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.
Thankfully, not all the babies were killed. Some were taken away to be adopted into German families and were considered “Aryan” babies. So in a last-ditched bid to reunite mother with baby, Leszczyńska tattooed the babies in the hope that they’d be identified later in life. Some women were so desperate they even killed their babies, rather than see them suffer in the hands of the Nazis. And some non-Jewish moms got to keep their babies, but with breast-feeding forbidden, these babies often perished from starvation.
Despite all the horror, Leszczyńska, dubbed “Mother,” baptized all the Christian babies and did her utmost to look after the new moms. Figures from medical historians Susan Benedict and Linda Shields found that half of these 3,000 babies were drowned, 1,000 died of starvation or hypothermia, 500 were sent to German families and 30 babies survived — just one percent. This is horrific, but Leszczyńska ensured these moms were treated with love and care, and that each new life was given some dignity, if only just for an hour or two.
The devoted midwife carried out her duties until the camp was liberated then she returned to her native town to continue her practice. Her legacy lives on in her children who all became physicians. And some patients have spoken about her heroic acts, with Maria Saloman, who gave birth in Auschwitz sharing: “To this day I do not know at what price [she delivered my baby]. My Liz owes her life to Stanislawa Leszczyńska. I cannot think of her without tears coming to my eyes.”
Saloman also speaks of the time she got to be a godmother, in an account reported in the Seattle Catholic. Leszczyńska had given her the duty during the baptismal ceremony and although the baby only lived for three weeks, she got to experience the joy of being a godmother and was truly devoted to her godchild, Adam.
Like other great Catholics who experienced the horrors of the concentration camp, such as the heroic St. Maximillian Kolbe, Leszczyńska’s faith kept her going with prayer and devotion. This unassuming woman touched so many lives, bringing a little bit of comfort to thousands, even when it endangered her own life. She viewed each baby as a precious gift from God and she continued to pray for the children she had delivered later in life. According to UK’s Catholic Herald, Leszczyńska’s Cause for canonization has been introduced in the Diocese of Łódź, Poland.