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Stanisława Leszczyńska - Midwife of Auschwitz and Patroness of Made for This Birth


Servant of God Stanisława Leszczyńska

May 8, 1896 - March 11, 1974


If you've poked around on the Made for This Birth app or site you may have noticed that we very intentionally placed it under the patronage of a woman named Stanisława Leszczyńska. If you've never heard of her, you're certainly not alone. Servant of God Stanisława was a wife, mother, and a midwife in Auschwitz. Most Catholics have heard of St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), both of whom were martyred there, but the heroism of thousands of Catholics who also suffered at the hands of Hitler's reign of terror is not as well known. One of these lesser known women is Stanisława.


(Just a note: Her story is beautiful but what she and others endured is heart wrenching and may be very troubling to read if you are pregnant or recently postpartum. If you are in a sensitive place in your pregnancy or postpartum time, please use your own discretion in continuing.)


Stanisława Leszczyńska was born in Lodz, Poland in 1896. She entered into the nightmare of Auschwitz in 1943 for almost two years after being incarcerated in an attempt to protect Jews in the Warsaw ghetto with her husband and four children. They had been smuggling food and false papers printed by her husband to help their neighbors and friends survive. Upon her arrest, she was separated from her husband and three of her children. She never saw her husband again. Her oldest son escaped with his father, her two other sons were sent to work camps, and her one daughter Sylwia was brought with her to Auschwitz. Stanisława was able to retain her midwifery papers that she obtained from her schooling before the war while she was imprisoned, and so she, now prisoner 41335, was tasked to work as a midwife in the concentration camp.


Stanisława before the war (image from Wikicommons)

While in Auschwitz between April 1943 and the liberation of Auschwitz in May 1945, she attended the births of over 3,000 babies. Auschwitz was a living hell but amidst the misery, this one woman helped usher in life and gave the despairing hope in what was known as the camp's “maternity ward”. The Holocaust brought with it the evil reality that even pregnant mothers and their innocent infants were not exempt from the cruelty of the Nazis - most pregnant women at Auschwitz were simply sent to the gas chambers to die with their unborn babies. Some women were given abortions by a doctor named Gisella Perl. Others were sent to the “maternity ward” to wait out the rest of their pregnancy in squalid conditions. “Sister Klara,” a midwife who had been sent to the camp for infanticide, oversaw these barracks with a woman named “Sister Pfani”. They were put in charge of ensuring the babies didn't survive after birth.


When Stanisława presented herself as a midwife, she was assigned to help with the births. Josef Mengele (yes, the infamous “Angel of Death”) made it clear that she was to assist Klara and Pfani in the murder of the babies, under penalty of death. When she heard what she was to do in the macabre maternity ward, she refused. When she was taken to the doctor who oversaw the entire camp, she again refused. “Why they did not kill her then, no one knows,” said Leszczyńska’s son Bronislaw (Blakemore, 2018). Surviving the refusal to follow these evil orders is just one of the many miracles that resulted in the heroic actions of this courageous midwife. She was threatened, beaten, and even was a victim of one of Mengele’s experiments to force her into submission.


Over and over, during the day or night, Stanisława laid down her own life for each child being born as women went into labor. She tirelessly served them, continuously refusing to adhere to this direct order of Mengele. Her love was truly Christ-like, and she was willing to sacrifice her own safety for them. Her reverence for God’s design and every mother and baby was worth any sacrifice on her part.


The "maternity wards" were located in three of the barracks, consisting of the 30 beds closest to the the rarely-lit narrow furnaces in the room. The furnaces were not used for heat but chosen only because they were the only viable spot for birth. The barracks were sometimes so cold, in fact, that icicles would form inside on the roof. There was no running water, little food, and no privacy. Lice, disease, and rats were abundant and the smell inside the barracks putrid. At her disposal for a "birth kit" Stanisława had pieced together a small pair of scissors, a kidney basin, some cellulose fiber tissue, and a small bandage to tie the umbilical cord. For each birth she would fetch a small bowl of water to wipe off the baby and mother, that task alone taking 20 minutes.


There was an average of four births daily and she attended nearly all of them in the two years she was there. She was known for her calming voice, her soothing but skilled demeanor, and her penchant to sing prayers or songs to help keep the atmosphere as peaceful as possible for the mother during an impending birth. Despite knowing that these babies would likely not be given long to live after birth - either brutally drowned shortly after birth by Klara and Pfani or enduring a slower death of starvation or illness - she did her best to provide what dignified care she could, treating both of them with the deepest reverence and dignity. She was a force of hope and life in a place saturated by despair and death.


After each birth, Stanisława handed the newborn baby to their mother to hold. She trusted and surrendered to God in the present moment, allowing Him to work through her, and this set an example for all of the grief-stricken mothers in the ward. She gave mothers hope that God had a greater plan for their babies than they realized or understood. A mother of four children herself, Stanisława’s adoration and respect for the lives of these babies and their mothers was stronger than any threat or temporary pain, and more powerful than death itself.




The Most Incredible Miracle of All


Despite the horrific conditions, the most incredible part of her story is that not one mother or infant died in her care. In her own words, Stanisława later described her work and outcomes during her time in Auschwitz:

“One day the Lagerarzt [chief medical officer] told me to present a report on the postpartum infections and mortality rate for the mothers and newborns. I told him that I hadn’t had a single death of a mother or neonate. He looked at me in disbelief and said that even the best German university hospitals could not boast of such a success rate. In his eyes I could see anger and hatred.” (Leszczyńska, 1965).

Although these births occurred in such extremely inhuman and unsanitary conditions, there was no puerperal infection ("childbed fever"), no fatalities among mothers, and no babies that died in before or during birth. This is unheard of in hospitals or even in the best maternity care today and it held throughout her time at Auschwitz.


Stanisława later said,

Among all these ghastly memories there is one thought that lingers in my mind. All the babies were born alive. They all wanted to live. Only thirty survived. A few hundred were sent to Nakło for Germanisation. Klara and Pfani drowned over 1,500. Over 1,000 died of cold and hunger. These are approximate figures, but they don’t include the period up to the end of April 1943. Contrary to all expectations and in spite of the extremely inauspicious conditions, all the babies born in the concentration camp were born alive and looked healthy at birth. Nature defied hatred and extermination and stubbornly fought for her rights, drawing on an unknown reserve of vitality” (Leszczyńska, 1965).

Stanisława Leszczynska concluded her brief but terrible memoir with the following remarks:

"I am presenting my account on behalf of the mothers and children—those who could not tell the world about the wrong done them.” (Leszczyńska, 1965) .

About twenty years after the liberation, Stanisława presented this midwife report to the world, a

vivid account of her experience in Auschwitz, on behalf of the mothers and children. Her writing reveals the atrocities committed to mothers and their babies during the Holocaust, difficult to even read. Despite knowing that most babies would be killed soon after she assisted with a birth, she strived to save as many lives as she could. The cruelty she beheld and her devotion to her faith fueled her passion to preserve the dignity of those she attended. She worked relentlessly, energized by the Holy Spirit, caring as best she could for the women and babies in the barracks with the limited resources she was provided. After May 1943, some of the newborns who were born with blue eyes were spared from death and sent to families to be “Germanized”. To offer a chance of identifying the abducted children at some time in the future and returning them to their mothers, Stanisława devised a way of tattooing the babies for identification that she then shared with the mothers.


It is reported that Stanisława had consecrated her career to the Blessed Mother who had, it

seems, given this pious midwife the graces to give life and hope to those she treated. Stanisława was a deeply religious woman, and always prayed for a trouble-free labor and birth. According to her Catholic faith, and with the mothers’ permission, Stanisława even baptized the babies. She prayed over every baby even after their death.


She was described as calm and self-controlled. She was affectionately called “Mother”, and others referred to her as the ‘Guardian Angel’ in the ward - a stark contrast to the “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele. Women claimed their suffering and fear disappeared when she was around. Just like the Blessed Mother, she gave her own fiat and allowed the Holy Spirit to work through her in the worst circumstances with trust that God’s plan was greater than her own. In the most difficult cases she would ask the Mother of God: “Please put on at least one slipper and come and help me’’. She relied on her faith and her relationship with Mary and her Son to do hard and holy work that to outside human eyes would seem impossible.


She wrote in her later report:

“This is what made me stronger every day and every night I spent on strenuous work, the toil and sacrifice being just an expression of my love for the little children and their mothers, whose lives I tried to save at all cost. Otherwise, I would not have been able to survive.” (Leszczyńska, 1973)

After liberation, Stanisława was reunited with her own children who had survived, though her husband had been killed in the Warsaw Uprising. She lived a quiet and humble life in Poland and continued to serve as a midwife in her community. It was many years before she was willing to share anything concerning her experience in the Auschwitz maternity ward, and the only reason why she eventually did was to give a voice to those who had none. Her heroic efforts were unknown for years and remained only in the hearts of the few survivors in the camp who knew her.


On January 27, 1970, Stanisława attended an official celebration in Warsaw, where she actually met some of the survivors whom she had served and their grown children who had been born in the camp. She considered it one of the happiest days of her life to witness the light that came from the darkness of genocide.



Stanisława Leszczyńska died a few years later of intestinal cancer on March 11, 1974. She was

buried in a Franciscan habit due to her vows as a Third Order Franciscan. Her funeral was attended by many loved ones, including some of the children that she helped birth in Auschwitz. Although her story is not yet well known throughout the world, Stanisława was nominated by devotees in Poland and around the world in the Catholic Church for sainthood. Her beatification process was opened in 2015.


Patroness of Made for This Birth


Why did we choose her as a patroness for Made for This Birth?


Like her, we believe that every single baby deserves honor and a chance at life and that every single mother should be treated with the most profound reverence and dignity especially during the sacred moments of birth.


Like her, we believe that birth is one of the most powerful and beautiful forces on earth and that our bodies and birth are intentionally designed by an omnipotent God who knew what He was doing.


Like her, we hope to be a voice for life in a culture of death.


Like her we want to oppose a system seeping with death, lies, fear, and trauma, and offer life, truth, freedom, and beauty.


We believe that her witness and the story of these thousands of mothers and babies show us that birth was designed to work. God's design is powerful and resilient and He has the power to allow it to work in even the darkest and most dire of situations. He wants to be invited into each birth and He wants to work through the women who are called to serve there.


The life of Stanisława Leszczynska is that of an exemplary midwife, one who dedicated and even risked her life to serve mothers and babies at birth. She was willing to defy the authorities in order to do what was right for women and babies and honor their natural, God-given rights.


Her example and prayer serve us today and make her a powerful intercessor for pregnant women and their unborn children, for the unborn at risk of abortion, for midwives, and for all birth workers. She is especially an example of radical integrity to midwives today who are invited to stand up in opposition to a culture of death and uphold the dignity of every mother and every baby in pregnancy, during birth, and at every moment after. She stands also as a witness to each one of us in need of courage to live a life of radical and sacrificial love.


Servant of God, Stanisława Leszczyńska, pray for us.


The above original art was given to me by a doula client. You can find her at Emmy Mulindwa Art


Cited:

Leszczyńska, S. A midwife’s report from Auschwitz. Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, T., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. August 21, 2018. Read herę: https://www.mp.pl/auschwitz


References consulted and for more information on Stanislawa's life:




Midwife at Auschwitz by Matthew Anger


Stanislawa Leszczyńska from Medical Review Auschwitz



A Statue from St. Anna in Wilanow by Kustoszka, CC BY-SA 4.0


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