In Other Words



Stanisława Leszczyńska - The Midwife of Auschwitz

14 December 2018

Stanisława Leszczyńska was a Polish Catholic midwife born in 1896 in Łódź, Poland. As a young girl, she moved with her parents to Rio de Janeiro where she learnt to speak German; a language that would prove beneficial to her survival in the years ahead. Returning to Poland some years later, she married a printer in 1916, studied at Warsaw, and then back to Łódź in 1922 to fulfil her career as a midwife and raise her three sons and daughter.

During the Second World War, she witnessed the persecution of Jews forced out of their homes and incarcerated in the Łódź Ghetto. At great risk to her safetly, Stanisława chose to help the ghetto detainees by smuggling in food, as well as providing false documents produced by her husband at his place of work. This act of kindness was repaid unjustly when in1943 she and most of her family were caught by the Gestapo and arrested. Stanisława and her daughter were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and her two youngest sons were taken to Mauthausen-Gusen and set to hard labour. Her husband and eldest son evaded capture; however, Stanisława would never see her husband again, later killed in the Warsaw uprising.

At the camp, Stanisława and her daughter were stripped of their possessions and given clothing ridden with lice, then crammed into barracks with three shelves to each bunk, some with just bare planks of wood to serve for a bed. The barracks would frequently flood with 5-8 centimetres of water.

Because of her skills, Stanisława was allocated work in a maternity ward, along with her daughter, and instructed by Dr. Josef Mengele—the SS doctor responsible for the many experimentations and deaths of children in the camp—to euthanize all the newborns. This crime went against the midwife’s values and faith, and Stanisława resisted this order at the risk of her own life by resisting Mengele's order.

Stanisława assisted in over three thousand births and did not lose a single mother or baby during the deliveries. Under conditions that were far from sanitary, the women gave birth without medication, antiseptic, and birthing tools. Bunks closest to a brick stove, lit just several times a year, comprised the maternity ward. Food of the already severely malnourished women was used to barter for sheets to make nappies.

Though these hardships weren’t the only challenges with events that sometimes tested her sense of purpose. Revealing much about the inhumanity of the situation, Stanisława spoke about one of the women she had treated: “Immediately after she gave birth they called her number. I went to explain her absence, but it didn’t help, only intensified their anger. I realized they are calling her to the crematorium. She [the new mother] wrapped the baby in dirty paper and pressed it to her chest. Her lips moved silently; she apparently wanted to sing a song to the little one, as mothers sometimes did there, humming different lullabies, trying to make up for the cold, hunger and misery. The woman didn’t have the strength to make the voice come out; only her tears fell on her baby’s head.”

The threat of death hovered above her throughout her time in Auschwitz, but her commitment to those women and babies she cared for, and the desire to heal, rose above her feelings of fear.

“I liked and appreciated my work because I loved little children. Maybe that’s why I had so many patients, that sometimes I had to work three days without sleep,” said Stanisława.

The sad reality was that even though the mother and baby lived through the birth, separation for most was the likely outcome. In the hope that they both survive the war, and supplying a better chance to reunite, Stanisława secretly made tattoos under the babies’ armpits. “As long as a newborn was together with the mother, motherhood itself created a ray of hope. Separation with the newborn was overwhelming,” she said. “The thought of a possibility of a future reunion with their children helped many women go through this ordeal.”

Only thirty babies survived the camp, mostly those born close to liberation. Several hundred babies with Aryan features were sent away to be Germanized*, their fates unknown, 1500 were drowned in barrels by German nurses, and more than 1000 died from hypothermia and malnutrition.

Stanisława was described as calm and composed, and was called “Mother” by the women she assisted. Elżbieta Solomon, one of the Auschwitz mothers wrote later in a poem about the much admired midwife: “notice to the future centuries that there, in the midst of death, misery, and filth, there too, she brought forth Jesus — Mary in the striped uniform.”

In 1970, Stanisława attended an official celebration in Warsaw, where she met the female prisoners of Auschwitz and their adult children who had been born in the camp. Their survival and legacy as a result of her devotion to her work, and the reunion of Stanisława and all her children at the end of the war, would have offered some compensation for her courage and sacrifice. Her children went on to become doctors.

Stanisława Leszczyńska died in 1974. In 1983 the School of Obstetricians in Kraków was named in her honour.


Gemma Liviero


* Children were sent to German families and orphanages and indoctrinated with the Nazi ideology.


Abby Norman, Catholicculture.org;
Dominika Cicha, Aleteia.org;
Matthew M. Anger, Seattle Catholic;
Wirtualne Muzeum Pielegniarstwa Polskiego.
Twitter/Article photos source: www.hetek.hu



© Gemma Liviero 2018

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