Despite the horror that unfolded around her, Polish midwife Stanislawa Leszczynska helped pregnant women in Auschwitz deliver their children as comfortably as possible. At times she saved both the mothers and babies from certain death. While Leszczynska and the Nazi doctors who supervised her believed few babies would survive a full-term pregnancy because of rampant disease and malnutrition, she didn't lose a single baby the entire time she practiced midwifery in the camp.
Young Stanisława LeszczyńskaWikipedia: Wikimedia Commons
Leszczynska was a Polish Catholic woman born to a carpenter in 1896. As a child, Leszczynska's mother worked long shifts at a factory while her father was away at war in Turkestan. Leszczynska was able to attend school and completed high school in 1914 just as World War I broke out. In 1916 Leszczynska married a printer, Bronisław Leszczyński, and by 1919 she had a son and daughter. In 1920 her family moved to Warsaw and she began to study midwifery. By 1923 she had given birth to two more sons and began working full-time as a midwife.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland at the start of World War II, and the Leszczynska family was forced to move when their neighborhood was transformed into a Jewish ghetto under Nazi occupation. The family was sympathetic towards the Jewish community and was caught delivering food, false documents, and other items needed for survival to Jewish families. Leszczynska was brought to the Gestapo in 1943, and her young children were also arrested. Her husband and oldest son were able to avoid capture, but her husband eventually died in the Warsaw Uprising before Leszczynska could see him again.
Gates of AuschwitzChristopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images
After Leszczynska was interrogated by the Gestapo, they sent her and her 24-year-old daughter to Auschwitz and tattooed them with the numbers 41335 and 41336. Leszczynska's daughter had been a medical student before her capture, so both Leszczynska and her daughter were sent to work in the maternity ward. There they met Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's notoriously evil prison doctor. Leszczynska's experience as a midwife soon became one of her most valuable assets, and is quite possibly what helped save her and her daughter's lives.
Dr. Josef MengeleWikipedia: Wikimedia Commons
Leszczynska worked under the supervision of Mengele, a notorious German SS officer physician at the camp. He was responsible for selecting who would be sent to the gas chambers, and performed twisted experiments on people at the camp. He was very interested in heredity, twins, people with physical abnormalities, and dwarfs. While his experiments had no regard for the patient's well-being, those forced to participate in his experiments were treated slightly better and were temporarily safe from the gas chambers.
Baby Born in AuschwitzAll That Is Interesting
The conditions in Auschwitz were terrible for everyone, but the maternity ward was particularly bad. The facility wasn't set up for basic medical care, and Leszczynska had to use her ingenuity to help women deliver their babies safely. She arranged for pregnant women's beds to be moved to the warmest area of the barracks, near the stoves, and coached the women on how to make sacrifices for their newborn babies. Leszczynska often encouraged women to trade their bread rations for extra sheets during the last few weeks of their term so that their babies could be wrapped in something clean. If women didn't have sheets, their babies were usually given dirty scraps of paper for diapers.
Women With Babies in BarracksAll That Is Interesting
Leszczynska treated each woman in Auschwitz the same as her patients in pre-war Poland. She took pride in the fact that each baby was born into loving hands, despite being surrounded by horror. Other prisoners of the camp witnessed her staying up night after night coaching women through the birthing process, and soon everyone began calling her Mother. Initially the Nazis assumed that most of the pregnancies would naturally abort due to disease and malnutrition in the mothers, but with the help of Leszczynska, many of the pregnant women were able to take their pregnancies to full term. Leszczynska also arranged a group of women who could serve as wet nurses to surviving babies.
Children in AushwitzKeystone-france/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Although Leszczynska was technically working under Mengele, they had very different agendas. At one point, Mengele instructed Leszczynska to euthanize every baby as soon as it was born. She refused, and instead would try to help the women hide their babies for as long as possible. At times, the Nazis would snatch the babies away immediately after their births and take them to a German prisoner who was in Auschwitz for committing infanticide. If any of the women were slow to recover from their childbirth, they were immediately taken to the gas chambers.
Mothers in AuschwitzNational Post
When the Nazis received reports about Leszczynska's success rates with the births, they were furious. In total, Leszczynska helped 3,000 babies come into the world while she was at Auschwitz, and she risked her life by refusing to kill them. Of the 3,000 births, about 2,500 of the babies ultimately died. The remaining babies had Aryan features, which allowed them to be adopted by German households. Leszczynska and the mothers of the children being sent out for adoption found a way to tattoo the children so they might be reunited with their real mothers one day.
Report of a Midwife in AuschwitzSantoren
Until her paper "The Report of a Midwife from Auschwitz" came out, Leszczynska didn't speak about her experienced in Auschwitz publicly. The tales were dark and sometimes almost unbearable; one story she told her children recounted a woman who was called to the gas chambers just moments after giving birth. The woman knew she was about to die, so she gently wrapped her newborn baby in a soiled piece of paper, clutched it to her chest, and walked out of the maternity ward. Although Mengele was greatly opposed to Leszczynska's work, he claimed she was a highly skilled midwife and feared that her presence gave prisoners hope.
Midwife Stanislawa LeszczynskaAll That Is Interesting
Leszczynska was released from the camp at the end of the war and reunited with her surviving children, who both went on to become doctors. Leszczynska died in 1974 after publishing a short work about her experience in the concentration camp. Before her death, Leszczynska attended a community gathering in Warsaw where survivors of the camp gathered and she was able to meet grown children who were born into her care at Auschwitz. In 2010 the Catholic Church began the process for awarding Leszczynska with sainthood.