|Death: ||Aug. 6, 1942|
"Madame Stefa," as she was called, was the assistant of Dr. Janusz Korczak for thirty years. Although she was about eight years his junior and about a foot taller, their cultural backgrounds were nevertheless similar. Like Dr. Korczak, Madame Stefa also did not speak Yiddish and wasn't very religiously observant or knowledgable. The fourth of five children, she and the siblings she was closest in age to, her older sister Julia and younger brother Stanislaw, lived with their parents in an apartment in a building that had been part of their mother's dowry. Her two oldest sisters had already married and moved out of the apartment. Because her father, who owned a textile factory, was in poor health, much of her upbringing was her mother's responsibility. Her mother was a Polish patriot and a great believer in women receiving an education, and made sure that Stefa and Julia were enrolled in an exclusive private school for girls, run by Jadwiga Sikorska. After they finished their education at Mlle. Sikorska's school, the sisters went to the University of Liège in Belgium. It was at this school that Stefa received a degree in natural science, though her true area of interest was that of education. After coming home to Warsaw, she did volunteer work at the small run-down Jewish orphanage near her house. 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 on maintanence. Before long she had become such a vital part of the home that she was put in charge by Stella Eliasberg. Esterka Weintraub, a thirteen year old resident of another orphanage, became her assistant. In the fall of 1909, Mrs. Eliasberg and her husband Izaak held a fundraising party in their orphanage and invited Dr. Korczak, whose kind humane treatment of orphans was already well-known in the community. Dr. Korczak was very interested in the home's improvement plans, and began coming by to talk with Stefa and play with the orphans on a regular basis. Together they made a very good team; he had a natural way with earning childrens' love and affection, and she was very good at bringing order and organization to the orphanage and the orphans. Finally, in 1912, the small cramped orphanage on Franciskanska Street was closed and the orphans and staff moved into a larger and more modern building on Krochmalna Street. With the help and patronage of the Orphans Aid Society, enough money was raised to make this dream a reality, and Stefa was put in charge of general management at the new home, while Dr. Korczak became the director.
By the time of the First World War, the number of orphans in residence had grown to one hundred fifty. Stefa was left in charge of all of the orphans when Dr. Korczak was inscripted into the Tsarist Army as a medic. Dr. Izaak Eliasberg was also conscripted. Initially she felt over overwhelmed at being left alone with so many children, but her assistant Esterka, whom she had just recently sent to Belgium for a college education, came rushing back to Poland to assist her. Esterka was a great help to her over the following two years, and Stefa felt as though she'd lost a daughter when Esterka died of typhus during an epidemic in 1916. For a time she was so depressed over this loss that she considered leaving the orphanage, but finally felt compelled to continue because of how many children were depending upon her. However, the loss of Esterka was so traumatic that she resolved never again to grow so attached to any of the children in her care. Her workload became easier after Dr. Korczak and Dr. Eliasberg returned from the Army in 1918, though by the mid-Twenties it had become clear they needed more help. They decided they would give a weekly seminar, plus room and board, to student-teachers in exchange for their part-time assistance. Stefa did most of the screening of the applicants, who were quite numerous, and was most impressed by those who had a clear love for children and who were well-dressed. The selection process wasn't always easy, however, since Dr. Korczak's criteria differed from Stefa's. He was not won over by fine clothes or "flighty romantics" who waxed rhapsodic over their love for children but didn't have any real practical experience in dealing with them yet. In spite of these differing opinions, they did manage to select a number of worthy student-teachers.
In 1928, when she was forty-two years old, she had an announcement for her students, and wrote on the blackboard, "From now on, I am to be called Madame Stefa. it is not proper for a woman with as many children as I have to be called Miss." She held true to this declaration, and from then on out simply would not respond to a child who called her "Miss Stefa." In spite of this change of her title, however, she was the same competent caregiver she had been before. She cooked special treats for the orphans, lovingly tended to those who were sick, rolled bandages first thing every morning, had one-on-one talks with the children, repaired clothing, organized field trips, and kept the home running very smoothly. Many of the orphans and the student-teachers alike came to see her as a mother.
She continued to love and care for the orphans even during the Nazi invasion in September of 1939. Fortunately, many of the former student-teachers pitched in to help with things such as coal, clothing, money, mattresses, and dental care. Stefa also set up a sewing school in the orphanage so that they would always be assured of having enough clothing for the children. She was later given the miraculous opportunity to leave Poland for Palestine, which she had visited before, prior to April 1940, the deadline for anyone to leave Poland. Kibbutz Ein Harod had arranged the necessary papers for her. However, she telegraphed the Red Cross in Geneva and turned this offer down, saying 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 German forces. The American delegation, who had to have a Nazi escort, were very impressed by the conditions they saw in the orphanage. However, keeping the children in these good spirits and keeping the living conditions normal was a big strain on Stefa and Dr. Korczak. At the end of November 1940, Stefa and Dr. Korczak moved their 170 orphans into the Warsaw Ghetto, setting up their new home on Chlodna Street. In spite of the bleak surroundings and ever-increasing restrictions, Stefa put on a brave face for the children and continued to keep things running smoothly and well-organized. The basement became a hospital, for she didn't want to risk sending the children to the ghetto's hospital, where they might catch a more serious disease. In spite of having minimal medical supplies, she made do the best she could with her own prior experience with nursing children. For example, she would use a heated sock filled with sand for pain relief, and used salt water to treat inflammations of the throat. In mid-October 1941, they were forced to relocate once more, and managed to find a place on Sienna Street. These new quarters were very small, though they also managed to gain possession of a small house on Sliska Street to house staff members. In spite of the ever-decreasing space allotted them, Stefa continued to keep things well-organized and to lovingly and competently care for the children. Many times she and Dr. Korczak would go across the street to a small relief station called A Drop of Milk, where they spoke to Anna Margolis, the director, about how mothers fed their babies and small children when deprived of the proper amount of food and milk. Margolis was also in charge of the Tuberculosis Ward at the Childrens' Hospital, and so was able to provide extra beds for orphans who were suffering the most from starvation-related diseases.
On the sixth of August in 1942, the order for the deportation of the orphans came. For a long time, Stefa had believed that the Nazis wouldn't touch the orphanage, particularly since this orphanage was so well-known in Poland. The order to clear out and report to the Umschlagplatz for "resettlement in the East" came as a big shock to everyone, but she, Dr. Korczak, and the other members of the staff kept the children calm and tried to pretend to them that everything was normal. There were by now 192 orphans and ten staff. Stefa led the second group of children marching to the Umschlagplatz, a group composed of orphans between the ages of nine and twelve. The staff were given the opportunity to return to their homes and not be part of this deportation, 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.
Specifically: Cremated in Treblinka, Poland.
Created by: Carrie-Anne
Record added: Jun 27, 2006
Find A Grave Memorial# 14753952