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Modern Day Saints
1896 – 1974
One of the least-known stories of World War ll is that of Stanisława Leszczynska, the Polish nurse who became a midwife in Auschwitz. Stanisława was born into a devout Catholic family on May 8, 1896, in Lódź and was the oldest of three children. She was by all accounts a lively, warm woman who loved her family, music and socializing with friends. Her father was conscripted to the Russian army and was sent to Turkistan for five years.
In 1916, she married Bronislaw Leszczyńsky and during the years of the first world war both were involved in a Polish committee giving aid to those in need. After the war Stanisława began a nursing and midwifery course in Warsaw which she completed in 1922. She was happily married and truly loved her profession, loved children, having four of her own, three boys and one girl.
The family lived in a simple house in the Jewish quarter of Lódź, and Stanisława was on call at all times of the night and day to assist women giving birth in an era when this task was mainly performed by midwives. From the outset she saw her work in a spiritual light, praying for each mother and child. She often said “Come quickly, Virgin Mary, even if you only have one slipper on” as she went to assist women who called on her. This referred to the time when Stanisława herself had to rush to a woman's bedside and somehow lost one of her shoes on the way.
Stanislawa and her husband became involved with working for the Polish underground, a resistance movement spanning the entire country. Her husband was adept at creating new documents of those trying to escape the Nazis. Eventually, however, the entire family was caught in 1943 by the Gestapo. In the confusion of the arrest, one of Stanisława's sons shouted and created a diversion, giving the chance for her husband and another son to escape. The two remaining sons were sent to Mauthausen concentration camp.
Stanisława found herself being transported to Auschwitz on a crowded train on April 17, 1943, together with her daughter Sylvia. On arrival in Auschwitz she saw the illness and misery that surrounded her. She had only one hope: that they would survive. She saw large rats that attacked the sick and dying women lying on wooden racks, the random cruelty of the guards and the transports destined for the gas chambers.
Soon after she arrived, however, Stanislawa began to realize that her particular set of skills as a midwife might be her saving grace. The women's barracks at Auschwitz weren't set up for even basic medical care - let alone caring for pregnant women and their babies. She let it be known that she was a midwife, and was assigned to what was called “the sick ward.” This consisted of a 40-meter long, bare, wooden barracks with a single large brick stove which was seldom lit. The unlit stove was often used as the delivery table. And in order to obtain a sheet to make diapers and a bit of covering for the baby, a woman had to give up her bread ration for a time -- great sacrifice for an already famished woman. Three layers of bunks lined two walls. Since the barracks were located in a low-lying area, the floor was often flooded with 2 or 3 inches of water. The thirty bunks nearest the stove constituted the so-called “maternity ward.”
Sickness abounded -- dysentery, typhoid, etc. -- well as vermin, lice, and rats. The diet consisted of boiled rotten greens and bread. There was no running water, no antiseptics, no dressings, and except for a few aspirins, no medicine.
The Nazis assumed the babies would never survive to term -- let alone labor and delivery, but when they acquired Stanislawa's progress reports they realized that she had not lost a single baby -- or mother -- since she had begun practicing midwifery in the camp. They were immediately incredulous, and instructed her to drown the newborns in a barrel in the barracks. She refused, and risked her life by doing so. Instead, the task was given to an imprisoned German midwife who had been convicted of infanticide.
The camp doctor, however, was none other than the infamous Dr. Mengele who had told Stanisława to stand in as a midwife. Mengele ordered her to kill each child after he/she was born. Stanisława, who was of short of stature, looked at Mengele and said that she would not kill anyone as it is wrong to kill -- which roused Mengele to yell furiously “An order is an order!” She could have been killed on the spot by Mengele’s guards for this, but for some unaccountable reason was not -- perhaps because she was useful for a while longer in the camp.
What happened, however, was German “nurses” were appointed to take the Jewish children from the women who had just given birth and either drown them or take them to the gas chambers. And this they did.
After 1943, this policy changed slightly, and some blond, blue-eyed babies were sent to a center for adoption by German parents or to an orphanage. As Stanislawa continued to successfully bring thousands of babies into the world despite the camp's treacherous conditions, the Nazis began to take any children born with Aryan features, sending them to orphanages to be adopted by German families. When a baby was scheduled to be sent for adoption, Stanislawa tattooed a sign on the child in some obscure way, so that the mother, if she survived the camp, would eventually be able to identify and claim it. This brought some hope and consolation to the bereaved mother.
Stanislawa claimed every child for Jesus and his Kingdom. When a baby was born, one of the first things she would do was to baptize it. Above all things, it was her faith that sustained her, and this she always tried to impart to others. So often the “glory” of our own efforts to surrender to our “duty” is totally hidden from our eyes. But here is a blazing example of the light one human being can cast in the midst of great darkness.
On being released from Auschwitz Stanisława learned that her husband had died fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. She later learned that her sons had survived their concentration camp, and the remaining family members were reunited in Poland.
It was many years before Stanisława could speak of her experiences in Auschwitz, and she focused on the education and upbringing of her children in now Soviet Poland. Only 30 out of the 3,000 survived in the camp itself -- with extraordinary odds against them. Once at a function to honor her, a small group of the surviving babies delivered at Auschwitz came up to Stanisława as young adults with tears in their eyes; neither she nor they being able to utter a word -- the children, fully aware of the horrendous odds against their survival, Stanisława full of emotion at seeing some of the pitifully few children who survived being born in a concentration camp.
Stanislawa’s story is arguably the most miraculous account from the Holocaust's history. As she spoke about her time at Auschwitz upon her retirement, she concluded her story by saying that even though many of the 3,000 babies born in the camp perished at the hands of the Nazis, either directly through murder or indirectly through malnourishment, she was proud to say that every single one of them had been born alive and into her waiting, loving hands.
Stanislawa Leszczynska is under study for canonization.
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