When we think about the Auschwitz concentration camp, we think about the suffering, the atrocities, and all the lives taken away, 1.1 million, to be specific. That is why the idea of this camp being a place of life for some babies born there sounds odd. If anything, it was all credited to the Polish midwife who helped deliver about 3,000 babies in the camp. Her name was Stanislawa Leszczyńska.
Desire to Help
Stanislawa Leszczyńska was born to a Polish Catholic family. Her father, a carpenter, was the primary provider of their family. When he was drafted into the imperial army and sent to Turkestan, her mom had no choice but to work 12-hour shifts at a factory to make ends meet. Because of that, Leszczyńska could get her education from a private school.
When her dad returned, they moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to find a better economic opportunity for the family. Unfortunately, her father was again drafted when World War I broke out. Regardless, Leszczyńska still lived a pretty everyday life. She married a printer named Bronisław Leszczyński and had four children. She still managed to enroll and finish her studies at a midwife college. The knowledge that she would use later on to help pregnant women. Her family relocated to Warsaw in 1920.
When the Nazis arrived and invaded Poland in World War II, they were forced to relocate to Wspólna 3 Street, as the Nazis cramped up the Jews in the ghetto area where they used to live. Perhaps it was her motherly instinct, or maybe helping was natural, but she started delivering food items and falsifying documents for the Jews. She was unfortunately caught red-handed and interrogated by the Gestapo in 1943. Her husband and oldest son managed to escape— the last time they saw them— while she and her three younger children were arrested. Her two sons were sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp as stone quarries laborers, while she and her daughter were left together.
Unbeknownst to her, her husband continued fighting the Nazis and was one of those killed during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
Born to a Cruel World
Stanislawa Leszczyńska identified herself as a midwife when she found a German doctor who assigned her to work in the “maternity ward,” a set of grimy barracks that did not look like a place intended for pregnant women’s care.
There, she was faced with the grim reality that even innocent infants were not exempted from the cruelties of the Nazis.
Pregnant women only had a few ways to go: sent to the gas chambers, summarily executed, or sent to a doctor called Gisella Perl. First, the doctor would abort the babies before they could be born. Then, if they managed to give birth by a miracle, they would be sent to Sister Klara, a midwife who oversaw the “wards” together with Sister Pfani. They would declare the babies were stillborn and then drown them in buckets in front of their clueless mothers who had just given birth.
She was expected to help with the murders of the infants, but she refused.
In the book “Maternal Love of Life: Texts About Stanislawa Leszczynska,” where she, later on, shared her experiences in the camp, she recalled:
In these conditions, the fate of the women in labour was tragic, and the role of the midwife extremely difficult. There were no antiseptics, no dressings, and no medicine, other than a small quota of aspirin. The food, such as it was, consisted mainly of ‘decayed, boiled greens.’
Hope In A Place of Doom
Despite the threats and beatings she constantly received from Klara, Leszczyńska made caring for the mothers and delivering their babies her responsibility. Despite the very low odds that the babies would live, she did what she could to save them while there was no water, no diapers, few lice-infested blankets, and very little food.
Assisted by her daughter and other prisoners, she would have women in labor lie on the brick stove at the center of the barracks. She said she delivered over 3,000 babies, despite the repeated orders to kill them, even when the infamous “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengle, known for his brutal experiments on twins, ordered her to do so. Why she was not executed was still a mystery.
Some babies were given to Nazi couples as “Aryan” babies, part of their Lebensborn program. What Leszczyńska and her assistants did was tattoo these babies before they were taken in hopes that their mothers would be able to find them later on. Most of the time, those non-Jewish women allowed to keep their infants lost them anyway because of the extreme environmental conditions.
Some babies starved to death because their mothers were not permitted to breastfeed. She would baptize them and care for these women that they started calling her “Mother.”
Medical historians Susan Benedict and Linds Sheilds wrote in their journal:
Between April 1943 and the liberation of Auschwitz in May 1945 Stanisława helped deliver more than 3000 babies;18 of these 1500 were drowned by others soon after birth, 1000 died of cold and starvation, about 500 were sent to Germany and only 30 infants were known to have survived the camp.
Leszczyńska stayed in the camp and refused to leave on a death march until they were liberated. Maria Saloman, who was one of the pregnant women helped by “Mother,” shared her recollection:
For weeks she never had a chance to lie down. She sometimes sat down near a patient on the oven, dozed for a moment, but soon jumped up and ran to one of the moaning women… When Mrs. Leszczynska first approached me, I knew that everything would be alright. I do not know why, but this was so. My baby managed to last three months in the camp, but seemed doomed to die of starvation. I was completely devoid of milk. ‘Mother’ somehow found two women to wet-nurse my baby, an Estonian and a Russian. To this day I do not know at what price [she did this]. My Liz owes her life to Stanislawa Leszczynska. I cannot think of her without tears coming to my eyes.
After the war, Leszczyńska continued to be a midwife and only shared her experiences when she retired in 1957.