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