Stanisław Kłodziński, MD, 1918–1995, lung specialist, Department of Pneumology, Academy of Medicine in Kraków. Co‑editor of Medical Review – Auschwitz. Former prisoner of the Auschwitz‑Birkenau concentration camp No. 20019.
Auschwitz survivor and midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska died in Łódź on 11 March 1974. The English translation of her moving and shocking “Midwife’s report from Auschwitz” is on this website (see here). Highly commended by Professor J. Bogusz, the report drew the attention of readers to this modest, noble and dedicated woman, now forgotten, who even in the most difficult conditions of the Birkenau “maternity ward” managed to preserve the dignity of her profession, and her attitude helped other prisoners to keep up their spirits. The report was later used in the script of a dramatic performance (Nowak) and staged many times.a Entitled Oratorium oświęcimskie (Auschwitz oratory), it told the poignant story of pregnant women prisoners and their newborn babies, reviving interest in the issue.
Stanisława Leszczyńska was born on 8 May 1896 in Łódź.b Her father served in the Russian army, and her mother was a blue‑collar worker in Poznański’s factory in Łódź. As a child her schooling was intermittent, only later could she regularly attend Wacław Maciejewski’s private school. In 1908 she and her parents emigrated to Brazil; there for two years she attended a school in Rio de Janeiro, where the languages of instruction were German and Portuguese. The family returned to Poland in 1910 and Leszczyńska ended up in the same school again. After graduating, in 1914–1916 she worked for a poverty relief committee, and helped her mother bring up her two younger brothers, Henryk and Jan. In 1920, as a married woman, she completed a two‑year midwife’s course at an obstetrics college (Państwowa Szkoła Położnicza) on the Karowa in Warsaw, and then started work as a midwife, the profession in which she would spend her entire working life. She loved her profession and often worked for as much as three days with hardly any sleep. She brought up and educated three sons and a daughter. In her biography she emphasized she had always been strongly religious and her faith gave her the motivation to overcome various difficulties in her life and work.
In February 1943 the Gestapo arrested Leszczyńska along with two of her sons and her daughter, on suspicion that the family had provided assistance to persons who were on the Gestapo’s wanted list. Stanisława’s husband Bronisław was a typesetter in the Kotkowski printing house in Łódź, and had forged documents these people needed to escape their pursuers. Stanisława and her daughter Sylwia, a medical student, were sent to Auschwitz‑Birkenau, while her two sons, Henryk and Stanisław, ended up in the stone quarries of Mauthausen‑Gusen concentration camp. Her husband managed to flee the Gestapo, but died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
The next part of the life of prisoner no. 41355, midwife Stanisława Leszczyńska, can be reconstructed from numerous women survivors’ accounts; she was very restrained in what she wrote about herself, describing primarily the situation in Birkenau and the tragic fate of mothers and infants. And so one of the reports sent to us is a letter from Auschwitz survivor Zofia Raczyńska (no. 35167), a pharmacist, who writes that the maternity ward was originally located in Block 16 in Birkenau, and then moved to Block 17. Leszczyńska and her daughter Sylwia were sent to work there. And right away they found themselves in horrific conditions. Raczyńska adds that the nightmare of giving birth to children in the camp left an indelible impression on the prisoners. “I remember prison numbers being tattooed on their delicate little bodies, only to send them to be gassed next day or to condemn to death by starvation.”c
Another Birkenau survivor, Maria Ślisz‑Oyrzyńska (no. 40275), recalls that she first met Leszczyńska in the summer of 1943 in Block 17 (section A).d This was a new hospital block which Mengele gave the grandiose name of the Erholungsblock (the recovery block). In fact, at that time it housed female prisoners infected with typhoid fever, epidemic typhus, pemphigus, and malaria. And children had to be born in these conditions. Leszczyńska was employed there as a midwife; for young prisoners she was a role model, the embodiment of goodness and patience, their mainstay at a time of mental crisis, although she was slight, slender, and weak herself. Survivors characterize her as a fellow companion in their plight—calm, hard‑working, kind, serene, smiling, very modest, deeply religious. She is described in the same way by her daughter Sylwia.
Survivor Janina Strąk reports that Leszczyńska was highly creative in finding and “organizing” makeshift solutions to supply the necessities for mothers and their infants. The very basic things had to be obtained, from boiled water, herbs for bathing and drinking, rags for diapers, cellulose fiber tissue, bandages, and cotton wool, to bowls, blankets, etc.e
As Maria Ślisz‑Oyrzyńska’s report says quite clearly, in such difficult conditions Leszczyńska was able to deliver babies in the Birkenau barracks in the most difficult of circumstances, which have been described in numerous accounts. She was an excellent, experienced, and responsible professional. The children she brought into the world were live births, as if in defiance of the purpose of the camp, with no complications, no postpartum fever, no infections. What is more, working day and night without rest, Leszczyńska delivered hundreds of babies, and it is now impossible to establish their exact number.
Ślisz‑Oyrzyńska reports that Leszczyńska had a remarkable, special gift of calming down terrified mothers. She managed, even though surrounded by filth, turmoil, disease, rats, lice, shortage of water, in hunger and cold. All she had at her disposal was a small pair of scissors like the ones used to remove cuticles, a kidney basin with a solution of potassium permanganate, a very limited amount of cellulose fiber tissue, some bandage to tie the umbilical cord, and a bowl of water to wash the neonate and the mother. Having wrapped the infant up after the delivery, Leszczyńska always baptized it with water or a herbal brew; the ritual, accompanied by the naming of the newborn prisoner, reminded the mother of the deeply entrenched tradition of the first Christians in the catacombs. In the hell of Birkenau, the ritual also had a psychotherapeutic role. No wonder that it stuck in the memory of many female prisoners who were asked to write the reports which made this article possible.
Dr Elżbieta Pawłowska, another survivor, made a tape recording in which she emphasized Leszczyńska’s easy penchant for serenity even in the terribly noisy sick barrack in Birkenau.f She recognized the soothing influence a quiet moment of respite had on the women. To achieve that effect she used to recite a prayer or sing a hymn that other women picked up, which brought a sense of relaxation. In this way she obtained the required atmosphere so much needed amid the incessant tension and fear. She stayed calm herself and never raised her voice, so women in labor liked and trusted her fully, and felt more secure.
Jewish infants born in Birkenau were in the direst situation, since camp regulations said their umbilical cords were not to be cut and tied, and as soon as they were born they were to be thrown into the “shit‑bins,” along with their placenta. Leszczyńska deliberately ignored this rule, in spite of the fact that its violation was punishable by death. She regularly delivered the babies of Jewish prisoners, baptized them too and gave the infants back to the mothers. However, they died of starvation, since the mothers were not allowed to breastfeed them, and most often they did not even have the milk.
You can imagine that the nightmare in the blocks where children were born was even greater than what you learn from the shocking descriptions in the Auschwitz literature. Certainly much worse things happened there than survivors’ memories can convey. One testimony to the horror is the brief comment by Professor Janina Kotarbińska, a Birkenau survivor who describes “how some mothers killed their infants soon after delivery, for fear that both the children and themselves would ‘go up the chimney’g . . .” They did not feed their children and they wrapped them up for the night in a blanket, pulling it over their heads. “In my mind’s eye I can still see the manic stare of the mothers and the quiet, subdued, weaker and weaker crying or rather squeaking of the little ones.” It was the camp regime that drove the unfortunate women to such extreme desperation. In such situations, Leszczyńska was able to restore at least an illusory faith in many of the prisoners, so the tragic life of these women and their infants could be prolonged for at least some time.
Leszczyńska tried as if not to notice these tragic, desperate deeds. On the contrary, she focused her attention and hope on those elements of life and courage still in the camp. In one of her written testimoniesh she pointed out that the mothers were full of fear for their children’s fate, but they always kept hoping they would manage to save them, and refused to think that their child could die.
Leszczyńska’s situation in the camp is known from her “Midwife’s report from Auschwitz.” I should add a remark from her short biography on the source of her strength to survive the camp. She empathized with other prisoners, she loved them and, as she writes, “this is what made me stronger every day and every night I spent on strenuous work, the toil and sacrifice being just an expression of my love for the little children and their mothers, whose lives I tried to save at all cost. Otherwise, I would not have been able to survive.” (Leszczyńska, 1973)
This is how Dr Janina Węgierska‑Paradecka, another survivor, remembered Leszczyńska: “She was always in a hurry, she never had time to chat, she was . . . quiet, calm, non‑confrontational and clever, since she was able to conceal quite a few things from the Lagerarzt or the SS‑men. I have no idea how she managed that. . . . She was the embodiment of peace and composure; if she changed the tone of her voice, it was only for a very brief moment . . . she gave the impression of a tender, caring mother.”i
Maria Ślisz‑Oyrzyńska wrote in her report that Leszczyńska was respected by all, to such an extent that even the block leader, a Yugoslav woman whose approval it was difficult to win, liked and respected her. Her professional skills were recognized in the camp and she was called to deliveries which took place sporadically and clandestinely, in the residential blocks—she came without hesitation every time.
Having survived the camp, Leszczyńska continued to work as a midwife until 1958, in spite of her ruined health. She retired because of her advanced age and deteriorating health, but continued to look after her family.
Dr Jadwiga Węgierska‑Paradecka wrote the following about Stanisława Leszczyńska’s funeral: “It was a manifestation, the public farewell to a person who was of slight build, modest in her conduct and the way she dressed, yet symbolically such a giant, completely devoted to the service of her fellow human beings and to Poland. . . . She had the courage to defy the orders of Nazi criminals to help those of her fellow‑prisoners survive whose lives were in jeopardy and who had also lost their greatest treasure—their child. The mourners who came to pay their last respects included some whom she had saved from imminent death in Auschwitz.”j
Translated and adapted from the original article: Kłodziński, S. Stanisława Leszczyńska. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1975.
a. The premiere took place on 24 January 1970 (performers: D. Michałowska, D. Alczewska‑Klus; stage set: K. Wiśniak; director: M. Szczerski; music: J. Maksymiuk; song composer: A. German; musical arrangement: M. Argis; staged by Estrada krakowska). The subsequent performances of the Oratorio were frequently reviewed in the press.
b. Stanisława Leszczyńska’s personal data come from a short biography she wrote on 26 June 1973.
c. From Z. Raczyńska’s letter of 2 May 1974 to me.
d. Written report by M. Ślisz‑Oyrzyńska, sent to me on 18 April 1974.
e. From an undated letter to H. Leszczyński.
f. The tape recording of the conversation concerning S. Leszczyńska in April 1974, in which Dr E. Pawłowska, her family, and the sons of the late midwife took part.
g. In her letter of 26 April 1974 to me.
h. In her letter of 5 July 1972 to A. Kulisiewicz.
i. Tape recording of the conversation with Dr J. Węgierska‑Paradecka in which S. Leszczyńska‑Gross and B. Leszczyński also took part.
j. From the letter of J. Węgierska-Paradecka of 29 April 1974 to me.
References1. Bogusz, J. Słowo wstępne. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1965: 7–8.
2. Letters: S. Leszczyńska to A. Kulisiewicz, 5 July 1972; J. Kotarbińska to S. Kłodziński, 26 April 1974; J. Węgierska‑Paradecka to S. Kłodziński, 29 April 1974; Z. Raczyńska to S. Kłodziński, 2 May 1974; J. Strąk to H. Leszczyński (undated).
3. Leszczyńska, S. Raport położnej z Oświęcimia. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1965: 104–106. On this website: A Midwife’s report from Auschwitz. Also in Rawicz, J. et al. (eds.).Okupacja i medycyna. Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza; 1971: 162–166.
4. Leszczyńska, S. Unpublished biographical note (in Polish); 1973.
5. Nowak, A. Oratorium oświęcimskie. Rapsod teatralny. Warszawa, Pax; 1970.
6. Press reviews of Oratorium oświęcimskie. Rapsod teatralny: Kurier Polski; 1970: 31; Słowo Powszechne; 1970: 42; Dziennik Łódzki; 1970: 8.
7. Survivor’s report: M. Ślisz-Oyrzyńska for S. Kłodziński, 18 April 1974.
8. Tape recordings: Conversation between the families of E. Pawłowska and Stanisława Leszczyńska; Conversation between J. Węgierska‑Paradecka, S. Leszczyńska‑Gross, and B. Leszczyński.