To thousands of inmates of cell block 17, the women’s section of Oswiecim-Brzezkinka (Auschwitz-Birkeneau) for the sick and mothers-to-be, she was known simply as “Mama. Many, however, in this place of hate and lonely misery referred to her as the Angel of Mercy. A midwife by profession, she spent two of her thirty-eight years in that capacity at the concentration camp. In those two years she delivered more than 3,000 babies and even in the unspeakably filthy, disease-ridden conditions, lost not one mother nor one infant through complications of childbirth.
She was Stanislawa Leszczynska, a diminutive, fair-haired woman in her mid forties and the mother of three sons and a daughter. In this camp, vulgarly referred to as “anus mundi” by S.S. Dr. Heinz Thilo she, an inmate, brought hope and comfort and human kindness to the suffering women.
“On a very cold night in December 1944, I was brought to cell block 17,” wrote one mother whose baby was one of 30 to survive the camp. “Women were lying on bare boards dressed only in gowns- gaunt blue with cold.”
“On a long sove (a brick canal-like structure about 60 cm. High) running down the middle of the barrack, two women were having their babies. There was no room for me. I was told to wait. Then a woman in a white apron came to me. She had gray hair pinned up at the back of her head.”
“Yes, my child,” she said to me quietly in a soothing voice.”
“I told her I was terribly afraid and in pain and would probably have my baby immediately. She patted my check and smiled. She took me into another area and put me on a bed of boards and began talking to me – about my home and family – obviously trying to get my mind of my pain. She told me how to breathe and how to help my baby to be born. She told me how to breathe and how to help my baby to be born. Her hands were small and delicate but sure and quick.”
“The birth was something different from what I had fearfully expected. I don’t even know how long it lasted. ‘Mama’ told me I had a daughter. I hadn’t picked a name for her. ‘My child,’ she said, ‘please name her Eve. It will be the beginning of life.’ She baptized my baby.”
Rags for diapers
“During our stay she took special care of her, bathing her every day even in a little warm tea if no water was available. She got some rags for diapers and something to wrap the baby in. Since no baby was supposed to be allowed to live, no provisions were made for them. She even found a pair of bootees to keep Eva’ feet warm. To understand how difficult, how almost impossible this was, one had to be there.”
“Fortunately, I had enough milk to feed my Eva. Next to me lay a Dutch-Jewish woman who was nothing but skin and bones. After the birth she begged me to feed her baby. I never got the chance. An S.S. officer came in and approached the bed. My heart stood in my throat, even though by this time Jewish babies were not always killed immediately upon birth. The S.S. man took her baby, and before her eyes, he killed it.
“’Mama’ sat beside her for a long time quieting her and comforting her in her despair. One knew that one had to suffer but it was so much easier when there was someone near who wanted to help. ‘Mama’ wanted to; she wanted to very much.”
She did everything in her power to help those women, themselves in a life-threatening situation, who were losing their greatest treasure – their child. Many who survived could never have another; the brutal treatment in those camps rendered them sterile.
Stanislawa Leszcyznska’s pleasant life built around her family and her work came to an abrupt end with the Nazi occupation of Poland. Fully aware of the danger to which he was exposing himself and his family, her husband, a printer, forged documents which were relayed to the underground and the Jews in the ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw. Through his secret work, many were able to escape to safety. Her oldest son was so deeply involved in the underground that he did not often come home for fear of capture. She, herself, as a midwife maintained contact with many friends and neighbours in the ghetto and sent them food, clothing and medicine. It was only a matter of time before the Gestapo came to their house. Two sons were taken to Mauthausen and Gusen. Her husband (who later died in the uprising in Warsaw) and the youngest son escaped. She and her daughter were shipped to Auschwitz.
The conditions in the cell block to which she was sent were sub-human. The barrack, a rat-infested, leaky wooden building, more than 40 yards long was built in a low spot. When it rained water dripped through holes in the roof and covered the mud floor the depth of several inches. In winter, icicles hung from the ceiling.
Mattresses of dust
Inside the barrack along both sides ran three-tiered bunk beds. On each of these hard beds, dirty with dried blood and fecal matter, were huddled together three or four sick women, most of them sitting with their knees under their chins as space did not allow for lying down. The straw that had once filled the bags which served as mattresses had long since been reduced to a few handful of dust.
The population of this cell block fluctuated between 1,000 to 1,200 inmates, both those sick with everything from typhus to tuberculosis and those about to give birth. Of this number several died each day.
Infection was rife
The place stank, infection was rife, lice and bugs of all kinds infested the place. The rats, fat and sleek and numerous, gnawed of ears, noses, fingers and heels of babies or of women too sick or weak to defend themselves. They were drawn especially by the fetid odor of the seriously ill for whom there was nether a change of clothing nor water for washing. Stanislawa Leszczynska organized night watches, taking a turn also, to protect the inmates using sticks to drive the rats away.
“You had to have a great deal of courage,” wrote Dr. Janina Weigherska a fellow inmate, “to even attempt to help the sick, let alone maintain some hygienic standards in these terribly primitive, and anti-antiseptic rather than non-antiseptic conditions. All she had was a pair of scissors and a basin of water.”
“She did everything, not only the work of the midwife. She even had to carry the water herself. Since the cistern in the kitchen was often locked, she had to go to the well (by a circuitous route to avoid discovery) to get a pail of water, which took twenty minutes of her precious time. Everything had to be done secretly. She had so many ill and no medicines or dressings. Sometimes she gave up her own meager portion of bread to supply necessities. She even organized services and led prayers.”
This was to be the ‘maternity ward’ where she was to practice her profession for two long exhausting and heart-wrenching years. Assigned this position in April 1943, she continued with her work until the end of the war.
It was here that she came in contact with the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele who by a mere nod of his head or crook of his finger c0ould send a prisoner to his death. Summoned by him to be given her instructions she was told that every baby born live was to be killed immediately – particularly Jewish babies.
Her courageous answer was, “No, never! “You cannot kill children.” That in his rage he did not kill her then and there, no doubt caused even her to wonder. Perhaps it was some inner strength that emanated from her that kept him from reaching for his gun and killer her on the spot. Instead, wheeling around, he shouted at her ‘An order is an order,’ as he strode furiously out of the room. Later Stanislawa Leszczynska told one of inmates, “I will never carry out that order. I will never be a Herod to these little innocents. Never!”
It was forbidden to cut and tie the umbilical cord (especially of Jewish babies), and the practice was to throw the baby with the afterbirth into a bucket of water: she disregarded this order, at risk to her own life.
Everything took place on the stove in the centre of the barracks. It was the examination table, the labour bed, the waiting room and the convalescent bed. “On it lay a dirty blanket crawling with lice,’ remembered Aniela Nowak who had the bed opposite, “If she could, she placed a white sheet or a piece o white cloth on it. She did wonders to that place of dirty and stench and bugs to make it more human.”
“Before she delivered a baby she made the sign of the cross, knelt down and, putting her face in the palms of her hands, she prayed. Here in a place where life was cheap or entirely without value, she was praying tat everything would go well!”
“She worked alone without any one to spell her off, often day and night, because there were many births. She would nap sitting beside her patient but a moan from one or another of the women would bring her to her feet immediately.”
“The first time she came to me, I knew everything would be all right. I can’t explain it but that’s how it was.”
“My daughter lived through three months of the concentration camp,” wrote Maria Salomon, “I had nothing to feed her with. She would have starved to heath but for ‘Mama; who found two women who could feed her. For what price I do not know. My daughter owes her life to ‘Mama.’
“She looked after us so well the birthing was almost without pain and we felt the wisest and most important person in the world was looking after us. None suffered any complications. None even had a fever.”
“We felt she could do anything, even save our children from death in the cam. Whenever she came near us she would say a few word to us in a quiet comforting way, and we would feel calm and at ease.”
“I remember one day the women from another block, to show their love and respect, gave her a down-filled coverlet that they had somehow obtained. She immediately offered it to us so we could make or babies warm bootees. There were no bounds to her goodness.”
But, of the more than 3,00 babies she brought into the world, only 30 survived the camp. Some 700 blue-eyed, fair-haired children were taken away from their mothers and sent away to become Germanized. These Stanislawa Leszczynska tattooed with the mother’s number or initials in the hope that in the future the mother could be able to find her child. The remainder perished, mostly from starvation. Of these the longest to survive were Russian babies; the Russian women, 50 percent of the mothers-to-be, were the hardiest.
Stanislawa Leszczynska recounted one particular tragedy that was deeply etched in her memory. The woman was from Wilno (Lithuania), sent to Oswiecim for giving aid to the partisans. After giving birth, her number was called. I went to tell them she was ill and couldn’t leave, but this did not help. Instead it roused their anger. The woman realized that she was being sent to the gas chamber. She wrapped the baby in dirty paper and pressed it to her breast. Her lips moved as if to sing a lullaby to her child. She didn’t have the strength – no sound came out – only tears coursed down her ashed cheeks falling on the head of her child. With a blanket thrown over her back, the bother, still bleeding walked unsteadily with her child still clutched tightly to her breast to the gas chamber.
Many, in retrospect, marveled that even though Stanislawa was not very strong no one ever saw her weakening. Her own daughter was gravely ill most of that period and she feared for the other members of the family. But she was always on her feet, always ready to help, always with a word of comfort and hope. No one even thought she might break under the pressure.
When the order came on the night of January 18, 1945 to evacuate, those who could stand on their feet left the building and stood outdoors for hours dressed only in their gowns and blankets draped over their shoulders. They consoled themselves with the thought that this might mean freedom.
For those most seriously ill and those giving birth it was a frightening night. They had to stay behind without any hope for survival. Giving up their chance for freedom, Stanislawa Leszczynska , her daughter and Dr. Irena Konieczna stayed to the end with the helpless women. It fell to them to scrounge for food to keep those who remained behind alive. The storehouses were empty. The place was burning. Only through the self-sacrifice of the three women did they survive.
Stanislawa Leszczynska died in March, 1974. At the graveside Bishop Jan Kulik, the principal celebrant asked if among those present were any whom she had saved. By voice and show of hand they made themselves known. The number was impressive.
The number of midwifery schools now dedicated to her memory now ensure that she will not e forgotten. However, the women of Poland have also ensured that she, Stanislawa Leszynka, will not only never be honoured for all time. Their gift of a chalice (called the Chalice of Life) to the shrine of Jasna Gora in Czestowchowa bears the image of four Polish women who played an important role in the 1,000 years of Polish history. One of these, dressed in prison garb, is Stanislawa Leszczynska.