Janusz Korczak and Stefania Wilczyńska: Two Heroes

Henryk Grynberg


Janusz Korczak wouldn’t have been able to handle the Orphanage without Stefania Wilczyńska who was the real manager. This is the thesis of Magdalena Kicińska’s book Pani Stefa (Wołowiec 2015). ‘Korczak was like a mother’ (p. 83): tender, gentle, sensitive, his pedagogical method was respect for and partnership with the child (p. 63). ‘Stefa was the father’ (ibid): practical, pragmatic, and tough, ‘she was not like Korczak’ (p. 84), but devoted, tireless, working unremittingly and without pay - just as he did. Neither of them established a family of their own, because – in Korczak’s words – ‘a slave has no right to have children’ (p. 41). They both volunteered to be slaves of those children who needed them the most.

In the 1930s, unemployment in Poland reached forty percent, but among Jewish craftsmen – eighty percent. ‘We see one third of Warsaw’s Jewish population sliding into the abyss of destitution’ – wrote Nasz Przegląd in March 1935 (p. 113). ‘[Mother] saw no possibility of feeding us and so she committed suicide’ wrote an anonymous child in response to questioning. (p. 36). Jewish children suffered an additional disadvantage: ‘I saw how they beat a Jewish boy and he would not defend himself, because he didn’t know why they did it; he was hurting, so why hit back and hurt others?’ (p. 118). ‘Just because I am a Jew, why do they need to beat me?’ (ibid). ‘Why not to make it so that there would be no poor people? And if that’s impossible, let them have at least pleasant dream’ (p. 145). Korczak and Stefa  tried to create such dreams.

But when children grew up and left the dream-house, they realized that ‘life is not a Korczak house’ (p. 114), and ‘the world is not as at Krochmalna Street’ (s. 115). Stefa was aware of this. ‘We have 107 children who in a few years will say about themselves: we are naïve fools’ (p. 111). She conceded this in 1930, years before the ghetto (and Treblinka). ‘Korczak had brought up us as naïve fools’ (p. 223) – confirms a ward who left the Orphanage early enough and survived. Others who left Orphanage also blamed Korczak and his staff, and Kicińska writes that Korczak was deeply hurt by their remarks. ‘We tried to change the children so that they would change the world’ – explained Stefa. But that proved not so simple. ‘I had lived in Utopia’ – says a ward who was given chance to mature on his own. ‘But I never again had it so good in my life’ – he admits (p. 114). So perhaps it was worth it?

Wilczyńska visited Palestine in 1931, 1934, 1935 and – for the last time – in 1938/39. Even as early as in September 1935, she wrote that ‘because of the approaching war, there is no need for a return ticket’ (p. 171-172), yet she did return every time. Korczak, too, looked for a place for himself in Palestine. Like Stefa, he ‘did not believe he could be still useful here, in Poland, where antisemitic moods were constantly increasing’ (p. 184). But they both were even less useful in Palestine. ‘My children are there’ – she explained before returning to Poland in May 1939 (p. 216). She still promised her friends that she would come to Palestine for good, and later explained herself in a letter: ‘I have not come, because I do not want to go without the children’ (p. 224).

Three photograph that say more than words. ‘Children at a summer camp in Gocławek, the 1930s’ (p. 78). These are the little ones: barefoot, grey and pale, too little to carry their large, heavy heads, boys shaved to the skin. Forty faces, all serious, just two trying to smile. One face is blurred because of moving during the snapshot. The date ‘1930s’ makes it difficult to guess how old they were in 1942. ‘Backyard of the Orphanage, spring 1940’ (p. 217). More than a dozen girls, ages ten to twelve, also barefoot, but wearing pretty short-sleeve dresses and white or black aprons. Their short hair nicely combed. They sit peeling potatoes. A blond in the first row is smiling slightly to herself and everything seems as it should be. ‘Assembly hall of the Orphanage, still before moving to the Ghetto’ (p. 232-233). Barefoot girls in the same dresses as in the previous picture, and barefoot boys shaved almost to the skin sit in chairs at the tables filling the entire hall. Two girls are standing on a high balcony with iron railing. Three young tutors – two men and one woman - are leaning against the walls. The children’s faces are serious again, except for one girl who is smiling slightly. One of the youngest boys puts his arms around the shoulders of his friends on both of his sides. I visited that assembly hall twice: some fifteen years after the photo was taken and then almost  fifty years later. That balcony was there high up under the ceiling, and an aging parquet floor, and the void.

The war brought in increasingly more orphans - the orphanage on Wolska Street housed five hundred - while food rations grew smaller. In the first half of 1941, the children of Korczak and Stefa lost on the average over three kilos. But they were not dying,  whereus on Wolska they were, every day: ‘One night fifty eight had died’ (p. 231). It is not true that the Ghetto did not try to save the poor: ‘On the fifth floor, soup is given away to the poor; over one hundred thousand portions are  daily served all over the Ghetto (p. 239).

Ringelblum in his chronicle confirms that Korczak and Wilczyńska ‘went to their deaths together,’ and he sums up that ‘everything pertaining to Korczak… is the effect of their common efforts’ (p. 254) - I quote after Kicińska’s book. She includes two reminiscences from the last days before deportation. According to one, Stefa came to Centos and said: ‘The children don’t know anything, we are doing everything we can to prevent any panic. They trust us, whatever comes, we’ll all be together’ (p. 245). This obviously, did not work out, because in Treblinka, men were separated from women, and small children from adults. According to another recollection, she asked for cyanide: ‘I’ll use in the last moment, when there is no other way out,’ and she was in hurry, ‘so they don’t take them away without me’ (ibid).

Irit Amiel, who at 11-14 survived on her own, wrote to me that Korczak (and Stefa) should have told the children the truth, let go of them and given them a chance. The mother of her friend from Częstochowa told her three children of about our age: ‘This the end of the world, we have to part and you must save yourselves  any way you can’. And they all lived, and came to Israel, and had ‘a tribe of children of their own’. Certainly, some girls had a chance, and even some bigger boys. 

Stefa was always a caring ‘father’.  At one time, worried about the health of a boarding student named Lucja Gold, she got her a pair of snow boots. Lucja Gold tried ‘to walk in Stefa’s footsteps.’ She took charge of an orphanage in the Łódź Ghetto. She survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. In the postwar Jewish childrens’ home at Helenówek near Łódź, we called her Pani Lunia. We saw the blue number on her forearm, but did not ask and she did didn’t tell us about it. She was serious, but serene. Strongly built – that is why she lived. Curly, reddish, thickly freckled, perhaps not pretty, yet we all liked her. She was in charge of the eldest group and we could not wait to advance into it. Never angry or impatient, never ordering; she did not need to: we eagerly followed all her instructions. She had taught us to code words by Roman numbers, and we encoded our names, pushed the roll of paper into a bottle, corked it well and buried in a nearby wild park. Perhaps it is still there. After everyone had grown out of Helenówek, she returned to the old Korczak and Stefa’s home on Krochmalna Street, with that assembly hall pictured in the book, and continued to be ‘Pani Lunia’ to some other poor children there for fifteen more years. Like Korczak and Stefa Wilczyńska, she never established a family of her own. 

Quite a few errors in this book could easily have been avoided. Names should be Rywka not Ryfka, Jochewet not Jochewed. Szaja and Zysie are masculine names not feminine. The Polish transliteration of the well-known kibutz and place-name Ein Harod should be Ejn Charod not En Charod (as repeated 15 times). Mora, the Hebrew word for female teacher, quoted in Hebrew letters, should be typed from right to left not the opposite which makes it unreadable. Missing is the source of important information that at the shelter at 5 Dzika Street ‘children were filthy, puddles of urine under their beds, feces in the ovens…’ (p. 32). The daughter of Korczak’s publisher Jakub Mortkowicz wasHanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa not ‘Hanna Mortkowiczowa’ (p. 200), which in Polish means the wife of Mortkowicz. The privilege de non tolerandis Judaesis did not mean ‘no tolerance of Jews at all’ (‘żadnej tolerancji dla Żydów’ – p. 13), but the probibition on Jews settling in a given locality. The Russian wisdom tisheh yedesh, dalsheh budesh means the slower you go, the farther you get, not ‘the slower you go, the sooner you get’ (p. 14), which sounds like an opposite of wisdom.

This valuable book on Stefania Wilczyńska definitely deserved better editing.