stanislawa

Women in Medicine: Stanislawa Leszczynska, Midwife at Auschwitz

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Many of you may not have heard about Stanislawa Leszczynska, prisoner #41335 and midwife at the Auschwitz concentration camp, who delivered more than 3,000 babies. Stanislawa Zambrzyska was born in 1896 in Poland and married her husband Bronislaw Leszczynski in 1916, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. In 1922, Stanislawa became a midwife and worked in the poor districts of Lodz. 

At the time, at home deliveries were common, and Stanislawa made herself available, walking many kilometers at night to help the women in labor. 

Stanislawa and her children were arrested in Lodz in February of 1943. While her sons were sent to Mathausen and Gusen, she and her daughter, Sylvya were sent to Auschwitz. Like many of the other prisoners, Stanislawa and Sylvia were stripped of their clothing and possessions and given lice-infested striped overalls and some underwear. Her previous work as a midwife allowed Stanislawa to work in the camp’s sick ward:  40 meter long, mice-infested, wooden barracks that were often flooded with 2 to 3 inches of water. Women would sleep up to 4 to a bunk with a straw mattress (which had long ago been ground to dust by the vermin). The diseases affecting most of the patients at the sick ward were typhoid and dysentery, which were concealed from the camp’s authorities by disguising it as “the flu” since those infected with Typhoid were immediately killed.

Needless to say, the conditions were horrible. In Stanislawa’s own words: “In the winter, when the temperatures were very low, icicles formed on the ceiling from the breath and perspiration – one silvery rod next to another. When, in the evening, the lights were put on, they glittered beautifully. They looked like one great crystal chandelier. But under these icicles, people slept and sick women delivered their babies.

Her role as a midwife was extremely difficult. There were no antiseptics, no dressings, no bandages, and no medicine. Too often, the mothers’ outcome was tragic.  With the help of her young daughter, Stanislawa delivered more than 3,000 and when the camp physician instructed her to report all cases of mortality and infection amongst the women and newborns, Stanislawa proudly said “I have not had a single case of death, either among the mothers or the newborns.”

There was no extra food or milk for the babies and simple neglect apparently did not satisfy the camp administrators. Thus, criminal inmates were employed to dispose of the newborns, for which they had no use at the camp.

Until May 1943, all the children born in Auschwitz were drowned in a barrel. These operations were performed by Klara, a German midwife who was imprisoned for infanticide. After each delivery, the mothers were able to hear the characteristic gurgle and splashing water" as their babies were disposed of. After May 1943, Aryan looking children (with blue eyes and fair hair) were sent to German parents or German orphanages to be “denationalized”.“Hoping that in the future it would be possible to recover these children, to bring them back to their mothers,“ Stanislawa explains, "I organized a method of marking the children with a ‘tattoo’ that would not be recognized by the SS guards. Many a mother was comforted by the thought that some day she would be able to find her lost happiness.” Meanwhile, the fate of those left behind was hardly improved. The infants slowly died from malnutrition. She was then called to the camp physician, who ordered her to perform infanticide if she wanted to survive. He was surprised when this small, weak woman, who he could crush with his boot, replied: 'No, never.’ Why they did not kill her then, no one knows.“

I vividly recall a woman from Vilno, sent to Auschwitz for giving help to the partisans. Immediately after giving birth to a child her number was called out… I went to excuse her. This did not help but merely intensified anger. I realized she was being called out to the crematorium. She wrapped the child in a dirty piece of paper, pressed it to her breasts… Her lips moved noiselessly. She tried to sing her baby a song, as mothers often did there, murmuring to their infants various lullabies with which they tried to compensate them for the piercing cold and hunger, for their misery. However, she did not have the strength… she was unable to emit a sound … only large copious tears came from under her eyelids, flowing over her unusually pale cheeks and falling onto the head of the tiny child condemned to death.“

“All of the babies were born alive. It was their purpose to live” explains Stanislawa. 

Stanislawa displayed as much common sense as courage. One survivor tells how she would procure water and an herbal brew which she used to wash the infants. Having to use the same water for all the babies, Stanislawa washed the healthy children followed by the sick ones so as not to infect the former. 

One of the former prisoners, Kazimera Bogdanska, explains that she was unable to nurse her tiny daughter. Nevertheless, Stanislawa informed her that she should still give the child an empty breast "so the glands would not stop working.” “Mother (Stanislawa) was right,” says Kazimera, “How lucky I was that I believed her. When liberty came in January 1945 and I was taken to a real hospital (since I had typhoid fever) the doctor allowed me to continue to give my child my breast devoid of milk. After some time milk returned. My daughter began to gain weight… . She started to become round and rosy cheeked… . Mother’s wisdom and faith saved my only child.”

Her son goes on to recall Stanislawa’s encounter with the notorious Dr. Mengele (who performed cruel medical experiments on the inmates). Despite the gruesome setting, the following account is not without some humor. “When my mother opposed Mengele, who ordered her to kill babies being born in Auschwitz, he became furious. Describing this, my mother said: 'I only saw his long boots jumping back and forth… and I heard him shout: ’Befehl ist befehl’ [an order is an order]. "Recalling these words many years later, I realized that since my mother was quite small and she had the habit of looking down when she thought about something… she stood with lowered eyes and saw his long boots nervously jumping in front of her…. Was this terrible murderer (he was a physician after all) trying to explain away his order to kill newborn babies? In any case, neither then nor at any other time, did he raise his murderous hand against my mother.” On another occasion, Dr. Mengele entered the maternity ward. Seeing Stanislawa busy with deliveries, he said: “Mutti [Mother], you have earned a lot of money today. You must stand a beer.” “How is one to understand this joke?” asks her son. “Mengele no doubt knew that the suffering inmates treated Stanislawa Leszczynska as a mother and commonly referred to her as 'Mother’. If consciously, or unconsciously, he referred to this, he at the same time showed respect to the maternal love and moral force which Stanislawa personified there.”

Years after her death in 1974, Stanislawa us an official candidate for canonization (sainthood) by the Catholic Church, several hospitals and organizations in Europe have been named in her honor, and the main road at Auschwitz and a street in Lodz have been named after her.