It is possible that Stefa's request to be called Madame Stefa had
nothing to do with Maryna Falska being known as Madame Maryna. Yet
she must have been on Stefa's mind in 1928, because that was the year
the new building that Korczak had helped Maryna design for Our Home
became ready for occupancy.
Maryna had attracted a powerful patron in Aleksandra Pilsudska, the
second wife of Jozef Pilsudski. This resourceful woman (known for her
courage in the prewar underground) had chosen social work as an arena
where she would not create any "ambiguous situations" for her husband.
Dissatisfied with the inadequate quarters in Pruszkow, she began raising
money to build a large, modern facility for the orphans in a wooded suburb
of Warsaw known as Bielany. Her excellent connections made it possible
for her to acquire a state concession for a small shop selling liquor and
tobacco, whose proceeds would go to Our Home. She also helped Maryna
organize an annual charity ball, which, not surprisingly, was well attended.
Maryna was still the intensely private and formal person whom Korczak had
met in Kiev. Like Stefa, she continued to wear only black, a
style of dress that many women of their generation had chosen to commemorate
the failed uprising of 1863 and had not discarded once independence
had been won. Although these two women so dedicated to
social welfare had much in common-including their attachment to Korczak
-they seldom saw each other.
One of the few occasions they were together was the opening ceremony of Our Home,
at which Aleksandra Pilsudska presided. it was a
big event in Warsaw The press called the sprawling building the "Children's
Palace," because it had running water, electricity, and other amenities
that were unheard of in most orphanages at that time. Designed in
the shape of an airplane, it had two residence wings which fanned out at
right angles from the central administrative building, and easily accommodated
120 children, ranging in age from four to fourteen.
The right-wing anti-Semitic newspapers labeled Our Home "a new
nest of Masonry and potential Communism erected in the heart of the
capital," and decried the lack of a chapel. "Well, it's Korczak," one jour-
nalist wrote. "What else can you expect when a Jew runs the board?"
Few people knew that Korczak had tried to persuade Maryna to include
a chapel in the original plans. He had set aside a room in his Jewish
orphanage where children could go before breakfast to say kaddish or
other prayers for their parents, because he believed that all children need
to express their grief and talk with God. He often sat with the children
in the room, a yarmulke on his head, a prayer book on his lap, his eyes
closed in silent meditation. But there was nothing he could do to persuade
Maryna, who had boycotted her own husband's funeral on atheistic principles,
to yield on the chapel.
Maryna had a staff-one might call it another "regiment ofwomen"-
to do much of what Stefa took care of herself Many of them were loyal
friends who had known Maryna in Kiev. Karolina Peretiakowicz (Miss
Kara), whose mother had the girls' school there, was her administrative
assistant-a warm, motherly woman whom the children adored; Maria
Podwysocka (Miss Maria) was in charge of finances.
"We were close, but Maryna kept her distance even with us," recalls
Eugenka, another colleague from Kiev. "She would answer our professional
questions but never shared her personal thoughts. Just once, at
the beginning of the war when she was depressed, did she confide to me
that there were moments she could feel the presence of her dead husband
and friends, and that those ghosts were more real to her than living
Maryna's schedule was much like Stefa's. Up at five-thirty or six
every morning, she never deviated from her routine. At seven she was
in the kitchen supervising the children's breakfast, and was always at the
door to see them off to school, checking buttons. collars, school bags.
After inspecting all the rooms, she went to her office to plan menus with
the cook and organize work details. At two, when the children returned
for lunch, Maryna always sat at the same place at the head of the horseshoe-shaped
table where she could see everything. (The door to her office
on the main floor had a glass pane through which she could observe the
children passing by.) Between three and five every afternoon Maryna
retired to her room, where it was understood that she was not to be
At five o'clock on Fridays she presided over what the orphans called
the "Hour of Guilt.~~ Anyone who had committed an offense that week
was to come to her room to sign a book that she kept there for that
purpose. She did not invite anyone to the orphanage, but on Friday nights
she went to the home of relatives, where she received old friends. On
Saturday evenings after she and the children had their baths, she took
bets against bad behavior in a ledger, much as Korczak did, and dispensed
milk chocolates, after which she told stories by the fire.
Maryna spoke in low, measured tones, as ifweighing each word. She
inspired both love and fear in the orphans and apprentices. She had only
to glance at whatever they were doing, and she knew what they were
thinking. "She wasn't forgiving like Korczak, " Igor Newerly recalled.
"With Maryna, there was no hope. She held everyone responsible for
their actions. If you were late, you were not excused. If she didn't like
you, she made your life miserable. She was a tough woman." Maria
Taboryska, one ofthe orphans, remembers that Maryna's blue eyes peered
out of her pale face "like pieces of ice," but that she was capable of such
caring gestures as reaching out to brush back a lock of a girl's hair when
they passed in the hall. Only one boy, whom she always called by her
pet name for him, Lomulek, was able to get close to her. He was clearly
her favorite. But if he was naughty, she could reduce him to tears by
calling him by his last name.
Maryna sometimes took walks with the older boys and girls through
the forest behind the orphanage. They were amazed to see her roll a
cigarette, since she never smoked in their company at home. She would
reminisce about her former political activities, including the periods she
spent in prison and exile, and would advise them never to be afraid of
difficulties in life.
igor Newerly, recalling the year he taught carpentry in Our Home,
said: "Maryna would walk through the world of children in her black dress
with its stiff collar and white starched cuffs, encased as if in armor against
the outside world, against herself, like a nun in her habit, like a woman
judge in her robes. She would smile kindly at the children who came to
her with their small yet very real problems, but the smile did not look
comfortable in the corners ofher severe, narrow mouth. She had moments
of uninhibited merriment-but she lacked a sense of humor. Her sharp,
concentrated gaze would notice things unobserved by us, though she
wasn't articulate like Korczak. She was the loneliest, most isolated person
I have ever met."
Newerly recalls that when he stayed up late one night in the carpentry
shop finishing a chest as an Easter gift for the house, Maryna became
infuriated that he went to bed before sweeping up. She cleaned the room
herself and was so hostile to him after that that he was forced to move
out. it wasn't until a year later, when he stopped by to see the children
on a day when Korczak was there, that she was willing to offer her hand
and shake his as a friend once again.
The children of Our Home would wait for Korczak by the windows
or down at the gate. A boy might want to sell a loose tooth; an older girl
might need his help in getting permission to go to a real beauty parlor
for her next haircut; others might just want to have a piggyback ride, or
to look in his pockets for the candy he always carried. Some weeks Korczak
came early to talk with Maryna and the staff, bragging that he had walked
all the way to Bielany to save tram fare. He would sit on the front stoop
to rest, recounting how he had also saved money by reading all the
newspapers in a small coffee shop on the corner of Marszalkowska Street,
which was on the way.
"I won't wish you good health," he would tell the caretaker, Wladyslaw Cichosz,
who always waited for him as eagerly as the children.
"Be a little ill, go to bed, you work too hard." And he would add, "I don't
mean seriously ill, just a cold or something."
The children would hang on Korczak with the same glee as the
children he had left behind on Krochmalna. He made jokes while he
examined them, and with mock gallantry would kiss the hands of the
youngest girls. He liked to tease them with questions like: "Have you
ever seen a cow with a green tail?" He never tired of telling friends about
the girl who answered: "And you? Have you ever seen a cake with a
herring inside?" Although he stayed only one night a week at Our Home,
he always appeared on holidays such as May Day and Easter. On Christmas
Eve he danced with them around the tree.
Once when a child asked him why he had no wife, he replied he
had three: "Madame Maryna, Madame Stefa, and Miss Kara." But not
all of the women on the staff at Our Home felt comfortable with Korczak.
"I respected him, but it is difficult to say i liked him," Eugenka said.
"He was certainly unusual. When he asked me questions, I felt I had to
answer cleverly. "
Maria Podwysocka was reluctant to take walks with Korczak because
he had a disconcerting way of digging into his pocket to oblige every
beggar who approached them. "Why must you give money to these people?" she once had the courage to ask. "They probably have more than
"They may" he replied. "But then again there may be one who does
not have as much."
Maria never questioned Korczak's aims, and would rise to his defense
if anyone else did. When a mutual friend suggested that Korczak was not
preparing his orphans to face the real world, she replied indignantly. "You
understand nothing. The doctor knows very well that the world is unjust;
that's why he has created an oasis of goodness. He wants to raise children
who will be incapable of doing evil, and who will fight it with virtue."
After Our Home moved to Bielany, there was room for twenty apprentices.
Like their counterparts at Krochmalna, they had been eager
to work with the eminent Janusz Korczak, but they, too, were confused
by bis unpredictable behavior. Stanislaw Rogolowski remembers that when
he was being interviewed by Maryna Falska in her office, a "small man
with a beard" sat writing in a notebook at a far table. Trying to impress
the directress, Rogolowski was emphasizing bis interest in working with
troubled children when the bearded man pushed back his chair and
shouted: "There are special institutions for that!" On his way out of the
office, Rogolowski learned from one of the children that the man who had
exploded at him was none other than the famous Dr. Korczak. He was
amazed when he was accepted into the bursa.
The new apprentices at Our Home were also given very little orientation.
"You either stayed afloat or went under," Henrietta Kedzierska
commented, recalling her disappointment in the "slim, inconspicuous
elderly man in a gray smock" who shook hands with her group, glanced
indifferently from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and went on his way.
Madame Maryna spoke only a few words about what they were expected
to do with the children before turning them over to an experienced
apprentice to show them around. They were informed that after the
children were in bed on Thursday nights they would have their seminar
with Dr. Korczak.
"Whenever the doctor ran out of his office, he was immediately
surrounded by children flocking to him like chickens to a mother hen, "
Henrietta noted in her private diary. " And that grump laughed with them,
listened to their nonsensical chatter with great interest, while he didn't
have even a few minutes to spare for the new apprentices." She hoped
he would finally make the members of her group feel welcome when they
joined the Thursday-night seminar, but "not a chance." He was completely
indifferent to them, continuing a topic from the previous week as
if they weren't there. That night she noted in her diary. "The so-called
philosopher is a real crackpot."
Besides helping the third-graders with their homework, Henrietta
was assigned to polish the corridor outside the dormitories on the third
floor after it had been washed by someone else. Equipped with a cloth
and a broom, she was rushing down the hall to attack her job when she
encountered Korczak. Feeling self-conscious, she started sweeping the
floor. He stopped, watched her for a few moments, and asked: "New?"
"A new broom-or new person?" she retorted quickly.
"Person," he replied, equally flip.
Afraid that her sharp tongue would get her into trouble, Henrietta
tried to sound polite:
But she added boldly: "However,
since yesterday, she's lost in this jungle."
She didn't know that the hearty
laugh Korczak gave in response meant he was up to mischief
"Well, what have we here?" he asked gaily.
"Have you ever in all
your long life polished floors before?"
"Yes, " she replied, still feeling bold, "but the rooms were like matchboxes
compared to these."
She felt ill at ease again as he examined her hands with their brightly
painted nails. Whatever he was thinking was hidden by his pleasant "Since
you are in training here, I will teach you how this work should be done.
To begin with, your piece of cloth is much too small to polish this large
corridor. It would be better to use a blanket."
He suggested that she take
one from her bed, being sure to remove its cover.
He folded the blanket she gave him lengthwise and told her to sit
on one end while he grabbed the other and pulled. She rode "as if on a
sleigh" back and forth a few times until the corridor shone like a mirror.
When they finished, the blanket he handed her looked like an old rag.
A wicked expression came over Korczak's face as he exclaimed in
mock horror: "Well, well, this is how the new staff respects an institution's
property! In ten minutes a new blanket becomes a dishrag! How shocking!
Disgraceful! I will inform the administrator in charge immediately!"
"But you told me to do it," Henrietta protested weakly.
Now he seemed genuinely angry. "What an innocent baby you are!
What a smart aleck! There's always someone else to blame." And he
rushed down the hall.
Henrietta was left standing there, completely bewildered. She resigned
herself to being in Korczak's bad graces. But during the next
Thursday-night seminar, he seemed to have forgotten the incident as he
addressed the complaints of some apprentices about being unfairly sued
by the children.
"So they sue you and take you to court," he said. "You ask why. You
insist you are innocent. You blame others, not yourself." His voice was
growing agitated. "You cannot make a fool out of a wise man. One needs
courage to refuse."
The other apprentices couldn't follow Korczak's digression, but Hen-
rietta understood that his remarks were directed at her. She realized that
he had tested her to see how far she would go in blind obedience to
authority. She had failed the test, but gained some wisdom. In the future
she would think before she acted, and rely on her own judgment.
Like Stefa, Maryna communicated with the apprentices through their
journals. She was capable of filling many pages when she felt strongly on
a subject. In 1929 Stanislaw Zemis wrote of how furious he had been at
the boys for using swear words at Scout camp. After he reprimanded
them, they had asked for time to improve and were making progress, but
now back in Bielany, they were cursing again. Could Madame Maryna
please speak to them about this?
"It's not easy for me to answer you, " Maryna replied in his journal.
"I can't recall hearing the girls swear. I think they're afraid of me, so they
don't quarrel in my presence. But Pan Doctor, whose room is next to the
boys' dormitory, notes their swearing, and says nothing. Naturally the
boys think he accepts it. Since I've started staying in the dormitory with
the boys until they go to sleep, their behavior has improved. I tell them
sternly to keep their things in order and not to use bad words. However,
on the one night I skipped going there, I found that the boys had blocked
the toilet door with a broom. It means that the boys, like the girls, are
afraid of me and behave differently when I'm around. They know I'll
react. One should react. Pan Doctor's habit of being just an observer
doesn't change the behavior of bullies like Oleg who lord it over the
Maryna crossed out another page of comments, perhaps because she
realized they were too critical of Korczak. Although she had written a
booklet only the year before on the educational practices of Our Home
(which were based on Korczak' s self-government system) with a laudatory
introduction by him, she was becoming increasingly impatient with his
refusal to confront the more aggressive boys. She didn't agree that one
should wait patiently until a troublemaker had come around to accepting
the necessity of being a good citizen of the home. In fact, she disapproved
of many of Korczak's ideas: that children should vote on each other and
the staff (she would soon discontinue this practice and award the children
merits for good behavior) and that children should be permitted to take
adults to court. The apprentices often heard her quarreling with Korczak
on these issues. More than once she threatened to resign and turn the
orphanage over to him. "We thought he was soft-hearted, " one said,
referring to the way Korczak would try to placate Maryna. Yet the apprentices
also noticed that Korczak did not modify any of his strategies
with the children.
Stanislaw Rogolowski remembers how surprised he was at Korczak's
reticence in answering some of the questions the apprentices posed.
"Instead of giving a definite answer, he would say "I don't know," or
"Maybe," or "I can't answer because I've never been able to solve it."
"I could offer an interpretation, but I don't know if it would be adequate."
If he were pressed, he might say:
"Not every truth can be blown on a
Yet there were seminars when Korczak surprised everyone with a
definite, unqualified response. One of the apprentices confessed to losing
his temper when a difficult boy challenged him with: "You wouldn't dare
hit me! You know Pan Doctor would throw you out in the cold!" Grabbing
the child by the collar, the apprentice had snapped: "I won't spank you,
but I'll fix you so you'll never have the nerve to behave like this again."
And he dragged the boy down the stairs to the basement, threatening to
lock him in there where he could yell and curse all he wanted at the rats.
It had the desired effect. The boy became docile immediately, and was
compliant from then on.
Everyone waited for what Korczak would say. The doctor seemed to
shrink before their eyes, his head disappearing into his shoulders as he
spoke in a strange whisper, as if to himself: " A mischievous child is naughty
because he is unhappy. Nervous. Your duty as a teacher is to find out
what is bothering him. Perhaps he has a toothache and is afraid to admit
it because you~ll insist on calling the dentist. Perhaps he has a temperature
and doesn't want to tell for fear he won't be allowed to go to tomorrow's
movie. Perhaps he had a bad night because he was thinking of his mother
who is dead, or living far from here. Perhaps he dreamed of her and woke
up crying. Perhaps he was certain that nobody loves him. And you, the
teacher, are the one he uses to get even for all those injustices, for his
lost mother. Far away, sad, poor, angry, bitter-but still his own mother.
You are strong, healthy, smiling-but a stranger. The mischievous child
doesn't know that you really care about him, that you are trying to protect
him from a cold world filled with evil. He doesn't understand that you
have to protect the other children, who trust and need you, from his
pranks. He doesn't realize that he is harming himself as well as you. But
you know. So into that dark cellar with him! Scare the brat out of his
wits! Perhaps you really hope he gets hurt. A wrong for a wrong!"
Korczak was still whispering to himself: "There are many terrible
things in this world, but the worst is when a child is afraid of his father,
mother, or teacher. He fears them, instead of loving and trusting them."
Now Korczak's voice was full of hurt and bitterness. He closed his eyes.
Minutes ofuncomfortable silence followed. No one knew what to do. Was
Korczak thinking? Crying? Sleeping? The apprentice who had confessed
wished he hadn't. But Korczak had not fallen asleep. Suddenly he cried
out: "od, please forgive him for scaring the poor child!" And without
saying good night, he got up from bis chair and left the room.