In the world of 1930s Warsaw, an impulsive third grader yearns for the adventure he hears in the folktales that his mother and grandmother tell. Kaytek first stirs up action by making bets and then discovers that he can cause real mischief just by willing things to happen. In the beginning, he uses this power to get out of trouble by making his teacher’s chalk disappear or to fulfill wishes by finding coins and chocolate. As Kaytek’s control becomes surer, his secret actions escalate, but so do the consequences and his remorse about causing unanticipated chaos. Leaping onto the roof of a tram, willing a bridge to rise up vertically, imagining an island with a wondrous castle and causing it to appear in the middle of the Vistula River, having policemen totter around on women’s high heels — all end badly. Officials are now after Kaytek. Confused, he runs away, fights a giant African boxer in Paris, and is brought to Hollywood to star in a movie. Kaytek then vanishes to New York in seven-league boots. There, he plays violin passionately, drawn by love for his parents and the memory of his beloved grandmother. Magical episodes leap with the boy’s mind, but grow heavier as he travels back to Warsaw. En route, he holds a dying detective after a train has derailed. He is kept captive by an invisible wizard chief and then released in the form of a dog along with a girl he once kissed on a dare. Transformed back to human by the tears of his kind teacher, Kaytek awaits trial by the wizard chief. The ending left open, Kaytek promises to use his powers for good.
The twenty chapters of Kaytek’s story were child psychologist, pediatrician, and author, who cared for Jewish orphans in Warsaw and told stories to guide them and make their lives better. This translation of the novel (originally published in episodes) has been issued on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Korczak’s orphanage and the 70th anniversary of his death with those children at the Treblinka concentration camp. It is a curious book, both playful and dark, written mostly, and a little awkwardly, in the present tense with an omniscient narrator. The translator has added some footnotes and an afterword to explain context for the setting and decisions relating to translation. Left in are a few uncomfortable references reflecting speech of that time where Africans are cannibals and going to see a Jew undesirable. Kaytek himself is not Jewish. The whole lacks a driving narrative depth, other than Korczak’s desire to validate children’s enjoyment of pranks while learning empathy for others. These elements keep the novel of historic interest, rather than as one to recommend for young readers now.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.