By Alanna Gomez
Editor’s note. This appeared at unmaskingchoice.ca and is reprinted with permission.
In the late stages of my current pregnancy, I’ve been spending more and more time with my midwives. They are supportive, encouraging and I always appreciate their advice and expertise. Looking forward to when I have to give birth, I am secure in the knowledge that they will be there and be prepared to help with whatever happens. In all likelihood, they will preside over a fairly normal and healthy birth experience.
Once in a while though, I do reflect on the fact that not everyone is as fortunate as me in this regard. One of those times was when a friend shared with me the story of Stanislawa Leszczynska, a Polish midwife who delivered babies in Auschwitz.
Stanislawa began her career in a very normal way for the time, travelling miles on foot to deliver babies all over the Polish countryside, working all and any hours of the day or night. During this time, she and her husband had four of their own children. In 1943, she, her daughter and two of her sons were arrested for helping Jewish people in the ghetto of Lodz with false documentation and food. Stanislawa and her daughter ended up at Auschwitz.
Upon arrival at the camp, Stanislawa identified herself as a midwife to a camp doctor, who arranged for her to work in what passed for a maternity ward in the camp. She set to work, reserving the bunks closest to the stove for the labouring mothers and new babies. Despite this, in cold weather, mothers still gave birth under the icicles, as the stove was rarely lit. Women were squished 3 or 4 to a bunk, laying in rotten hay or on bare boards, fighting off lice and other vermin.
I can’t help but try and put myself in the shoes of the women she served. To be honest, I simply can’t fathom the fear and apprehension they must have felt. To be sent to a concentration camp is awful enough- to add the difficulties of pregnancy and the worry for the innocent lives they carried within their wombs on top of that is unimaginable.
The role of a midwife is demanding under the best of circumstances- labour is often long and complications can arise. Accompanying a woman through the journey towards giving birth is tiring and strenuous and a great responsibility. When faced with the conditions of a concentration camp, where simply existing can seem practically impossible, her achievements are nothing short of heroic. Survivors have spoken of the many weeks that passed where she had no time to rest, and her devotion to caring for the new mothers and their children.
Stanislawa estimates that she delivered 3000 babies in the two years she spent at Auschwitz. Miraculously, none of the women or babies under her care died. This was despite the extremely unhygienic conditions, the lack of medication, clean clothes, and meager food rations. However, the fate of the babies after birth was not under her control. Half were taken by a German midwife, Klara, who had been imprisoned for infanticide, and drowned shortly after birth. Almost all the rest eventually succumbed to disease and starvation or were sent to the gas chambers with their mothers. Some Aryan looking children were taken from the camp to be adopted. Stanislawa surreptitiously tattooed those babies, hoping the one day to reunite them with their mothers. About 30 managed to survive until the liberation of the camp, which occurred in January 1945.
In a brief memoir of her experiences, Stanislawa wrote that “All of the babies were born alive. It was their purpose to live.” She refused to take part in murdering any of the children, and helped the mothers take care of the babies as best as they were able to under the conditions. The mothers were often too malnourished to breastfeed, but she managed to find wet-nurses on occasion. Once, Stanislawa came face to face with the infamous Dr. Mengele, who was furious that she refused to help drown the newborns. Mysteriously, he did not take action against her and let her continue her work.
As a Catholic, Stanislawa always took time to pray over her patients and baptise each new baby. She created moments of peace in the barracks by inviting the women to pray and sing together. Her piety and devotion sustained her in the arduous task of serving the pregnant and labouring women of the camp. I imagine at times it seemed hopeless, knowing that most of the babies she delivered were doomed to die shortly after birth. However, it still seems to me a beautiful thing, to fight to preserve these children’s lives, to the best of her ability. As a mother, it would be utterly heartbreaking to hold your new baby in your arms, and know that there is not much you can do to feed your child, or keep it clean and safe but I would be so grateful to know that there was someone else doing all they could to love and look after my baby, despite the horrors of the camp.
It surprises me that Stanislawa is not more widely known in the pro-life movement for she represents the best of what we are trying to do. She knew she could not save every child from the awful fate which awaited most of them, but that didn’t cause her to throw in the towel and join in with the murderers. Despite knowing that she ultimately couldn’t save them all, she did the very best she could, with the options available to her, to respect and preserve each tiny, innocent life. That is the simple, yet extraordinarily difficult task that we are all set: to do our best, within the circumstances we find ourselves in, to make the world a better, more just place.