Stefania Wilczynska (Madame Stefa)

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Like several of my other posts, this is also edited down from my much-longer Find a Grave biography.

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Stefania Wilczynska, 1886–6 August 1942

Stefa attended Jadwiga Sikorska’s exclusive private girls’ school and earned a degree in natural science from the University of Liège in Belgium. However, her true area of interest was education.

After returning to Warsaw, she volunteered at the Jewish orphanage. Prior to Stefa’s arrival and the intervention of the Orphans Aid Society, the director had been using the home’s funds for herself instead of on the children or maintanence. Before long, Stefa was put in charge by Stella Eliasberg. Esterka Weintraub, a 13-year-old resident of another orphanage, became her assistant.

In autumn 1909, Stella and her husband Izaak invited Dr. Janusz Korczak to a fundraising party. His kind, humane treatment of orphans was already well-known. Dr. Korczak was very interested in their improvement plans, and regularly visited to talk with Stefa and play with the orphans. In 1912, the orphanage on Franciskańska Street was closed, and they moved into a larger, more modern building on Krochmalna Street. Stefa handled general management, while Dr. Korczak became the director.

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Dr. Janusz Korczak, 22 July 1878–6 August 1942

Stefa took charge when Dr. Korczak was inscripted into the Russian Army as a medic. Dr. Izaak Eliasberg was also conscripted. Initially, she was overwhelmed, but her assistant Esterka, whom she’d sent to Belgium for university, rushed home to assist her. Stefa felt as though she’d lost a daughter when Esterka in a 1916 typhus epidemic. This loss was so traumatic, she resolved never again to grow so attached to any of the children.

After the Nazi invasion, many former student-teachers helped with coal, clothing, money, mattresses, and dental care. Stefa also set up a sewing school so they’d be assured of clothing. Kibbutz Ein Harod arranged the necessary papers for her to escape, but she telegraphed the Red Cross in Geneva and said she couldn’t leave the children.

Later that spring, the orphanage was toured by an American delegation in charge of arranging relief consignments with the occupying forces. The delegation, who needed a Nazi escort, were very impressed. At the end of November 1940, Stefa and Dr. Korczak moved their 170 orphans into the Warsaw Ghetto, setting up their new home on Chłodna Street. In spite of the bleak surroundings and ever-increasing restrictions, Stefa put on a brave face and continued to keep things running smoothly.

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Krochmalna Street Orphanage, circa 1935

The basement became a hospital, for she didn’t want to risk the children catching a more serious disease in the Ghetto’s hospital. In spite of minimal medical supplies, she made do the best she could. For example, she used a heated sock filled with sand for pain relief, and used salt water to treat throat inflammations.

In mid-October 1941, they were forced to relocate once more, and found a place on Sienna Street. These new quarters were very small, though they also managed to gain possession of a small house on Śliska Street to house staff members.

In spite of the ever-decreasing space, Stefa continued to keep things well-organized and to lovingly, competently care for the children. Many times, she and Dr. Korczak went across the street to A Drop of Milk to learn about feeding children with deprived nutrients. Director Anna Margolis was also in charge of the Tuberculosis Ward at the Children’s Hospital, and so was able to provide extra beds for orphans suffering the most from starvation-related diseases.

On 6 August 1942, the order for the orphans’ deportation came. Stefa had believed the Nazis wouldn’t touch the orphanage, particularly since it was so well-known. The order to report to the Umschlagplatz for “resettlement in the East” came as a big shock, but she, Dr. Korczak, and the other staff kept the children calm and tried to pretend everything was normal. There were by now 192 orphans and ten staff.

Stefa led the second group, ages 9–12, marching to the Umschlagplatz. The staff had the opportunity to go home, but they all refused, not wanting to abandon the children.

Stefa, like Dr. Korczak, was holding hands with two of the orphans as they entered the gas chamber at Treblinka.

WeWriWa—Delaying official power

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. Since I’ve been writing this book out of order and have deliberately left a number of gaps and unfinished chapters to get back to, I’m skipping to the start of Part II, “Awaiting on the Throne,” which opens in August 1922. The Dowager Empress comes to talk to her grandson and is met with a shocking announcement.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit into eight lines.

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The Dowager Empress took a seat beside her grandson, who was painting a picture of kittens, while Mikhaíl gazed out a window. “Sunbeam, have you put any thought into potential brides?  You’re so blessed to have lived already nearly eighteen years, and you shouldn’t take your blessings for granted by not immediately marrying and producing an heir.  I assume you and Mísha have been discussing when power will be transferred to you.” She grimaced at the sight of Natálya coming into the room.

“We’ve had other types of discussions, Bábushka,” Alekséy said, daring not take his own grandmother to task for still calling him by a baby name. “I’m leaving for Paris soon to study at the Sorbonne; how can I immediately become Tsar on my eighteenth birthday, without much real experience?  Papa was too young at twenty-six when he ascended the throne, which was one of the reasons he had so many problems.”

***

Though an underage Tsar could assume power in his own right at age sixteen, I felt it would be more realistic and better for dramatic tension if Aleksey waited a little longer. The discontinued original version of this story had him coming to power on his 25th birthday in 1929, and I wanted to keep it that way. Even in an alternative reality, the last thing anyone would want or need would be a teenage boy with uncertain health being rushed onto the throne simply because he came of age. Those extra years would give him more time to gain experience, live in the real world on his own, and get even stronger.

Hemophilia wasn’t an automatic early death sentence in that era. After surviving childhood, it was more a matter of learning how to be more careful, what things to avoid, and good old-fashioned time. A number of other hemophiliacs descended from Queen Victoria lived into adulthood, so it’s hardly an implausible scenario. And since I’m the one writing this story, why shouldn’t I make my hero one of the lucky few?

The Veseli family of Albania

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Krujë, Albania

The story of the Shoah in Albania is largely unknown, even though Albania lost almost none of its Jewish population and indeed even saw a large increase due to all the people who’d fled there from surrounding areas. The Albanian Embassy in Berlin also continued issuing visas until 1938.

The Mandil family came to Albania from the former Yugoslavia in April 1941, and settled in the Italian-controlled Kosova province. (Kosova is the proper Albanian name; Kosovo is the Serbian name.)  Near the end of summer 1942, the refugees fled deeper into the Italian-controlled part of Albania, and the Mandils (husband Moshe, wife Ela, son Gavra, daughter Irena) settled in the capital of Tirana.

Moshe, who’d owned a prosperous photography shop in Yugoslavia, wanted to continue working with photography, and found a shop owned by a former apprentice, Neshad Prizerini. Neshad offered Moshe a job, as well as inviting Moshe’s family to live with him.

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Refik Veseli, 1946, Copyright http://www.yadvashem.org/, Use consistent with fair use doctrine

At his new job, Moshe met Neshad’s 17-year-old apprentice, Refik Veseli, who’d come from Krujë to learn the trade.  After September 1943, the Germans invaded and took over the formerly Italian-controlled areas, and Refik suggested the Mandils move to his parents’ home in the mountains of Krujë. The journey took several days, travelling on mules along side roads and rocky terrain by night, hiding in caves by day, all the while staying out of Nazi radar.

Refik’s parents, Veseli and Fatima, hid Moshe and Ela in a room above the barn, while Gavra and Irena lived in the house with the younger Veseli children, Hamid and Xhemal. After the Mandils’ arrival, Refik’s brother Xhemal smuggled in another Jewish family from Tirana, Ruzhica and Yosef Ben Yosef, and Yosef’s sister Finica. Both families stayed with the Veselis until Krujë was liberated in November 1944. As the war came to a close, military activity in the area intensified, as Nazis fought against Albanian partisans, the village was bombed, and searches were conducted.

Novi Sad Synagogue, Serbia

After the war, the Mandils settled in Novi Sad, Serbia, where Moshe started a new photography shop. He invited Refik to live with his family and be his apprentice, so he could continue training as a photographer. Refik lived with them till they made aliyah (moved to Israel). The families stayed in touch even after they no longer lived close by.

In 1987, Moshe’s son Gavra wrote to Yad Vashem and begged the museum to recognise the Veselis as Righteous Among the Nations. The request was granted, and the five Veselis became the first Albanians granted this most prestigious honour. Though Albania was tightly controlled at this time, Refik and his wife received permission to travel to Israel for the ceremony.

Uku and Eha Masing

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Uku (né Hugo) Albert Masing, 11 August 1909–25 April 1985

Since I’m such a passionate, longtime Estophile, I just had to profile Uku Masing and his wife Eha!

Uku Masing was a professor, philosopher, poet, hyperpolyglot, and folklorist. He also wrote one novel, Rapanui vabastamine ehk Kajakad jumalate kalmistul (Liberation of Rapanui, or Seagulls at the Cemetery of Gods) in the late 1930s, which was posthumously published in 1989. It’s believed about 10,000 pages of his writing have yet to be published.

The somewhat eccentric Uku could speak four languages by the end of secondary school, and knew 40 by the end of his days. At one point, he knew about 65. While studying theology at the esteemed University of Tartu, he published many essays, poems, and translations. His most famous work was 1935’s Neemed vihmade lahte (Promontories into the Gulf of Rains). In 1938, he joined the Arbujad (Soothsayers) circle of poets. During this time, Estonia was a free nation, but their hard-won independence sadly came to an end in 1940.

Uku became a professor at the University of Tartu, where he taught Semitic languages and theology.  He was said to be a brilliant professor. In 1939, he was invited to teach at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but the outbreak of war precluded his accepting this position. After the Nazis occupied Tartu in 1941, he gave up his teaching job to devote all his time and energy to saving Jewish religious and cultural items. He refused all offers to teach at German universities, since he was extremely anti-German.

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Copyright www.yadvashem.org

Uku and his wife, Eha, came to the rescue of Isidor Levin, a former student in the Jewish Studies department. They obtained false papers, provided him with food and clothing, and hid him in their own home during the occupation, until the September 1944 liberation. Many times they had to lie to the Gestapo and deny any knowledge of Isidor.

After the war, Uku took part in investigating war crimes (particularly the Klooga concentration-camp) and collected documents regarding the Shoah in Estonia. On 29 April 1969, he was honored as Righteous Among the Nations. Eha was honored as such on 29 December 1996. They were the first and second Estonians, out of only three to date, to receive this recognition.

Dr. Todor and Pandora Hadži-Mitkov

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In my limited time at Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, this plaque caught my eye for two reasons. One, there aren’t exactly a plethora of narratives about the Shoah or WWII in Macedonia. Two, as a name nerd, I think the name Pandora is just awesome! When I looked up this couple’s story, I found a third reason to fancy them: Dr. Hadži-Mitkov was a veterinarian, my favourite type of doctor!

In April 1941, following the German invasion of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia was quasi-annexed to Bulgaria. Though it was technically part of Bulgarian territory, it wasn’t formally annexed, and thus was under Nazi administration. In spite of this, Macedonia still had to adopt the anti-Jewish legislation forced upon Bulgaria. This was felt even in the capital city of Skopje, where Dr. Hadži-Mitkov lived.

In March 1943, several days before the entire Jewish community of Macedonia was deported to Treblinka, Dr. Hadži-Mitkov visited his friend Mois Frances to talk about the rumours he’d been hearing.  Dr. Hadži-Mitkov was deeply disturbed by the talk of deportation, and decided the entire Frances family (Mois; his wife Vinka; his mother Esther; his 8-year-old son Marcel; and his daughter Eni [Esther]) would immediately move in with him.

One of Skopje’s numerous mosques, Copyright Antti T. Nissinen; uploaded by raso_mk

Dr. Hadži-Mitkov temporarily fired his domestic help and put up public notices saying his clinic was closed. Hence, the Franceses were able to live without so many threats of discovery. A day before the deportations of 11 March 1943, an announcement went out that anyone caught hiding Jews would be punished.

Mois decided he didn’t want to risk his friends’ lives, and began looking for ways to flee Skopje and get to Albania, a country which had virtually no anti-Semitism. However, it was already too late to flee, as the fascists were looking everywhere for people who’d gone into hiding. It wasn’t even safe to leave Dr. Hadži-Mitkov’s house.

Dr. Hadži-Mitkov’s brother-in-law, Trajko Ribarev, and his wife, Dragica, were in on the secret, and volunteered to move the Franceses into their home. One by one, dressed in Muslim peasant clothes, the Frances family moved by horse and cart to the Ribarev house on Skopje’s outskirts. They stayed there for several days.

Partisans of the Goce Delčev Brigade marching through the centre of liberated Skopje, November 1944; source http://znaci.net/fotogalerija/fotogalerija09.html

Dr. Hadži-Mitkov got false papers with Muslim names, and Trajko found a way to smuggle the Franceses to a safer area. As Mois had originally hoped, they eventually found their way to Albania, where a family by the name of Kapasi saved them.

In 1944, when the Franceses returned from Albania, the Hadži-Mitkovs warmly welcomed them back, and put them up in their home once more. In 1948, the Franceses made aliyah (moved to Israel).

On 19 February 1976, Dr. Hadži-Mitkov and his wife Pandora were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations. On 29 April of that same year, the Ribarevs received that same honour. They were the first Macedonians to receive this recognition, out of only ten to date.