She ran to childbirth with a prayer to Mary on her lips, often wearing only one slipper. This is the story of Stanisława Leszczyńska. March 11 marked 43 years since her death.
She ran to the laboring mother with a prayer to Mary on her lips, often wearing only one slipper. This is the story of Stanisława Leszczyńska. March 11 marked 43 years since her death.
“When a person wakes up, they usually manage to find only one slipper near the bed. When my mother was called out at night, she often ran out wearing only that one slipper,” recalls Stanisława Leszczyńska’s son, Bronisław. “And that’s how she prayed to Our Lady: put on one slipper, but do come help!” he adds.
Papers in the toothpaste tube
Stanisława Leszczyńska was born in 1896 in the Polish town of Łódź. When she was 12 years old, her parents decided to move to Rio de Janeiro. There, she learned German and Portuguese, which many years later ended up saving her life. In 1916, she married Bronisław Leszczyński, a printer who also came from Łódź. Four years later the couple moved to Warsaw, where Stanisława enrolled in the Midwifery School. They raised four children together: Sylvia, Bronisław, Stanisław and Henryk. After the outbreak of World War II, they got involved in helping Jews, which soon led to the arrest of the entire family by the Gestapo. Two of the sons were taken to Mauthausen-Gusen, and Stanisława and her daughter were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her husband was killed during the Warsaw Uprising.
Stanisława was very lucky — in a tube of toothpaste she managed to smuggle German papers confirming her occupation. Despite enormous risk, she went to Dr. Mengele, a man with a horrible reputation (her entire life she never uttered a bad word about him!), and offered her assistance to women in labor.
As she wrote in a report, “Until May 1943, children born at the camp were cruelly murdered, they were drowned in a keg […]. After each birth […] the mothers could hear loud gurgling and sometimes long splashes of water. Shortly after, the mother could see the body of her child thrown in front of the block and torn by rats.”
Stanisława received the command: treat newborns as dead. She was short in stature, but she could stand up to the doctor. She replied, “No! Children must not be killed!” And she delivered approximately 3,000 babies, not one stillborn. None of the mothers died either. Even the best clinics in the world at that time could not boast of such statistics.
Children from the chimney
The midwife helped with deliveries in the chimney tunnel running along the barracks. Instead of clean dressings, all she had was a dirty blanket infested with lice. Women were drying diapers on their stomachs or thighs — hanging them in the barracks was punishable by death.
“Infections, stench and a lot of vermin were all over the block. It was full of rats which bit off noses, ears, fingers or heels of very sick women who were too weak and unable to move. […] The rats fed like this became huge, like large cats. […] They clung to the stinking odor of seriously ill women who were not being cleaned and for who we did not have fresh clothes. I had to get fresh water to clean women giving birth by myself; it took 20 minutes to bring a single bucket of water,” recalled Leszczyńska.
In the concentration camp all children — against all predictions — were born alive, beautiful and chubby. Nature, opposing hatred, fought for her rights stubbornly, with unlimited reserves of vitality.
“One thought comes through those nightmarish memories. Namely, all the children were born alive. Their goal was to live. Only thirty survived the camp. Several hundred were taken to Nakła to be denationalized, Klara and Pfani (German nurses-ed. D.C.) drowned over 1,500, and more than 1,000 died of cold and hunger.”
Mary in a striped uniform
The prisoners called Stanisława Leszczyńska “mommy” and “the angel of goodness” which, as Elżbieta Solomon, one of the Auschwitz mothers wrote later in a poem, came to give “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.”
Bronisław Leszczyński remembers how once, on Christmas Eve, the midwife received a package with bread from her parents. She sliced it, put it on a piece of cardboard and gave away to the prisoners as the Christmas wafer. Suddenly, Dr. Mengele, the “angel of death,” entered the barrack. “My mother met his gaze, he lowered his eyes and said that for a short moment it seemed to him that he is human. And to whom did he speak? A prisoner, a Polish woman. He walked away; there was no persecution. People knew she had an advantage over them.”
Immediately after birth, she baptized each child with water. If she didn’t know what to do, she sang. Wherever she was, there was music. Her son said, “at home […] there was music, singing, joking, kissing, looking in the eyes, flowers. A little heaven.” When she died, the loved ones put a zither string in her coffin.
“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.”
Stanisława was also very devout. She prayed in the morning, in the evening, before meals and before work, usually to Mary, the Mother of God. She always made a sign of the cross over the mother and the newborn baby.
One day Leszczyńska was attending a delivery by a woman from Vilnius, convicted for helping the partisans. “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 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.” This event briefly weakened her hope, but she never lost the sense of purpose of her work.
“There was a huge moral strength in her. She was at once gentle and strong. I have never seen her helpless. She could reach a person using simple words. After her death, one woman told me that my mom helped her give birth for two nights and two days. The woman recalled how my mom wove her braids as she was helping her with her pain.”
Stanisława Leszczyńska died on March 11, 1974, from intestinal cancer. The process of her beatification began in 1992.