Janina Kościuszkowa, MD, 1897–1974, Auschwitz‑Birkenau survivor, No. 36319, Flossenbürg survivor. Prisoner‑doctor in Montelupich prison (1943) and in Auschwitz-Birkenau (1943–1944). Witness in the Auschwitz trial (1947) and in the trial of Rudolf Höss (1946–1947).
This is one of the earliest studies on the situation of children in concentration camps, produced by a prisoner-doctor and a first-hand witness of the phenomena described in the article. For more contemporary perspectives on pregnancy, childbirth, and children in the context of the Holocaust, readears might be interested in two papers delivered at the 3rd international conference Medical Review Auschwitz: Medicine Behind the Barbed Wire (2021): “Childbirth in Stutthof concentration camp” by Agnieszka Kłys and “Pediatrics in the Warsaw Ghetto” by Agnieszka Witkowska-Krych—Editor’s note.
The children of Auschwitz concentration camp have to be divided into four groups:
- Children burned to death immediately on arrival.
- Children killed in their mothers’ wombs or as soon as they were born.
- Children born in the camp and allowed to live.
- Children deported to the camp as prisoners.
1. Transports to Auschwitz included between ten and twenty children who were murdered immediately on arrival. If a mother had a child in her arms during the selection, both were sent to the crematorium even if the mother was young and looked healthy. If a grandmother carried her grandchild, she was sent to the gas, while the child’s mother became a camp prisoner.
In 1944 tens of thousands of children arrived from Hungary. All of them were killed.
At midday one day in July a train packed with young children was slowly passing the ramp next to the barbed wire of the hospital blocks. The doors of the train were not closed. The children looked at us curiously. They were glad to have the dark, stuffy carriages open at last. Two hours later the crematoria sent up their smoke. By that time the children were dead.
2. In the initial period, all pregnant women without exception were sent to the gas chambers. By 1943 they were permitted to deliver their babies, but the new‑born had no right to live. A midwife drowned the neonates in a barrel of water and then burnt them in the block’s heating stove. At least the mothers were saved. Experiencing the shock of labour and suffering from the severe camp conditions, they were generally not aware of what had happened.
It was harder when a mother knew that her baby would be taken away from her, but at least she was lucky to keep her child after birth. However, after a five‑month fight for her child’s survival she was commanded to bring it and watch it being killed. I remember one mother who hugged her little son and accompanied him to the crematorium.
One train brought about a hundred pregnant women. They were brought to the camp hospital and regardless of the term of their pregnancy all of them had their uterus perforated. Many lost their lives as a result.
3. In the next period, neonates were not killed, but the extremely hard living conditions decimated them. The amount of space assigned to a mother was limited to a place in a three-storey bunk. Half of the barrack was used to accommodate about 100 mothers and their children. New-born babies had their prison numbers tattooed on the thigh, and once they were true Häftlinge (prisoners) they received food rations. However, they were not given any nappies or baby‑clothes. Only thanks to other female prisoners who worked in the storehouses and risked being beaten or locked up in the bunker, did a mother’s friends “manage” to supply her with material for smocks, nappies, etc.
Water and vitamin shortage reaped a terrible harvest among the children. In autumn most of them contracted pneumonia and died.
In 1944 the Jewish babies were not killed straight after birth. However, one day there was news that mothers with babies would be sent to the gas. Indeed, the babies were exterminated and their mothers were immediately discharged from the hospital and sent to the camp. The following day Katarzyna Ł., one of the inmates, found two live babies in the blankets. Those two lives were saved.
4. At the turn of 1943/44 a block was set up for mothers and children who had arrived from the Vitebsk region and Dnipropetrovsk. One day there was news that those children would be moved to another camp, of course without their mothers. Shouting, crying and banging heads against the wall was useless. The children were transported to an unknown destination.
Mass transports from the Zamość region included lots of children. Some of them died of hunger. Many were gassed. Only about a dozen survived.
The Roma children endured the camp conditions better. They had been inured to the conditions and were not separated from their mothers. Yet fate did not treat them kindly, either. They got sick, diagnosed with noma, and consequently, hundreds of them were sent to the gas. The remaining children were killed, together with their parents, in the summer of 1944. I recollect the Blocksperrea in the evening. We could hear the terrible cries and shouts of the large group of those who were being sent to death.
The Romani camp ceased to exit. Late July 1944, and we thought we would be going home. August came. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, trainloads started to arrive from Warsawb —old women and babies, children and adults.
And again, the children were taken from their mothers. Two blocks were set up; they were the worst ones, brickwork. Three hundred children were accommodated in each block, ten on a bunk; so many of them that it was dark inside. Dirty, hungry, poorly clothed, devastated by their experiences from the Warsaw Uprising and several days on the deportation train, they fell sick: pneumonia, scarlet fever, diphtheria. A small hospital ward (2 m x 3 m) was arranged: two three‑storey bunks with three or four children in each.
As the number of the sick children increased they were accommodated in the hospital block for adults. There were no bedsheets, nowhere to wash the laundry; no baby clothes and warm garments. Our efforts would have been futile if it were not for the inmates’ help. They brought us whatever they could, not only clothes; they could bring a bucket of nourishing soup or fruit and vegetables that they had “managed” to get working outside the camp.
We had no medications. The camp’s standard ration did not even cover 10% of the needs. We received help from the male prisoners. But we were harassed by Dr Mengele, who maliciously deprived us of any surplus we managed to get. I was often summoned to outpatients to take the seriously sick babies away. I put them in the care of the convalescing women, since it was the only way I could offer these children better conditions. The symbolic Dagenan pills would not have saved them if it had not been for the generous help from their older fellow‑sufferers.
Another sad and difficult problem was when it came to separating the TB mothers from their children. Children frequently “patronised” their mothers and grandmothers so that they could be placed in the hospital blocks. Naturally, we could not refuse them this favour. If we could, we let children stay with their families. Finally, it was painful to see the children being abducted to Germany.
SS‑men selected the Aryan‑looking, blue‑eyed babies and immediately sent them to the quarantine blocks. We tried to get the babies back by diagnosing them with whooping cough or awful infectious rashes by skilfully placing shreds of Rigolo plaster on the child’s skin. Dr Mengele could not be taken in by any fever, but he was panically afraid of rashes, and to our joy, he sent these babies back.
Unfortunately, some of the children who survived the camp did not recover fully: they died from tuberculosis or their weak bodies succumbed to apparently banal infections.
Today when we meet the child survivors, who are adults now, we give them a warm, family welcome.
Translated from the original article: Kościuszkowa, J. Losy dzieci w obozie koncentracyjnym w Oświęcimiu. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1961.
a. Blocksperre—the barrack was closed and no one was allowed to leave it.
b. When the Warsaw Uprising broke out in August 1944 the Germans deported large numbers of the city’s population to concentration camps.