How to keep the fire of light and love burning amid the darkness of our age? How to be a human being in the year 2017? How to be a midwife in changing times? In many families, Christmas comes with the long standing tradition of reading a christmas story. At Midwife Without Borders we are giving birth to a new tradition: ending the year with an incredible and inspiring midwifery story.
On our first online Christmas Eve, we take you to Nazi-occupied Poland, 1943. Stanisława Leszczyńska, a Polish midwife and mother of four, is caught in the ghetto of Lodz (Poland) while helping the Jews and is sent with her daughter to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Shortly after arriving she ends up in the sick barracks where she notices the need for a midwife after another nurse loses her job. She had managed to smuggle her midwifery certificate into the camp and does something unheard of: she walks up to an SS man, shows him the card and dauntlessly asks for the job. Her certificate and good command of the German language do the trick.
In the sick barrack that also serves as a maternity ward, circumstances are terrible. Leszczyńska’s midwifery equipment exists of one pair of scissors and one bucket. To fill it up with water, she needs to walk for 20 minutes. Apart from some aspirin, there is no medication whatsoever and there are no disinfectants. There is a total lack of hygiene, infection diseases such as dysentery and typhus, and bugs are rampant. In the freezing cold, the breath of the women condenses on the ceiling and creates icicles. Leszczyńska recalls that while they formed a glistening crystal chandelier when the lights were put on, underneath, sick women were delivering their babies.
Until well into 1943 it is common practice that all new babies are drown in a barrel shortly after birth. Their mothers, having hardly had time to recover from the delivery, can hear the plashing of water and then the voice of their baby silenced forever. This job is executed by a German midwife Klara, interred in the camp after having lost her license because of infanticide, and her assistant. The small bodies are piled up as garbage and serve as food for the rats, the only living creatures in the camp faring well. According to Leszczyńska, they grow as big as cats. During the night she needs to chase them away to prevent them from chewing away at the women.
When the notorious SS-doctor Josef Mengele orders Leszczyńska to play her part in murdering the babies after birth, she firmly stands up to him with a “never” and confronts him by saying that he, as a physician, should know the Hippocratic Oath. Staring at the ground, she sees his boots dancing angrily in front of her over such an outrageous disobedience. While beating a retreat, he underlines his order one last time with the infamous “Befehl ist Befehl”, ‘an order is an order’. His effort remains fruitless. The former midwife Klara orders her to declare every child “still born” and get rid of the babies. Because Leszczyńska does not obey, Klara beats her on the head. Nobody knows why Leszczyńska is not killed, the common penalty for disobeying. She simply goes on with her work, helping a total of 3000 women to give birth in Auschwitz and trying by all means to keep them and their babies alive.
Something remarkable happens. All of the 3000 babies are alive and kicking at birth and none of the mothers die in puerperium. As an astonished SS-doctor remarks, not even the best German clinics of the time can provide such statistics. And every present day midwife knows that even with all our medication and equipment, neither can we. In her “Report of a midwife from Auschwitz”, written in 1957, Leszczyńska modestly remarks that “the emaciated organisms were too barren a medium for bacteria”. Others claim that her success rate is rather a miracle and suspect a cause that transcends the mere natural.
Leszczyńska advises women to save part of their bread rations and trade them for cloths to wrap their babies in. She sets up a system of wet nurses and manages to hide non-Jewish babies with their mothers to give them at least a short time together (with Jewish babies this can’t be done, she remarks sadly, because of the vigilance of the overseers). In her report Leszczyńska writes that that “as long as a newborn was together with the mother, motherhood itself created a ray of hope”. According to her “nature is a great teacher of midwives. Both of them struggle to secure life, and in so doing offer the world the most wonderful thing imaginable - the smile on a child’s face”.
Somewhere in 1943, policy in the camp changes. Baby’s with supposedly ‘Aryan’ features are no longer drowned but send to town to be ‘de-nationalized’ and then placed in German families or orphanages to be raised as German children. Leszczyńska’s response is to try and secretly tattoo these babies under their armpits, so that mothers may one day find back their “lost happiness”, as she puts it. Of the 3000 baby’s she helps to come into the world in Auschwitz, some 500 are ‘germanised’ and survive. 1500 are drowned by Klara and her assistant while almost all the others sooner or later succumb to hypothermia or malnourishment. Thirty baby’s however, are born close to the liberation of the camp by the Red Army and manage to see it through. Not long before her death in 1974, Leszczyńska meets some of them.
Amid the horror and death of Auschwitz, Leszczyńska sees it as an act of honor to welcome every new life into loving hands. The exhausting circumstances seem to get no grip on her as she works tirelessly, night and day, assisting at an average of 5 deliveries a day in a serving spirit of love and sustained by her faith. For her, every birth is a miniature Christmas and every newborn deserves to be received as the Christmas Child itself, as a king.
One Christmas Eve, Leszczyńska shares the bread her parents sent her with the women in one of the barracks (a capital offense against camp regulations), when all of a sudden Josef Mengele enters. Silence falls, and Leszczyńska, whom many in Auschwitz call ‘mother’ and even ‘guardian angel’, looks the notorious ‘angel of death’ straight into his eyes. He stares at the ground, and without saying a word leaves the barrack. For a brief moment, Leszczynska would later say, Josef Mengele showed humanity.
Leszczynska never failed to recognise the humanity in others, not even in the perpetrators of Auschwitz. She never judged them, one of her children says, and never spoke ill of them, since she was deeply convinced that nobody can really know what brings someone to commit such acts.
As the liberation of the camp draws near, Leszczyńska refuses to flee and amid burning barracks assists at one last delivery at Auschwitz. When she returns home, she eventually learns that her children are safe, but that her husband was killed in the Warsaw Uprising. For the rest of her professional life, she works as a midwife, and never speaks publicly about her experiences in Auschwitz. It is not until her retirement approaches that she writes and publishes her report, in which she praises the other interred medical staff, who, she says, “risked their own life for hopeless lives”.
Stanisława Leszczyńska’s story is a heroic story of resilience, of personal courage, of integrity and of love. Hers is a story about choosing the light of life amid the deepest darkness. It is a story for our time, in which unfreedom, violence, hate, narcism and lovelessness are slowly overshadowing our hope and our freedom to think and act according to our consciences and our hearts. But if even in the darkness of Auschwitz it takes just one person, prisoner 41335, to keep the light of humanity burning, then we all can set our own worlds ablaze. Merry Christmas!
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I wrote an article on Stanisława Leszczyńska for the Dutch weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad. Those of you who would like to read it, can take their refuge to the Christmas edition of KN, that, apart from this midwife’s story, also offers a real Christmas story.
Maternal Love of Life: Texts About Stanislawa Leszczyńska. Edited by Bishop Bejz. 1988.
Leszczyńska, S. (1965). Raport położnej z Oświęcimia (The Report of a Midwife from Auschwitz), Przegląd Lekarski, 1
Dobrowolska, B. et al. (2011). Wanda Ossowska (1912 - 2001) and Stanislawa Leszczyńska (1896 - 1974): Polish nurses working under Nazi Occupation. Journal of Medical Biography, 19(4):168-70. doi: 10.1258/jmb.2011.011007. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22319190
Holden, W. (2015). Miracle of the Mengele babies: Truly astounding story of how three women cheated demon doctor of death by hiding their pregnancies... and raised their newborns in the very cradle of Nazi horror. The Mail On Sunday, April 25, 2015 updated May 3, 2015.