Stanislawa Leszczyńska put her own life at risk to help women safely deliver their children.
The image we most closely associate with Auschwitz is one of death. With over a million men, women, and children killed in the largest concentration camp in war-torn Poland, this is hardly surprising. But other stories have emerged from the extermination center that demonstrate tremendous courage, defiance, hope, and even joy. One such story is of a Polish midwife who disobeyed orders to ensure that over 3,000 babies were safely delivered, despite instructions to murder these newborns.
Stanislawa Leszczyńska was born in 1896 in Lodz, a city in the center of Poland. She was a wife, mother, and midwife. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Leszczyńska decided she and her family had to help out by joining in the Polish resistance to help provide false documents and food for those in Jewish ghettos.
The family’s efforts were discovered by the gestapo and a few years later, Leszczyńska and her daughter — a medical student — were sent to Auschwitz while her sons were sent to other camps to endure hard labor. Her husband and eldest son escaped, but Leszczyńska never saw her husband again; he was killed fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising a year later in 1944.
At Auschwitz, Leszczyńska reported for duty as a midwife. Although many pregnant women were normally executed on the spot, others continued their pregnancy until delivery. The midwife was sent to work in the maternity ward, which History.com reports was a “set of filthy barracks that was less a place to care for pregnant women than a place to usher them into death.” The women who managed the ward, “Sister” Klara and “Sister” Pfani, had the duty of declaring newborns as stillborn on delivery, before drowning them in buckets in front of the new mothers. As unqualified nurses they could not assist in the deliveries themselves.
When Leszczyńska was told of her duty to ensure the babies were murdered, she categorically refused. She was beaten by Klara but still she did her best to keep the babies and their mothers alive. Before each delivery she would make the sign of the cross and pray. She also provided moments of calm for the mothers with prayers and song — all done very quietly.
Despite her efforts, many babies were killed after their first few hours of life, and some mothers later died due to the abominable sanitary conditions inside the ward. In her two years at Auschwitz, alongside her daughter, Leszczyńska delivered 3,000 babies. She even stood up to the infamous “Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele, when he ordered her to murder the infants.