The incredible report of a midwife who lived through Auschwitz
Stanisława Leszczyńska, a midwife from Poland, spent two years until 26th January 1945 living and working in the Auschwitz camp. It was only in 1965 that she wrote the following account of her experiences.
’In my 35 years of work as a midwife, I spend two years as a midwife-prisoner in a women’s concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among the many transports that arrived at the camp were lots of pregnant women. I was assigned the position of a midwife for three separate barracks, which were similar in a structure and design, except for one of them, which had a brick floor — an element that was missing in other barracks. These barracks were approximately 120 feet long; they were made of wood planks, with many holes bitten through by rats.
Inside the barrack, on each side, there were three-level bunk beds. In every bed, on a
dirty, thin mattress made of hay, with dried blood and human waste, there were three or four sick women. It was very crowded. The women had to keep their legs outside the bed or move their legs under their chins to fit in their cramped space. It was also hard, because the old hay was crushed into dust inside the thin mattresses. The sick women slept on almost plain planks,which were not even smooth, since they came from parts of doors or blinds ripped from old buildings, with various parts sticking painfully into bodies.
In the middle of the barrack there was a brick furnace in the shape of a canal, with fire at
both ends. It was the only location where women delivered children. There was nothing
else, even temporarily, allocated for this function.
The fire in the furnace burned only a few times a year. That’s why, especially
during winter, it was extremely cold. Every day we saw long icicles hanging from
the roof of the barrack.
I was the only one who could bring water for a newborn baby and its mother. It took me about 20 minutes to bring one bucket of water.
The situation of pregnant women in these conditions was hopeless, and the work of a
midwife was very difficult. There were no antiseptics, there was nothing to dress the wounds with, and there were no drugs. The entire drug assignment for all those sick women was a few tables of aspirin a day.
In the beginning, I was alone in my work. In difficult situations, when a specialist doctor
was necessary, I had to handle it myself. The German camp doctors, Rhode, Koenig and Mengele could not ’lower’ themselves to treat non-Germans, so I had no right to ask for
their assistance. Later, I was helped several times by a doctor working at another barrack
who was totally devoted to her patients, Janina Wegierska. Later on I was helped by a good
polish doctor called Irena Konieczna.
There was a time when I got sick with typhus. Doctor Irena Bialowna took over my
duties and cared for me and my patients. I cannot describe the work of the doctors in Auschwitz, because I am not capable of describing their humanity, their sense of duty, and their heroic work. Their humanity and the risks they took is frozen in the eyes of prisoners, who, tortured and starved, will never speak again. The doctors fought for lost lives; for hopeless lives they risked their own life. They had a few aspirin tablets and a huge heart. The doctor in those conditions worked not for glory, prestige, or to satisfy their ambitions. All of these reasons were gone. The only one left was a doctor’s duty to save lives in each and every case, which was enhanced by a feeling of sorrow toward their patients.
The number of deliveries which I assisted with was over 3,000. In the middle of incredible filth, bugs of all sort, rats and infectious diseases, a lack of water, and other terrible things which I do not know how to describe, there was something unusual happening there.
One time, Lagerarzt asked me to prepare statistics about infections during deliveries
and the death rate for infants and mothers. I answered him that I had never had a single
case of death either for newborns or for mothers. Lagerarzt looked at me in disbelief.
Even the most sophisticated German clinics at universities, he said, could not claim such a success rate. In his eyes I saw hate and jealousy. It is quite possible that such exhausted organisms were too sterile for bacteria to feed on.
A woman in the last stages of pregnancy was forced to save her portions of bread, for
which she could ’buy’ a bed cover. She would tear it into strips, getting diapers and
clothes ready for the infant, since there was nothing available for the infant. There was
no water in the barrack, so washing diapers was very difficult. There was a strict order
against leaving the barrack. Moving around the barrack was also forbidden. Women
dried washed diapers on their backs or legs. Putting them out to dry in the open was not
allowed and could be prosecuted by death. For normal newborns there was no food
allowed, not even a drop of milk.
Until May 1943, all babies born in the Auschwitz concentration camp were murdered in
the most brutal way: they were drowned in a barrel. It was done by Sister Klara and
Sister Pfani. The first one was a midwife herself, and came to the camp because she
murdered a child. When I took over the duties of a midwife, she was forbidden to
continue her work, because she lost the right of performing her job. She was moved to things she was much better at. She become a ’kapo,’ in charge of the barrack. There was a girl helping her, a redhead prostitute, Sister Pfani. After each delivery there was a long sound of splashing water coming from their room. Soon after that a new mother could see her baby being thrown in front of a barrack and ripped apart by rats.
In May 1943 the situation for some children changed. Children with blue eyes and blond hair were taken from their mothers and send to Germany to be Germanized. The overwhelming screams of the mothers accompanied the departing of each transport of newborns. As long as a newborn was together with the mother, motherhood itself created a ray of hope. Separation with the newborn was overwhelming.
Jewish children were still drowned in the most brutal fashion. There was no way to hide a Jewish child or put him or her among other children. Sister Klara and Sister Pfani observed Jewish mothers very closely during the delivery. The newborn was tattooed with the number of the mother; afterwards Klara and Pfani drowned the child in the barrel and threw the body outside.
The life of other children was the worst; they died from slow starvation. Their skin becomes thin and transparent, with muscles, blood vessels and bones seen through the skin. Newborn Russians survived the longest. Fifty percent of all women were from Russia.
The most vivid tragedy in my mind was the story of a woman from Vilnius, send to Auschwitz for taking part in the underground movement. Immediately after the delivery, her
number was called, since the prisoners were called by their number. I went to excuse her, but it did not help — it only increased the anger of the officer. I realized she was being called to the gas chamber. She covered the newborn in some dirty paper and hugged the baby to her chest. Her lips started to move as if she wanted to sing a song, as many mothers did, trying to make up for cold and hunger, for the conditions of their life. She could not do that, she did not make any sound...only huge tears were flowing from her eyes, through her white face, and falling on the head of a small prisoner on his way to a death sentence. What was more tragic, the simultaneous death of two closest beings, or witnessing the death of her own newborn by the mother, or the realization of leaving another child without any protection in this world; it is difficult to know.
Among those horrible memories there is one main thought that comes back to me all the time. All children were born alive. Their goal was to stay alive! Only 30 of them survived the camp. Several hundred children were sent to Germany to grow up as Germans, more than 1,500 were drowned by Sisters Klara and Pfani, and more than 1,000 children died because of cold and starvation (these numbers do not include the period up to April 1943).
I have never had an opportunity to present this report to the Department of Health. I am doing it now in memory of these who never had a chance to talk about the injustices. I am doing this in memory of the mothers and their children.
If tendencies which go against life itself ever appear in my homeland, regardless of the sad experience of war, then I know that we can rely on all the midwives, all the real mothers and fathers, all the decent citizens out there to stand up for every individual’s right to life and especially for the rights of children.
Despite the conditions, all the children born in the concentration camp were alive and healthy at the moment of their birth. Nature, in opposition to hatred, struggled for its rights stubbornly, finding incalculable resources to oppose darkness. 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.’
A monument to Stanisława Leszczyńska in the Church of St. Anne, near Warsaw.