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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Mame Stefa

    One morning in 1928, when she was forty-two, Stefa got up, put on her black dress with the white collar and cuffs, and went downstairs to the bulletin board. She tacked up a notice: "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."

    The apprentices joked among themselves, Misha Wroblewski recalls: "Who was this courageous man who fathered all these children? How did she find him?" No one dared ask questions, but Stefa was adamant: she would answer to nothing but Madame Stefa. If a child cried out in the night for Miss Stefa, no one came. She was Madame Stefa from that time on.

    She was, however, still the same Stefa. Up at six each morning, she rolled bandages before breakfast, examined wounds, and handed gut med- icine. Sometimes Korczak helped her. it was a good opportunity to have a private word with a child or to give a forgiving pat to one who had misbehaved. Yet the children turned to Stefa when they were sick- Korczak might be a physician, but she was their medical authority. One boy who had been told by Korczak that he could get out of bed after a bout of fever refused to leave the isolation room until he had her permission. Some children even looked forward to getting sick and having Stefa's full attention. "Being ill was a real treat," one recalls.

    "Stefa would prepare special dishes and fret over you. We all had a secret longing to be ill and treated by Stefa." Johann Nutkiewicz, never a favorite of Stefa's because of his mischievousness, remembers fainting when he had a high fever, and fading in and out of consciousness. Each time he opened his eyes, he saw Stefa beaming down at him.

    During the day Stefa oversaw every aspect of the house's operation. It was she who made the budget; ordered coal for the winter, medicine for the infirmary, food for the kitchen; inspected the bedding; checked missing buttons, tears in clothes, soles on shoes; arranged trips to the circus or movies; recorded the court proceedings; organized the bulletin board; and kept up with the apprentices' notebooks.

    Stefa walked softly, often taking the children by surprise, and slowly, as if honoring her mother's dictum: "The slower you go, the faster you get there." No one could anticipate better than she when to close the windows against the rain. The children used to say that Madame Stefa knew everything, saw everything, and heard everything. She could pick up the quietest whisper, and seemed to have eyes in the back of her head. When she returned to the home after doing errands in the city, she would run around with a pencil, making a list of thuse who had broken the rules.

    She was never without her basket of keys. "When Stefa was passing through the house, we felt that a ship was crossing the ocean," itzhak Belfer recalls. "It was a tight ship, with everything scrubbed and battened down." She seldom had engagements, except for her regular Wednesdaynight dinner with her mother and sister, and never had visitors other than her brother Stash, an engineer, whose long legs served as a bridge for the children to run through, and whose suitcase with stickers from countries all over the world was a constant source of wonder.

    For most of the orphans Stefa was "the heart, the brain, the nurse, the mother." And no one knew this better than Korczak. "I am like a father, with all the negative connotations of that word," he would say. "Always busy, lacking time, telling bedtime stories-and rarely that. While Stefa, well, she may not be right about some things, but I could not manage without her."

    They were an impressive team, Stefa playing the no-nonsense mother to Korczak's more lenient father. When one scolded, the other would caress. Rarely did Korczak take the side of a child against her. But once when he came upon Sara Kramer in tears because Stefa had forbidden her to leave the dining hall until she had eaten all of her kasha, he sat down beside her, put his finger to his lips playfully, and swallowed the kasha. Stefa muttered a few words in French, as she always did when

    she didn't want the children to understand, and strode furiously out of the room. But later she laughed with some apprentices about the incident. "It was so like the Doctor to be sympathetic to a child in trouble," she said, as if to excuse his behavior.

    "I was afraid of Stefa when I first came to the orphanage," Sara remembers. "I missed my mother very much. On Saturdays when I was home, I'd cry that I didn't want to go back to the orphanage. But my mother would say :"Stay, it will be good for you." And she was right. My mother was always my mother, but I developed differently than I would have if I had lived with her. She couldn't give me the knowledge and values that Stefa did." Sara recalls fondly how Stefa bathed and washed her hair with the girls. "She liked me to comb her hair. It took a long time because the part had to be straight. Now I understand that she needed someone to touch her."

    "I think Stefa may have been jealous of my mother, because in spite of her limitations, she had a daughter, and Stefa didn't," Hanna Dembinska said.
    "Whatever Stefa did for me, she could never be my mother." As if she understood this, Stefa would not let herself believe how much she meant to the children. Even when they returned to visit every Saturday after they had left the orphanage, first bringing their troubles and their joys, then their husbands and babies, she would say: "They come because they need me."

    In many ways Stefa was also like a mother to the young apprentices, especially the women, who were living far from homc for the first time. "She treated us like children, while Korczak regarded us as adults, " one recalls. "She would bring sausage, rolls, and halvah for our ten o'clock snack under the stairs because she worried that we weren't eating enough." Most of Stefa's communication with the apprentices was limited to her responses in their journals, but she could not resist a direct comment if she felt that they were careless with their things. Noticing a young woman hopping on one leg to keep her balance while putting on stockings, Stefa said, "I always sit down to do that. I'm not so rich that I can risk ruining my hose."

    She was an inspiration to many of the apprentices, who learned organization from her, and marveled that she could get so much done. Coming upon Stefa inspecting the children's clothes one Saturday afternoon when everyone else was out, ida Merzan asked her: "Don't you ever rest?" "There are many ways to rest, " Stefa responded.
    "If you feel tired doing one job, switch to another. It calms you down."

    * * * Was it Korczak or the children who held Stefa to the daily grind of her life? the apprentices often wondered. "Now I realize how much bitterness there must have been behind her request to be called Madame Stefa, " Ida Merzan says today. "How many hidden feelings and thoughts about life passing by and the approach of old age. " That Stefa loved Korczak no one had any doubt. When he went into town to lecture or to see his publisher, she was always at the door to check if his tie was straight, if he had a handkerchief, if he had money, if he needed an umbrella. He would wave her away impatiently with his hand-something he would never do with a child.

    It bothered the female apprentices that Korczak could treat Stefa so rudely, but Stefa remained undaunted after each dismissal. Once when he went out dressed lightly on a cool day, she was overheard muttering to herself: "What shall I do with that big child? He coughs and goes without a sweater. " It was a joke among the apprentices that she had a hundred and seven children-if you counted Korczak.

    Ida Merzan remembers Stefa laughing about the trouble she had buying Korczak a new sweater. She had to go from shop to shop because she knew that if she didn't find one exactly like his old cardigan, he wouldn't wear it. When she finally located one, she had to contend with a saleswoman who kept insisting that pullovers were more fashionable.

    "I am buying this for a large child with a lot of hair " Stefa said with a straight face. "A pullover will mess it up."

    That Korczak needed Stefa was also beyond anyone's doubt. She shielded him from the mundane details of orphanage management; she spared him from involvement in the flurry of activity around the annual Orphans Aid Society's ball, a gala social event whose proceeds helped keep the orphanage solvent; she put up with his moods and his frequent absences. With her he could be himself-absentminded, abstracted, remote -with no playacting necessary, no mask.

    But was it enough for Stefa? When she was away on Wednesday nights, Korczak liked to tease the female apprentices during the ten o'clock snack under the stairs: "Now that Madame Stefa is out, we can flirt." But when she was there, no one ever saw them exchange so much as a gentle caress of the hand, or heard them address each other with anything but the formal you or their titles: Pan Doctor and Pani Stefa. Living under the same roof, they were seldom together. They sat with the children at separate dining tables. Their bedrooms were on different floors. They seldom went out together, except for the odd Sunday visit to Stefa's sister, Julia, who was the director of a fashionable summer camp for girls just outside of Warsaw.

    It was rumored that there had been a tragedy in Stefa's personal life, but the stories were contradictory. A fianc‚ who had been killed in the war, some thought. But which war? No one knew. Stefa never spoke of it, but then Stefa never confided anything intimate, never invited anyone into her modest room, whose only adornment was tiny cactus plants. No one, that is, except her favorite apprentice, Feiga Lipshitz, and her family.

    Her brother, Stash, a successful engineer and now married to Irena Eliasberg, often came on Friday nights. Irena, who did not share her parents' involvement with the orphanage, or her husband's need to see Stefa, dreaded those visits because of the unpleasant smell of the floor cleaner applied just before the Sabbath. If they arrived when the children were still eating, Stefa would wave from her table, and then escort them upstairs.

    "I would often think of my luxurious drapes, paintings, and brocade chairs as I sat in Stefa's bare room," Irena said. "I wondered how she could be satisfied with so little. And you couldn't give her anything. She was just like her mother-wouldn't accept gifts. I used to get really frustrated when the holidays came around. Not that her mother had anything either. She had made the mistake of selling her apartment building in the early twenties and lost her money in the subsequent financial crisis. Fortunately, she had held on to her own apartment and could take in a few boarders. When Stefa and Stash wanted to give her something, they persuaded the boarders to pay higher rent, which they subsidized from behind the scenes. Stefa could give, but she couldn't take. Still, I think she was truly happy with what she did. It got rather boring sometimes to hear how wonderful everything was with her children and the Doctor."

    No letters between Stefa and Korczak have been preserved-not a scrap of paper that might reveal the measure of intimacy they had with each other when not under the scrutinizing eyes of their wards or the apprentices. There is only the dedication of an advance copy of King Matt the First, which Korczak inscribed to Stefa in his precise handwriting on October 25, 1922. It is witty. He takes the guise of one of her boys, the fifty-first:

    To Miss Stefa:
    The boy with number 51 does not have a skin disease. He lost his birth certificate in the kingdom of Bum Drum. He asks for the work duty of gathering rubbish. He is clean ("God help him!"). He is a resident of Warsaw.

    The jaunty style of the dedication reveals a playful rather than a romantic relationship. In the real kingdom where Stefa reigns, Korczak is one of the real boys, with a number, and work duties, and citizenship in Warsaw to prove it. But his true homeland, the land of his birth, is in the fantastic kingdom of the imagination where Stefa cannot enter.

    The question has often been asked: Were Korczak and Stefa ever lovers? According to Stella Eliasberg, Korczak suspected her of trying to match him with Stefa when she first invited him to the shelter on Fran- ciszkanska back in 1909. When he confided this to Stefa, they had a good laugh and analyzed their feelings: yes, they were both in love-but with the children.

    Igor Newerly sees the situation differently: he believes that Stefa's unrequited love for Korczak was the tragedy of her life. Once, when he was alone in Korczak's garret room typing up correspondence, Stefa, knowing that Korczak was away, opened the door and walked in. Startled at seeing Newerly there, she turned and rushed out without a word.

    Newerly felt pity for her at that moment. "I think she must have come into his room often when he was out probably just to look oVer his desk and see what he was working on, and to check that everything was in order. It was a way she had of feeling close to him."

    "A few months after i moved into the orphanage, I was in my basement workshop putting together a new game for the boys when Stefa suddenly appeared at my side." Newerly continued. "She had a way of walking softly so that you never heard her approaching. "What are you making?" she asked me, adjusting the wool shawl over her shoulders.

    When I explained that it was a war game, played with ships, she asked if it wasn't strange that a sociology student should be preoccupied with garnes. I told her that when I was twelve my mother had wondered the same thing. She smiled, as if recalling something very pleasant, and said, "Well, Pan Doctor said he played with blocks until he was fourteen."
    And then she reminded me that it was eleven o'clock and I had an exam the next day.

    "How is it possible for you to know everything?" I asked her.
    "I simply observe and remember," she replied.
    "You put a note on the bulletin board a few days ago that you would not be available on Friday because you had an exam. Please go to bed now."
    When I went to sleep that night, I kept thinking of how Stefa's face lit up when she spoke of Korczak."

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