When the camp doctor gave her the order to kill newborn babies, she categorically refused, saying: “No, never. No one can kill the newborns”. For almost two years, she risked her life saving newborn babies.
During her time in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the heroic midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska assisted in the birth of over 3000 babies. All the delivered children, without exception, were healthy and without any subsequent complications. Reading about her work, there are two things that come to mind: that we are dealing with a saint, and that a miracle occurred in the Auschwitz hell every day; all of that thanks to the fact that Stanisława entrusted her life into the hands of God and the Mother of God.
Childhood and early years
8 May 1896 in Łódź. She was one of eight siblings. Five died in infancy. Apart from her, two younger brothers survived. When she was a child, her father was conscripted into the Russian army for five years. The burden of running the house fell on her mother’s shoulders. She took on a job in Israel Poznański’s factory and was outside the house for about fourteen hours every day. During her mother’s absence, Stanisława looked after her brothers and sisters, doing all kinds of housework. In 1908, the whole family set off for Brazil, hoping to boost their finances. However, after two years, they returned to Poland and settled in the suburbs of Łódź, in the district of Bałuty. Stanisława resumed her schooling, whilst at the same time helping her parents in a small shop. During the First World War, she worked on the Committee for the Relief of the Poor. So she was already able to make her dream of helping other people come true. In her family home, she learned how to love God. It was her mother who gave her the power to trust in His care and to face hardships through systematic passionate prayer. Her father was gentle and open to other people; from him, she inherited a curiosity of the world, as well as a joyful and relaxed approach to life. Her parents gave their only daughter the image of a family bound by profound love and trust, which she soon could put into effect in her own life.
“She used to say that when she held a baby in her arms, she had the impression that it was the baby Jesus. And because that Baby was with her in Auschwitz, nothing bad was going to happen to her” (Henryk Leszczyński)
In 1916, Stanisława married Bronisław Leszczyński, with whom she had four children. Their love was deep and intensely romantic, so she was able to create a home full of warmth, affection, kindness and mutual care. Praying together was very important; from Jesus and His Mother, Stanisława learned how to love their children. She knew that children receive the best religious education at home. In her children’s reminiscences, she is often mentioned praying. The meals spent together provided opportunity for conversations and sharing daily news. One of the sons recollects: “In our family, love had priority. It was everywhere, most of all in the way we addressed each other. When we were home, the outside world was far away. At home, the atmosphere was unique: songs, singing, laughter, kisses, looking into each other’s eyes, and flowers. It was a little heaven. Stanisława’s home was always open to people in need. She took care of everybody that God put in her way. Her sensitivity to poverty and suffering made her help anybody who was in trouble or distress, regardless of social status, nationality, ethnicity or religion.
They were sent to concentration camps: Stanisława and her daughter to a women’s camp in Auschwitz- Birkenau (17 April 1943)
Mother of God, come to me, be it only in one shoe!
After starting her family and giving birth to two children, Stanisława decided to first receive her education, and then go to work. She had to reconcile her studies and career with bringing up the children. Between 1920 and 1922, she studied to be a midwife at the State School of Midwifery in Warsaw. She had to leave her family and live in the capital. After graduating from the school, she began her professional career, which she successfully pursued for thirty-eight years. Before the war, Stanisława delivered babies at people’s homes. As public transport was in its early stages, she went to her patients on foot. She was also called upon in emergencies to provide help before the doctor’s arrival. She was available to go and help at any time of the day or night. In particularly unexpected or dangerous cases, she would ask the Mother of God for help with the following words: “Mother of God, come to me, be it only in one shoe!” She was always listened to. Throughout her whole professional career, there wasn’t even a single case of a baby’s or mother’s death. One of her patients recalls: “On 11 August 1933, my daughter Julita was born, delivered by Stanisława. Just as she entered the room, she made the sign of the cross, and then she did the same above me. After the birth, she also made the sign of the cross above my baby’s head. Then she said: “You have a lovely daughter”. Later, she took care of me, always giving me useful advice and instructing me on how to breastfeed and bring up children. She emanated motherly goodness, being both extremely caring and protective. It seemed as if the angel of kindness had entered my house to help me and my child at such an important time. She treated her work as private prayer: every baby she helped enter the world was to her like a little Jesus. Her son Henryk remembers: “She used to say that when she held a baby in her arms, she had the impression that it was the baby Jesus. And because that Baby was with her in Auschwitz, nothing bad was going to happen to her. With such an attitude, even the devil has no choice but to take flight”. Stanisława found the strength to keep working in prayer. She prayed in the morning, before leaving for work, before every delivery, and as she watched over women in labour. She wouldn’t be parted from her rosary even for a moment. Working as a midwife, she never got into a rut and welcomed every newborn baby with joy. She could move around Łódź at any time of the day or night, because the local criminal underworld held her in high esteem. One night, she was mugged. Someone tried to snatch the bag she always took to work. Immediately, two thugs came to her rescue. Handing her the stolen bag, they said: “We are really sorry for this incident. They were from another district and evidently had no idea who you are”.
“I looked at my coprisoners with sympathy, knowing that not long ago each one of them had a home, a loving family, loving relations and friends” (S. Leszczyńska)
The outbreak of the Second World War
The darkest period for the Leszczyński family began on 1 September 1939. In November that year, Łódź was incorporated into the Third Reich, and Poles and Jews became second-class citizens. Every day was a real struggle. There was a shortage of food, clothes and fuel. For even petty offences, there were two forms of punishment: death or concentration camp. At the end of 1939, the Nazis decided to set up a ghetto in Łódź. 160,000 people were crammed together within a small area. Thanks to a special permit allowing Stanisława to move around the city under curfew, she could continue working as a midwife and visit her patients in their homes. She distributed food to Jewish families in the Ghetto. Her husband and sons worked with underground organisations. On 18 February 1943, Gestapo agents visited Stanisława’s home and arrested her sons, Henryk and Stanisław, her daughter Sylwia and Stanisława herself. In prison, they were subjected to cruel interrogation. Afterwards, they were sent to concentration camps: Stanisława and her daughter to a women’s camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau (17 April 1943) and her sons to Mauthausen-Gusen. Stanisława’s husband and son Bronisław escaped arrest, but during the occupation they were sought by the Gestapo.
Arrival at the camp
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp was in operation from 1940 to January 1945, and it was the biggest camp created during the Second World War. Living and working conditions in the camp were exceptionally harsh, designed to make an average prisoner’s life last about three months. Anyone who entered the camp and wasn’t immediately murdered in the gas chamber was stripped of their name and became just a number. Stanisława was given the number 41335. After recovering from some typical diseases which spread through the camp, she decided to go to the camp doctor with the documents certifying her professional qualifications. Soon she was given permission to work as a midwife in the camp. From that moment on, Stanisława endeavoured each day to oppose the monstrous crime that she witnessed. She went to great pains to rescue women in labour and their children. If she was unable to save human life, she at least salvaged its dignity.
When the camp physician ordered Stanisława to report on the death rate of newborn babies and their mothers, she said that there had not even been a single case of death and, moreover, that there had not been any postnatal complications. Even the best German clinics couldn’t claim such success!
Stanisława worked consisted of a dozen or so huts made of wooden planks and had no floor, ceiling, sewage system or water. They were located in a low-lying area, which during heavy rains was frequently flooded, with water levels reaching up to tens of centimetres. Inside the huts, on both sides, there were triple wooden bunk beds without bedding on which women prisoners were crowded together. They soon died, exhausted by hunger, cold, torture and disease. One block accommodated between 1000 and 1200 patients. The huts were infested with vermin. A maternity ward was housed in one of the hospital blocks, in which women with infectious diseases were also lodged. Among many other diseases, the camp was in the grip of dysentery, typhoid and pemphigus vulgaris. The patients were fed mainly decayed boiled weed, which contained about twenty per cent rat faeces. Rats attacked women and newborn babies, lacerating their faces and gnawing at their arms and legs. Apart from performing her professional duties, Stanisława spent many hours chasing away the rats from the women and the babies. She had to arrange basic drugs, dressings, baby clothes and nappies. On many occasions, Stanisława gave up her meagre daily food rations. The only pieces of equipment she had at her disposal were scissors and a metal kidney dish. There was a constant lack of water. It took about twenty minutes to bring one bucket of water, and only she was allowed to leave the camp hospital to get it. During her time in the camp, Stanisława was the only midwife. Sometimes she had to assist several deliveries at a time. Despite the horrors of that reality, this frail, humble woman risked her life in her devotion to those utterly wornout women and their babies. She led the work even after recovering from a serious disease: completely tired out, she lay close to a woman in labour. She always kept herself busy, maintaining a cheerful disposition. Despite all the evil, including everyday murders, she managed to create an atmosphere of hope in conditions which seemed to be void of human kindness. If she wasn’t able to save children’s lives, she rescued the mothers. She tried to pass on to them her experience and expertise. Her attitude was marked by spontaneous and unconditional selfless love for all the women and children in the maternity ward: “I looked at my co-prisoners with sympathy, knowing that not long ago each one of them had a home, a loving family, loving relations and friends. Sharing their love, she preserved her dignity. […] All of a sudden, they had been put in this squalid, filthy hut, full of vermin and rats. Hungry, in freezing cold, separated from their families, stripped of their dignity and denied all human rights, they seemed so touchingly poor. I loved them, and that love gave me the strength to continue that arduous work, without sleep, day and night. The hardships I had to face and my dedication were only a way of expressing my love for the little babies and their mothers whom I tried to rescue from imminent death. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to survive”. Her son Stanisław remembers: “The women prisoners called her ‘mum’, and in a deeply spiritual sense she was their mother, as well as their children’s mother. She set herself a task which without her love for people would have been impossible to accomplish”. Attending to her co-prisoners on the ward with love and care, although she could not promise to save them and their children, at least she made their whole ordeal less painful.
“I used to work with a prayer on my lips; actually, throughout my whole professional career, I never had a case that ended tragically” (S. Leszczyńska)
As soon as the concentration camp was set up, the order was issued to kill all newborn babies.
When Leszczyńska started working as a midwife, she strongly opposed that order. When the camp physician Josef Mengele learned about this, he began shouting at her. Bronisław recalled the incident: “Describing this, my mother said: ‘I only saw the legs of his boots, jumping up and down, and then, with his head turned around, I heard him shout “Befehl ist Befehl!” (an order is an order)’. […] My mother was quite short, and she had the habit of lowering her eyes when she was pondering something. So when she answered back to Dr Mengele, telling him that no one had the right to kill children, she was standing next to him calmly, as if she wasn’t in any danger at all. […] She just stood there, eyes cast down, seeing just his tall boots jumping nervously in front of her”. Despite risking the death penalty for disobedience, she stayed faithful to the teachings of the Gospel. Following her conscience, she pursued her vocation until the camp was liberated. Due to her adamant refusal, the cruel order to kill the children was carried out by German female hut wardens: “After each delivery, from the wardens’ room, the midwives could hear a loud characteristic gurgle and sometimes long splashing. Soon afterwards, (a mother) could see the body of her baby being disposed of, thrown outside the block and ripped apart by rats. As a person who loved children, witnessing such inconceivable crime every day, Stanisława suffered terribly when she saw the naked bodies of the infants she had cared for a short time ago. Until May 1943, all newborn babies were murdered. Later, the situation changed: Aryan-looking children were spared. They were taken away from their mothers and probably transported to Germany. Jewish children, however, continued to be murdered. Despite the pitiful conditions, the all-pervading filth, vermin, rats, contagious disease, lack of water, and inhumane treatment of prisoners by the camp staff, something inexplicable occurred every day. When the camp physician ordered Stanisława to report on the death rate of newborn babies and their mothers, she said that there had not even been a single case of death and, moreover, that there had not been any postnatal complications. Hearing this, Mengele gave her a look of disbelief. Looking at her with his envious eyes, with a voice full of anger, he said that even the best German clinics couldn’t claim such success!
Angel of Goodness
Although Stanisława worked in appalling conditions and witnessed tragic events all the time, her conduct gave other people hope of getting through the ordeal of the camp reality. From the moment when some children were spared and sent away, she began marking them with a tattoo, to help the devastated mothers to find them after the war. Every newborn child was christened by Stanisława or a person she trusted. Always composed, she performed all the necessary tasks around women in labour with elaborate care and gentleness. Surrounded by the tragedies of thousands of people, she kept on doing her job in a calm manner. People called Stanisława an “angel of goodness”. She used to hum religious songs, encouraging other prisoners to join in. Often the whisper of her prayers could be heard – usually a request for help or thanks for a successful delivery. Her own description of how she arranged a bunk for women in labour provides convincing proof of her deep faith, which also affected other female prisoners of different nationalities: “On the blanket that covered the bunk, I put a rosary in the shape of the Mother of God’s heart. Against the back rest, I put a drawing of Mary Immaculate, sketched by Hania, one of the inmates, an amateur artist. Out of tissue paper, […] I also made a rose garland and decorated the head of the Blessed Mother. In May, the inmates sang ‘O Maryjo, witam Cię’ [O Mary, I welcome Thee]. That was possible because on the maternity ward the rounds weren’t made in the evenings. The inmates would gather around the bunk and sing. Jewish women from the same block would come to join in, saying: ‘We want to pray to your Christ’. […] Just for a slice of bread, they ‘fixed themselves up’ with some prayer books, songbooks and rosaries”. The midwife’s heroic acts were rooted in her love for God and people: “I used to work with a prayer on my lips; actually, throughout my whole professional career, I never had a case that ended tragically”. All emergency situations always turned out well. In prayer, Stanisława found a constant source of hope and composure. She provided a safe haven from the depths of despair and helped others to bear the camp ordeal. She also showed how to approach suffering from the perspective of faith.
Liberation of the camp and return to Łódź
In January 1945, the order was given to evacuate the camp. Stanisława didn’t follow the order and kept on working, knowing that such disobedience could result in the death penalty. She stayed with her patients and worked. Facing total defeat, the Germans started to burn the blocks. Stanisława was tireless and stayed with her patients until the camp was liberated, on 26 January 1945. On 2 February, she left the camp with her daughter. They went to a church in Oświęcim, where they thanked God for getting their freedom back and received a sacrament. When Stanisława returned to her home city of Łódź, she suffered a terrible blow, hearing the news that her husband had been killed in the Warsaw Uprising. She worked her fingers to the bone to provide for her children. She used to say: “God led all my children safely home because I have never killed anyone’s child”. Addressing her son, who obtained his diploma and became a doctor, she said: “I don’t think you would ever perform an abortion, because then you wouldn’t be my son. In 1957, Stanisława wrote Raport położnej z Oświęcimia [Report of a midwife from Auschwitz], in which she accurately depicted the brutal reality in the camp. Showing the cruel plight of the prisoners, she left a vital message defending human life: “If people in my country were to display any tendencies against human life, despite the sad experience of wartime events, then I do believe that the voice of reason for preserving the life and rights of children would come from all midwives, mothers and fathers, and honest citizens”. In Poland, the law which allowed abortion took effect in 1956, and Stanisława appealed with the above-mentioned words to the conscience of all people who bear responsibility for making conception possible. She died on 11 March 1974, after suffering a debilitating and long-term cancer. She offered her suffering for the conversion of sinners. In 1992, the process of Stanisława Leszczyńska’s beatification began.
“If people in my country were to display any tendencies against human life, despite the sad experience of wartime events, then I do believe that the voice of reason for preserving the life and rights of children would come from all midwives, mothers and fathers, and honest citizens” (S. Leszczyńska)
Gabriela Garlacz and Danuta Rosomak, Leszczyńska. Akuszerka [Leszczyńska: midwife] (Ząbki, 2002).
Bohdan Bejze (ed.), Macierzyńska miłość życia. Teksty o Stanisławie Leszczyńskiej [The motherly love of life. Texts about Stanisława Leszczyńska] (Warsaw, 1984).