The Midwife of Auschwitz: Extraordinary life of heroine who delivered 3,000 babies in horror death camp to be told in new documentary
In the disease-ridden, bug-infested barracks of Auschwitz death camp, few expected to survive.
Rats the size of dogs gorged themselves on the noses, ears, fingers and toes of those too weak to move.
And for those who had the misfortune of being born there, life-expectancy was more or less zero. Many were either drowned in a bucket at birth or quickly died out of starvation and prematurity.
But one woman sought to defy the camp’s murderous policy by delivering as many babies as possible.
Her name was Stanisława Leszczyńska, a prisoner at the German-operated Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp who as a midwife performed miracles by delivering around 3,000 babies.
Her incredible story is now set to be turned into a new film called Położna (The Midwife). The hour-long documentary has been directed by her great-niece Maria Stachurska, who also wrote the screenplay.
She told TFN: “I felt compelled to make this film. She had the right to speak out about her oppressors because she witnessed their bestiality. Yet, she did not. She never said anything against them.
“She said they were simply poor people,” she added.
When World War II broke out, the Leszczyński family was actively involved in the underground in Łódź. Her husband, a printer, and sons prepared false documents for Jews living in the ghetto, and Stanisława distributed food for them, taking advantage of her work as a midwife to gain access to the ghetto.
The family’s secret was discovered and in February 1943 the Gestapo swooped on their apartment, sending Leszczyńska and her daughter to Auschwitz, and her two sons to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex in Upper Austria. Her husband managed to flee the Gestapo, only to die as an insurgent during the Warsaw Uprising.
When she arrived at the camp in April 1943 she had her midwife papers in a bag, but an SS guard threw them to the ground saying that she wouldn’t need them anymore. When he turned back, she secretly picked the crumpled document up and hid it in her camp uniform.
She soon presented herself to a camp doctor, which in itself was an act of great courage as addressing a German at the camp without permission was punishable by death.
She was assigned to work in what was euphemistically called a maternity ward, a place of darkness in a world already without light.
What Leszczyńska discovered goes beyond any normal description of horror. Upon arrival, most pregnant women were simply sent to the gas chambers, others were summarily executed.
The remainder were sent to hospital barracks. There, a German orderly named Sister Klara would declare every new baby as stillborn and without cutting the umbilical cord would hold the baby in a bucket of water as it kicked and screamed for the duration of its brief life, often in front of the broken mother who had just given birth.
The dead babies were tossed outside the barrack, where bloated rats would gorge themselves on this regular harvest.
A deeply religious woman, however, Leszczyńska refused. Stachurska said: “She was ordered not to cut the umbilical cord. But she said that she would not be Herod to the innocents and that she would respect the Hippocratic oath and not kill children. She would do the work that she was supposed to do.”
Survivor testimonies also recall the incident. Years after liberation, former inmate Dr Maria Oyrzyńska explained in an official testimony: “The midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska from Łódź was ordered not to cut the cord from the babies and just to literally bin them with placenta. She said she was a Catholic woman and that she wouldn’t murder any children. She said she would do what she was supposed to do as a human being.”
Another former prisoner, doctor Irena Konieczna, recalled: “Leszczyńska was short and petite, very humble, almost in love with her profession, extremely religious. Every new born had to be baptised immediately. She would help any mother she could. Leszczyńska would deliver babies on her own, usually on the chimney canal running through all of the barrack. Hundreds of prisoners would be watching that.”
Nazi monster and camp doctor Joseph Mengele was literally hopping mad, as Leszczyńska years later described only seeing his black boots jumping off the ground. “Befehl ist befehl” [an order is an order] he screamed.
Although the rules concerning instant death were relaxed a little, it was marginal. Jewish babies were still killed straight after birth and it was only non-Jewish mothers, mainly Poles and Soviet women, who were allowed to lay with their new-born babies.
These babies were sentenced to a slow, cruel death by lack of food as the weakened bodies of their mothers were unable to produce milk. The new mothers even had to trade their meagre bread ration for a bedsheet to use for bandages and swaddling.
Describing the conditions in the barracks, Leszczyńska, wrote in A Midwife’s Report from Auschwitz in 1957: “The vast numbers of worms of all kinds exploited their biological supremacy over the dwindling vitality of the humans.
“Not only the sick women but also the new-born babies fell victim to the endless onslaught launched by the rats and vermin. Death came quickly to these human bodies debilitated by hunger and cold, and tormented by their ordeals and diseases.
“The chief disease decimating the women was dysentery. Often their loose stools would drip down onto the bunks below them.”
According to Leszczyńska’s report, during the time she was incarcerated in Auschwitz II Birkenau she delivered 3,000 babies. She reported that 30 babies survived until the liberation of the death camp on 27 January 1945 by units of the Red Army, although other accounts suggest 60 babies were in the camp at liberation.
One of those was Zofia Wareluk, born on January 13, 1945, just days before the camp was liberated.
In a recent magazine interview she said: “Mama was already pregnant when she was taken to the camp. My cousin, who is no longer alive, remembered that when I was born my mother called to him and said: ‘Come and see my daughter.’
“After I was born I weighed only one and a half kilos, it's very little for a newborn baby. I was delivered by a midwife, Stanisława Leszczyńska. It was said that I was wrinkled like an old woman.
“I have never met her personally but my mum said she was a hero.”
Iga Bunalska from the Auschwitz Study Group told TFN: Stanisława Leszczyńska is very important in the history of Auschwitz for many reasons. One of them was the fact that female prisoners could trust her and that she would always help them in any way she could.
“Pregnancy in a concentration camp had to be terrifying and so was the camp itself, and Leszczyńska managed to look after all those women who were afraid. They could trust her. It was priceless in Auschwitz.”
Survivor Maria Oyrzyńska said simply “Where great people and adults ceased to be human beings, their hearts frozen by the desire to survive the camp, she, a tiny, weak woman, was the embodiment of good.”
Stanisława Leszczyńska managed to survive until the camp was liberated. She refused to go on the death march that saw up to 15,000 prisoners perish in temperatures of -20°C, and stayed in Birkenau to care for her patients.
The last baby she delivered was born in a burning barrack, which the Germans had set fire to in an attempt to hide their crimes. She eventually left the camp in February 1945 and returned to Łódź, where she worked as a midwife until the mid-1950s.
She died of intestinal cancer in 1974. In 1982, she was featured alongside Saint Jadwiga the Silesian, Queen Jadwiga and the blessed nun Teresa Ledóchowska on the Jasna Góra Goblet of Life, to honour great women of the previous millennium. Her beatification process was initiated in 1992.
The new film’s director, Stachurska, said: “Life is the greatest gift and we should fight for it in any situation. We all die, but what is important is how we live our lives, and that is what will take with us when we cross the finish line.
“My great-aunt used to say that for those people to do what they did they must have been pretty badly damaged. So, people of principle and values know how to control their emotions and not succumb to temptation.
“Such people don’t look out for their own wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of others. This is what my aunt did in her life.”
Currently in post-production the new documentary was produced in Łódź with filming also taking place in the nearby town of Skierniewice.
The film is due for release in the autumn.