to the neediest young souls in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Klong Toey. The three-storey building, constructed from a generous foreign donation, houses a 200-child orphanage, preschools for 480 tots, a center for the handicapped, an AIDS hospice, a credit union for penniless single mothers, and a legal aid center for abused and trafficked children.


It also has the Janusz Korczak School of Southeast Asia. Inspired by Korczak’s modus operandi that no child, however disadvantaged, is a lost cause, the school provides free tuition and individually designed curricula to children with special needs who cannot be integrated into normal government-run schools and to street kids who can’t afford school or played truant. “What about the children no one else wants?” Father Maier explains the school’s raison d’etre, near wall-hung portraits of Korczak circa mid-1930s. They show the pediatrician as a bald man with round steel-rimmed spectacles, careworn features and a goatee lending him a touch of Don Quixote.


Born in 1877 into a prominent Jewish family, Korczak was an indomitable idealist. The doctor, himself the product of a broken home, wrote popular children’s books in Polish, pioneered modern children pedagogy and authored the world’s first “Declaration of Children’s Rights” (available in Thai at the Mercy Center). He chose death in Treblinka alongside his orphaned charges in August 1942 rather than flee from the Warsaw Ghetto, where he had relocated his orphanage after the Nazis’ invasion of Poland. “Janusz Korczak was a hero, but more than a mere hero,” Maier notes. “He would never abandon his children, and neither will we abandon ours.”


The launch in 2004 of the eponymous school, on the top floor of the Mercy Center’s administrative building opposite the orphanage, was attended by Israel’s ambassador to Thailand. The embassy has since facilitated performances by visiting Israeli musicians for children at the orphanage and brought in an Israeli child-development specialist for a teacher-training seminar at Mercy schools.


* * *


“It seems like we’re always fighting the authorities,” Maier fumes, referring to intransigent bureaucrats who, he says, sideline troubled kids rather than try to motivate and integrate them. “I understand their funny little rules,” he grumbles, “but damn those rules.” During the priest’s walkabout on the zigzagging breezeways of the Mercy Center with its airy dorms, bustling kindergartens and well-equipped AIDS wards, bubbly boys and girls emerge from left and right to tap fists gently with their guardian in mischievous camaraderie. “So now we have the Korczak School for these children [no one wants or who can’t fit in],” he adds.


A paunchy, youthful 70-year-old with an avuncular disposition and a mercurial temperament alternating between F-worded outbursts and doubled-up hilarity, the Irishman is an outspoken fellow who doesn’t mince words whether he discusses wanton teenage pregnancy or “stupid rules” by the Holy See. He’s upfront with all comers, be they delinquent slum dwellers or former U.S. president George W. Bush, who visited the priest’s Mercy Center last August during a stopover in Bangkok.


Maier, a man seemingly oblivious to creature comforts who slept in a tumbledown squatter’s shack near a municipal sewage pump in the squalid Bangkok district of Klong Toey before moving recently to a shady bungalow at the Mercy Center, is a one-man goodwill institution. His relentless charity drive reaches across Bangkok’s crowded shantytowns from his base at the “Slaughterhouse,” a squatter town notorious for its endemic poverty, violent crime and rampant substance abuse. Maier’s Human Development Foundation runs 31 preschools for over 4,000 poor children, many of whose parents are functionally illiterate. He’s also put up myriad playgrounds and sponsored afterschool soccer teams in grim shantytowns.


His Mercy Center, staffed mainly by local Buddhists, runs a street child outreach to save kids from the mean streets and to enroll them in the Korczak School. Currently, the school has 27 students from eight- to 17-year-olds. It also offers adult education courses in the evenings. “In this school children can learn to read and write,” Maier says while jocularly bantering with girls offering him freshly baked cakes produced in the school’s cooking class, which he added to the curriculum when he realized many street kids had poor homemaking skills.“Reading and writing,” he adds, “that’s a whole new world, isn’t it!”


For Motdam, it certainly is. The girl, whose name means “black ant,” is 14, but still reads and writes haltingly at a second-grade level. Her impoverished rice farmer parents sent her from the family’s home in the country’s northeastern boondocks to what they thought would be a better life with her widowed grandma in a Bangkok slum. There she languished unschooled and unattended, an easy target for unscrupulous drug peddlers and sex traffickers.


Now she lives at the Mercy Center’s orphanage and studies in its Korczak School. “I didn’t like normal school because it was too hard for me,” Motdam, a shy girl with burgeoning femininity, says in the school’s foyer. In it a tableau of sepias chronicles stages from the life of Korczak and his orphans in prewar Poland. “Here the teachers are kind and gentle and help me a lot,” she adds.

A student’s drawing of Polish pedagogue Janusz Korczak


Newh is also 14. By her age she should be entering high school, but she’s still in second grade. Her single mom, who ekes out a living doing odd manual jobs, couldn’t afford to keep her in school, but now Newh can study again. “Arjan farang [foreign teacher] from Poland,” she explains, referring to Korczak and a distant land she can’t place on a map, “helped street boys and girls like us learn to read and write.” Maier’s mantra to street children — one he learned from his hardworking single mother and which mirrors Korczak’s own philosophy — is “No matter what, go to school, go to school, go to school!”


After being shunned in his old primary school because he’s HIV-positive, 12-year-old Bank is back in school — the Korczak School, where he enjoys doing basic science experiments. “Dr. Janusz always helped children and cared for them,” says the boy, who learned of the doctor’s life from “Korczak,” a Polish biopic by Andrzej Wajda, shown to students. He adds earnestly, “He was like Father Joe.”


* * *


The priest prays for children, but he doesn’t proselytize to them. “Religion should be taught by grandmothers,” Maier insists. “What we must teach kids is to be good.” The three cardinal sins for children, he believes, are laziness, theft and dishonesty. “If these children grow up [thinking] ‘God loves me. I don’t cheat, steal, lie.’ Hey, that’s pretty good,” he says. His views echo that of the Jewish educator, who argued that despite their prerogative to mischief, children do “not have the right to lie, deceive, [or] steal.”


“Father Joe has a very open attitude toward all faiths,” stresses Michael Simms, a Jewish volunteer at the Mercy Center.


For the fifth year running, Simms, a retired fire captain from San Jose, California, and his wife, Deborah, have spent a month every year helping out at the priest’s orphanage under the aegis of the American Jewish World Service’s volunteer program. He teaches woodworking skills to boys from the Korczak School in a workshop he set up five years ago for the kids to learn “marketable skills.” She edits fundraising material and teaches in the orphanage’s preschools.


“It sounds very goody-goody,” says the fireman, who volunteered at the Tel Aviv Fire Department in 2004 out of solidarity with Israel during the second Intifada. “But there’s more to life than shaving a score off your golf stroke.”


He prefers to shave wood chips off desks, tables and chairs. Many of the Mercy Center’s benches, shoe racks, bookshelves, even Maier’s deckchairs, have been produced in Simms’s little woodshop, tucked behind a boys’ plywood dormitory, whereone in California and one here at the Mercy Center,” Deborah Simms says. “You look at someone like Father Joe and go ‘Wow!’” her husband says. “It’s a privilege just to be around him.” She adds, laughing: “We’re his token Jews.”


John Padorr, a former advertiser from Chicago who has been a volunteer at the Mercy Center for a decade, is also Jewish. Padorr, whom Maier greets with an amicable “Yes, holy man” one afternoon, is a trusted aide and confidante of the priest. The American Jew has been an indefatigable advocate of the Korczak School since its founding five years ago. “The Janusz Korczak School and everything we do directly related to Korczak,” Padorr explains, “have come about because everything Korczak did is close to Father Joe’s heart.”


* * *


No stranger to poverty and squalor, Korczak might have felt at home on Maier’s turf in Rong Mu, or the “Slaughterhouse,” a cheek-by-jowl shantytown home to a multiethnic community of 125,000 souls. They’re squeezed into a 5 square kilometer squatters’ ghetto between a bustling port on the Chao Phraya River and the cement pillars of an elevated expressway plied by the shiny new cars of the more fortunate beside giant billboards plugging multimillion-baht ($1 = 36 baht) condos. Beneath the stifling canopy of corrugated iron roofs, locals dwell in tumbledown shacks on stilts connected with rickety catwalks tottering over filthy, toxic canals. Many a ramshackle abode has been jerry-rigged from the scrap wood of pigpens for livestock once brought here to be butchered at dawn for city markets.


Substance abuse is rampant in the Slaughterhouse, and so is crime, most of it left unsolved. Residents, in Maier’s words, “lock their doors against things that go bump in the night.” Not that it may be safer indoors. Domestic violence is widespread and childhood innocence is lost early here to abusive elders or the need to survive. Young children are often trafficked or used as “horse walkers” forced to peddle cheap speed tablets of methamphetamine laced with caffeine known as yaba, or “crazy pill.”


Maier points to three identical 11-year-old girls in a gaggle of playful children in the leafy courtyard of the Mercy Center. The orphaned triplets were offered for sale as domestic slaves at age three by their drunken grandfather. When the priest got wind of the man’s intent, he “bought” the girls himself for the two crates of whiskey demanded and brought them to his Mercy Center, where they have lived safely since.


“This here is Master Ohh,” Maier then says, indicating a six-year-old boy scampering around barefoot with a slight limp. “Dad is a night watchman who fell on his son in a drunken rage with a machete,” almost severing the boy’s legs at both ankles. Until Ohh was nursed back to health, he was sometimes carted around in a red toy wagon by “Cookie Crumb James,” a nine-year-old HIV-positive “throwaway dead-end kid,” in Maier’s words, with a scarred face, a lopsided grin and a sweet tooth (which earned him the nickname).
Ever on the prowl in the Slaughterhouse, HIV/AIDS often finds new hosts already in mothers’ wombs. “These girls all have AIDS,” Maier notes as three healthy-looking 12-year-olds with pageboy haircuts come to great him with a polite wai, followed by the in-group fist tap. “How long are they going to last? I don’t know.” he adds. “But while they’re with us, they have the right to go to school and have a normal life.”


A young girl at the Mercy Center

In this too, Maier’s sentiments reflect Korczak’s. In his pioneering “Declaration of Children’s Rights” (which predated the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights by decades), the orphanage director insisted that even children who may die prematurely have the right to a full life of experience. At the Catholic priest’s orphanage children with HIV/AIDS, who account for a quarter of the 200 or so young residents, lead normal lives. They eat, sleep and play among their healthy peers and study in the same schools. Elsewhere, they might well be shunned as pariahs, relegated to the outer margins of social life while being left to languish in sickbeds. “You see, Janusz Korczak’s children had to suffer from the Nazis,” Maier notes. “Many of our children have to endure another deadly scourge — AIDS.”


In his years at the slums of Klong Toey, Maier has buried hundreds of children and their parents who succumbed to the ravages of the awful virus. Many deaths leave him with searing memories. On one occasion the priest sobbed at the Buddhist cremation of a garbage scavenger who died “3 baht in debt” because of his pushcart’s 10 baht (30 cents) daily rental fee with only 7 baht in his pockets that day, leaving three destitute orphans behind in the Mercy Center orphanage. On another occasion Maier obeyed the last wish of a dying little girl to get her a new pair of shoes so she wouldn’t have to go to heaven barefoot.


“I have no power over life and death, do I,” he says somberly, his freckled brow furrowed, his arms folded over his Santa belly stretching his off-white polo shirt into a melon shape. “You deal with reality here,” he adds. “Children teach you how to laugh, how to live, how to die. Look at that girl over there. She’s not well, you see, but she dances and she draws.” He spots a heap of children immersed in drawing and games, their limbs entwined in brotherly embrace inside a breezy playroom, and Father Joe’s mood lifts. “This, my brother, is how it’s supposed to be,” he says, visibly pleased. “Life’s never gonna be the same without mommy and daddy, but this is neat, isn’t it!”


At dawn, before another day of toil for “the poorest of the poor,” Maier unwinds in a nearby park. Within sight of local tai-chi practitioners, he cleanses himself of festering heartaches and nagging worries through his private brand of ritualized breathing exercise. He recites the name of Israel’s God. “Yah-weh.” The priest breathes in on the first syllable and out on the second. “Yah-weh.”


“Yahweh must guide all of us,” Maier explains. “You become a teacher of Judaism by being a good man. So I try to be the same way.”


Maier bristles at fellow Catholics like British Bishop Richard Williamson, who publicly denied the Holocaust recently attesting to lingering anti-Semitism in some quarters of the Church. “Stupid. How horrible, that negative s__t,” Maier fumes at the mere mention of such views. “In all religions we have the same friends — mercy, kindness, goodness. We have the same enemies, too — hatred, killing, prejudice.”


Maier continues to draw inspiration from his Jewish alter ego. “The positive energy of Janusz Korczak lives on, no matter what your religion may be,” says the priest. “He’s in heaven and we’ve asked him to bless our children and protect them.”


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