Henry & Stefa – True Courage & Honor

In 1907 Stefania-WilczynskaStefa was a university graduate who was volunteering at the local orphanage.

She was indispensable, organized and loving. Warmth and strength were her defining characteristics.

Janusz-KorczakHenry was a beloved pediatrician, he was prosperous and secure. He wrote children’s fiction on the side.

However, the children on the street had his heart. His pockets were full of candy and coins which he gave out liberally with love. His heart told him he should start an orphanage.

“The road I have chosen toward my goal is neither the shortest, nor the most convenient. But it is the best for me—because it is my own. I found it not without effort or pain,” said Henry of his choice for change.

When Henry met Stefa, he saw her competence and caring, the children rushing to her for hugs and kisses. Here was the woman to help him do this great work.

“They made an effective team. Stefa with her ability to bring order, and he with his natural way with children.”

Together, for over 30 years, Henry and Stefa cared for hundreds of children.

Janusz-Korczak-with-the-childrenVisitors abounded and students begged to intern at the world renowned orphanage.

Then Germany invaded Poland. Stefa was awarded one of the last visas to leave. She turned it down saying, “I cannot leave without the children.”

Then the Germans forced all Jews to move: 400,000 people to a 3.5 square mile area surrounded by barbed wire and patrols, the “Warsaw Ghetto.”

For two years Henry and Stefa brought order to a corner of chaos. They kept their routines: work, study and even put on a play.

Then, without warning on August 7, 1942 the call “All Jews out!” came ringing through the doors. “You have fifteen minutes!”

Stefa helped the children pack. They were being “resettled” in the east.

Henry, carrying one child and holding another’s hand, calmly took the lead and Stefa brought up the rear. One hundred and ninety-two orphans and ten adults.

They sang as they marched, “Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high.”

The stories of Anne Frank, Victor Frankl, and Corrie Ten Boom move us.

 Like Anne Frank, Henry left behind a diary.

Like Viktor Frankl, Henry was a respected doctor and Jew.

Like Corrie Ten Boom, Henry had dedicated his life to serving others.

Unlike them all, Henry had a choice to walk away.

At the train station a German guard handed the famous Jewish author and doctor a note offering him his freedom, he waved it away. Henry said,

“You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”

No one knew their true destination was Treblinka, an extermination camp.

Henry and Stefa, had they known, would they have made different decisions?

A teacher who worked with them said:

“You know, everyone makes so much of his last decision to go with the children to the train. But his whole life was made up of moral decisions. The decision to become a children’s doctor. The decision to give up medicine and his writing career to take care of poor orphans. The decision to go with the Jewish orphans into the ghetto. As for that last decision to go with the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature. It was who he was. He wouldn’t understand why we are making so much of it today.”

Warsaw-Monument-Janusz-KorczakHenry is better known by his Polish pen name: Janusz Korczak. Stefa, is only found on the pages of Henry’s biographies.

But they left behind them a legacy of love, determination, commitment and honor.  They are heroes to know, to love & to emulate.

(The King of Children-The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak by Betty Jean Lifton is a must read if you want the whole story)

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