Canberra Citizen of the Year
Stasia Dabrowski (born circa 1926)
SOURCE: Canberra Times, 5 July 1992, page 18, photographer Andrew Campbell.
Stasia was born in a mountain village in southwest Poland, 3km from the border with Czechoslovakia, one of two daughters of Viktoria Dubicz and Wladislaw Dabrowski*. Viktoria’s grandfather Dubicz built the first steam engine in Poland, and at the time of Stasia’s birth he and Viktoria’s parents ran a sawmill. Wladislaw was a cobbler.
By 1935 grandfather was dead and the family was living in another village nearby,but the Ukrainian fascists’ ethnic cleansing campaign persuaded Stasia’s father to borrow a wagon from neighbours and, leaving almost everything behind, take the family 31km away to Gorlice. For over two years the family – parents, two grandmothers and two daughters – shared a classroom in a disused school with three other families, subsisting on one meal a day. Her mother’s cousins were taken away to a camp, and Viktoria was also sentenced to hang but escaped from the detention hut overnight.
Stasia’s sister worked with the partisans during the war. Contact with her was severely restricted for safety’s sake, except once when Stasia helped carry explosivesto the partisan camp. When Stasia left school she worked as a maid for a German doctor and his wife for over two years. They had lived in Poland for several years and spoke Polish. Stasia remembers them as nice people; he was a good doctor, who took Stasia with him at night when he secretly went out to help Polish people who were sick because she knew all the mountain roads. Work for the doctor entitled Stasia to an ID card that allowed her to move around and provided a measure of personal safety. The war ended the day after her 19thbirthday.
After the war the Germans in Poland returned home. Stasia found work as a secretary in a youth club, and then enrolled in nursing school in 1946. Nurses received no pay but all food,clothes and accommodation were free. Trainees took classes for four hours each morning then worked for four hours each afternoon. She graduated in 1949 and joined the hospital staff as an instructor. Like many medical workers she was asked to spy on her colleagues and patients; she refused, fortunately escaping punishment.
Stasia married Jan Nurzynski, a scientist working at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Cracow (1956-1964), and their first child was born probably about 1960. In 1963 Jan was offered a position in the Department of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University.The family arrived in Australia in early January 1964, having first landed at Fremantle and gone ashore for the day. Stasia was fascinated and overwhelmed by the variety of fruit and vegetables on offer, but delight turned to disgust when she first tasted ice cream: it was salty! Even though it was explained that most Australian foods had extra salt to help fight dehydration, she avoided ice cream for some time thereafter.
On landing in Sydney they were met by her husband’s brother who had driven down from Newcastle where he and his wife and sister had a cosmetics business. The brother had married a Jew in Poland, and arrived in Australia some years earlier. He drove Stasia and her family to Canberra where the ANU had prepared a house for them in Downer.
Two more children were born in Canberra.One later became addicted to heroin, and in caring for him and two of his friends Stasia was introduced to the world of drug addiction, homelessness and poverty. While the first was a new experience, she was well acquainted with the others and set about dealing with the situation. At first she took the boys into her home, even paying for the drugs until they could be weaned off them. Once that was achieved, two of the boys started a soup kitchen and asked her to help. They set up in the back of a van, variously dated by Stasia to 1979 or 1982, and although the boy who originated the plan has long since married and left Canberra, Stasia continues the work with the help of her son Mariusz.
Every Friday night Stasia went to Civic with hot soup, bread and drinks for the‘street kids’. Not all were drug users, but Stasia never asked and never commented. She remembered her own wartime starvation and homelessness and overtime has dug ever deeper into her own financial and personal reserves to provide one good meal a week to the needy on Canberra’s streets. Also over time she has added to her store, giving away clothes and blankets, adding salad vegetables and fruit, and whenever possible including cakes and pastries on the menu – “only one!’’ she instructs fiercely.
For the first nine years she babysat at night and cleaned houses during the day toearn enough to buy the soup ingredients, although generally she could persuade bakers to part freely with unsold goods. On an average Friday night in 2000 she was providing several hundred loaves of bread and at least 100 litres of homemade vegetable soup to over 300 people. The numbers of people, and consequently the amount of food, just keep growing – she estimated that in 2005 she was feeding up to 500 people.
Gradually her work was noticed by ordinary people, who donated blankets, knitted hats and scarves, and sometimes helped on the van. Community organisations began supporting her: one bought her a new stove and arranged a weekly credit account with some Fyshwick food wholesalers; restaurants and retailers donate food and supplies; a club pays the running costs of the two vans, each provided and periodically replaced by other organisations. Other sponsors give money, often in substantial amounts. Trade unions, social groups, charitable foundations and even schoolchildren provide support in cash and kind. In recent years the ACT government has also contributed through Disability and Community Services.
Food is only part of Stasia’s care for the homeless. Love and kindness are given unstintingly to all comers, although she will be outspoken on some matters. She exhorts her ‘customers’ not to just sit around and feel sorry for themselves,but to do things like pick up rubbish or help old people and, where she feels it may be useful, she encourages young people to go back to school or find work.
Stasia sees the criminalisation of narcotics in more recent times as the wrong way to solve the problems of addiction, and has lobbied governments and other agencies for change. “No jail – education!” is her constant cry. Her other constant is that people should help one another; by doing so, they would prevent many of the problems caused by loneliness and isolation that she sees each week.
Not all the gifts flow from Stasia to others. Orana school invites her to their harvest festival each year, a celebration she loves. One year, Stasia commented that even her family usually forget her birthday, so the children each knitted a square and a teacher stitched them together to make Stasia a vest. ''Stasia gives so much to others, we thought it would be nice to give something back that was especially for her,'' they said.
More formal thanks have also been offered, beginning with Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1996, but Stasia says her greatest reward is just to put a smile on a stranger’s face. In late 2011 her own face was recorded by artist Barbara vander Linden as one in a series of portraits painted for exhibition in Canberra’s centenary year of 2013. And guaranteed to bring smiles to many faces is Rafe Morris’s light-hearted tribute song ‘The Soup Kitchen Lady’, included in The Canberra Songbook published in 2015.
* Most Polish names were heard in Stasia’s oral history recording, and have not been seen in print; spelling is abest guess.
Awards and Distinctions
- 1996 Canberra Citizen of the Year for providing a soup kitchen each Friday night for the disadvantaged and homeless
- 1998 Medal of the Order of Australia for service to homeless youth in Canberra through the establishment of a soup kitchen
- 1999 Inaugural ACT Senior Citizen of the Year
- 2000 Centenary Medal
- 2001 Rotary Club award for outstanding volunteer
- 2005 Canberra Honour Walk plaque
‘Dabrowski,Stasia (1925? - )’, Australian Women’s Register, viewed 13 February 2016, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0768b.htm
1992' Features. Compassion for birds and street kids.', The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 - 1995), 5 July, p. 18, viewed 13 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126933224
1999‘Victim Of War Strives To Put Smiles On The Faces Of Strangers’, Canberra Times , 15 August
2004 Stasia Dabrowski interviewed by Barry York in the Polish Australians oral history project, heard 16 February 2016, http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/17180323?q=%22stasia+dabrowski%22&c=music&versionId=20152738
2011 Cup of human kindness comes with no beg-pardons, Canberra Times, 4 July,