The Unsung Pro-Life Hero of Auschwitz
by Laurel Recsetar
Imagine one day you and your three children are arrested and taken from your home. Your two sons are each sent to labor camps to work in stone quarries. Two months after your arrest, you and your daughter are branded on the arm with a number. Your new “name” is 41335. Your daughter’s is 41336. You are stripped of what little clothing you have left, shaved from head to toe, and handed striped, lice-infested overalls. Your new “home” is inside an overcrowded barracks; bunks on top of bunks with sparse, vermin-infested straw mattresses.
This was the life of Stanislawa Leszczynksa from April, 1943 to January 1945. You’ve probably never heard of her. During those two years Stanislawa delivered over 3,000 babies in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Stanislawa was born in 1896 in Poland. In 1916 she married Bronislaw Leszczynksa and in 1922 she began working as a midwife in one of the poorest districts in Lodz. She walked miles all over town to serve the women in her community. She was always available and often worked through the night.
After taken to Auschwitz, the resourceful Stanislawa put her midwifery skills to use. Many women arrived at Auschwitz pregnant. She was assigned as a midwife in three barracks in the camp.
She describes the “maternity ward” (which doubled as the sick ward) she set up in each of the barracks:
“Thirty beds closest to the furnace were used as a maternity ward. In the barrack there were infections, stench of sick bodies, and every kind of bugs crawling around bodies. The barrack was infested with rats, which were biting off noses, ears, fingers and feet of exhausted and very sick women, who were too sick to move.”
About 1,200 women occupied the sick ward and about 15 died each day. Sick women were not the only victims of rats. Newborn babies were also targets.
During delivery there were no dressings for wounds and no antiseptics available. She received no help from camp doctors Rhode, Koenig, and Mengele because they would not “lower” themselves to treat non-Germans. Before they gave birth, mothers bartered their bread rations for a bedsheet to use as swaddling cloth and diapers.
Each time Stanislawa delivered a baby she risked her life. The Lagerarzt (SS camp physician) ordered Stanislawa on pain of death to declare all children “stillborn” and drown them. Women were needed for work. Their babies were not. She replied, “No. Never.” Why she was not killed she could not say. So she continued to deliver babies. Two other women, Schwester Klara and Schwester Pfani, took on the task of infanticide. Newborns were drowned in a barrel. Their bodies were thrown to the rats. The sound of splashing water in the neighboring room became common. New mothers saw their children thrown onto the ground. Children who weren’t drowned died of starvation because their mothers couldn’t produce milk. Starting in May, 1943 any Aryan-looking babies were sent to German orphanages. Stanislawa gave those mothers hope of reuniting with their children by tattooing those babies under their armpits.
Her most horrific memory was when a woman’s number was called immediately after delivery.
“I realized she was called to a gas chamber. She covered the newborn in a dirty paper and hugged the baby to her chest. Her lips started to move as if she wanted to sing a song, as many mothers did, trying to make up for cold and hunger, for the conditions of their life. She could not do that, she did not make any sound…only huge tears were flowing from her eyes, through her white face, and falling on a head of a small prisoner on his way to a death sentence.”
After the camp was liberated in 1945 Stanislawa was reunited with her sons and daughter. Her husband was killed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. She rarely spoke of her time at Auschwitz until she retired in the 1950’s. Her children are dedicated to sharing her story. The Catholic Church began her beatification process in 2010.
More than 1,500 children were drowned by Schwester Klara and Pfani. More than 1,000 starved or froze to death. Over 500 were sent to German orphanages. Only 30 survived the camp. Why did Stanislawa risk her life to deliver those 3,000 souls?
“Among those horrible memories there is one main thought coming back to me all the time. All children were born alive. Their goal was to stay alive!”