She is one of the heroes of Holocaust. Unpronounceable, overlooked and largely ignored. Why? Because as a woman she wasn’t included in the narrative. Now is the time to change that.
On 5 August 1942 Stefania ‘Stefa’ Wilczyńska led 192 children from her orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, dressed in their festive clothes through the streets to board cattle cars which would take them to their deaths in Treblinka the following day. They left from an orphanage which placed the child at the centre of decisions that affected them, an institution light years ahead of its time shaping the way we treat children today. Stefa was offered a way out from the deportations but instead of leaving the orphans to their fate she chose to accompany them until the very end.
If this ‘untold story’ sounds familiar – as the story of Janusz Korczak – it’s because it is. Stefa and Janusz Korczak had cooperated since they met in 1909 and ran the orphanage together. Their combined vision saw Korczak facing outward and Stefa actively managing the home, the staff and the budget. During his draft to the Polish army during World War I, Stefa was responsible for the children’s home. Following visits to the Land of Israel she was invited by friends to return throughout 1939 and 1940. Her letter of 8 April 1940 however read “we are working in the orphanage, without the children I will not leave.”
The story of Janusz Korczak on that fateful day and the years of effort which preceded it, is also her story.
Visiting Treblinka today, the site of their murder together with close to 900,000 Jews, one finds a powerful memorial. Nothing of the camp remains and, in its place, stand more than 17,000 fragments of stone, each a monument not to a victim but to an entire community.
Except for one.
Janusz Korczak, the symbol of a brave and modest leadership which would not be swayed by fear nor favour is the only person honoured with his name on a stone. The sight of him leading his orphanage through the streets of Warsaw was recorded by those in the ghetto and became the symbol of the tragedy of Treblinka as well as a sign of the different masks that resistance and heroism can wear.
However, Janusz Korczak did not lead his charges alone. Together with him in running the orphanage and on that fateful summer’s day was Stefa. The ways in which their orphanage stood out as a haven for children was due to them both.
Nevertheless, in the folklore of modern heroism, Stefa is notably absent. She suffers the fate of women throughout history who are overlooked by those who establish our collective memories. Maybe it is because the contemporary witnesses describe Janusz Korczak leading the procession with “a few nurses”, not being aware of just who those women were. Perhaps the profile he had built for himself as a radio personality and pedagogue meant that he stood out as he walked the streets of the ghetto. Maybe it is because when it comes to vast tragedies we need symbols and symbols often don’t make space for detail or nuance. Our desire to find the heroes sometimes eclipses the fact that heroism is a team game.
In Treblinka he has a stone, in Yad Vashem he has a square.
Stefa is nowhere to be seen.
Now it is time to start adding some of that nuance and recognising the team. The memorial at Treblinka doesn’t make space for the individual because the crime committed there was so vast. Who could imagine what type of memorial would be needed to truly honour the individuals and countless acts of bravery and humanity large and small which were extinguished there?
Treblinka has however made space for one name among thousands of communities. It is time to make space for one more, so that when we visit, we no longer share a secret of history.
Stefa and Korczak together will teach us the story of how two people’s dedication and heroism managed to shine even in the depths of the darkness.