Thursday, February 25, 2016

Stanislawa Leszczynska

Most of our Badass Chicks of History have been fighters, driven to violence to achieve their ends. You don't have to be a "hero" to be a "badass." This time, let's look at someone who instead of defending cities under siege, spying, or dressing as men to join wars, was a badass for delivering babies. What's so badass about that? Read on.

There are numerous people the Catholic Church is officially considering for sainthood. One who should certainly make the cut is Stanislawa Leszczynksa, who delivered some 3,000 babies during World War II at the Nazi concentration camp is Auschwitz. She's one of many individual Catholics who risked their lives to stand up to the world's greatest villains. Any unbiased reading of history proves Pope Pius XII did very little to help those persecuted by the Nazis, and his cowardly failure to publicly denounce the so-called "Final Solution" should be a source of shame to Catholics to this day. At the same time, the heroism of Catholics like Stanislawa should be a source of immense pride, and proof that good can triumph over evil - even when evil carries a badge and a gun.

Stanislaw was born in the late 1890s in Vistula Land, better known as Polish Russia. Her father was drafted in to the Imperial Army of the Tsars, and was sent off to fight the Turks. Meanwhile, her mother worked brutal hours at a factory so she could afford to send Stanislawa to a private school. When her father returned from the army, he moved the family to Brazil, where he hoped to find better economic opportunities. Apparently it didn't work out - the family moved back two years later. In retrospect, they probably wished they hadn't. But if they hadn't, at least 30 people still alive today would never have been born, or died soon after.

When World War I broke out, her father was drafted again. During the war Stanislawa met a handsome man who ran a print shop, Branislawa. They married and had four children (three sons and a daughter). Not content to sit at home, Stanislawa continued her education, graduating with top academic honors from a college for midwives in 1922. These skills served her well.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the family found themselves in the middle of the Jewish Ghetto. Stanislawa's family were Catholics, but the ghetto was established around their neighborhood. Defying not only the Nazis, but the general anti-Semitic feeling of the time, the family took great risks to help their Jewish friends. This included everything from smuggling food and medical supplies into the ghetto, to printing forged documents to help Jews leave Europe. Unfortunately, Stanislawa was caught in a sting operation mounted by the Gestapo. She was immediately arrested, along with her daughter and two youngest sons. Bronislawa and their eldest son were away at the time, and escaped arrest (she never saw her husband again - he died in the Warsaw Uprising some years later). Her two young sons were sent to work as slaves in stone quarries, while Stanislawa and her daughter (now 24) were sent to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. Stanislawa's camp tattoo was "41335," and she wore it for the rest of her life.

Stanislawa was stripped, shaved, and given only two left-foot slippers and lice-ridden underwear for clothing. Undaunted, she almost immediately began breaking the rules. Having concealed her midwife license, she stopped a camp guard and showed it to him - that in itself was against the rules, and took much courage. She was referred to the camp physician - the infamously vile Dr. Josef Mengele. He assigned her to the "sick ward," a 120-foot-long building crammed with some 1,200 ailing prisoners. About a dozen people died every single day. It was heated by a single brick stove that was lighted only a few times a year. Mengele used prisoners who were physicians to care for sick prisoners, because he did not want Nazi doctors polluted with the blood of inferior races. He assigned Stanislawa to work as a midwife. Even then, when he ordered her to declare every baby "stillborn" and to drown them, she flat-out refused right to his face. It's a wonder Mengele didn't order her killed right then and there. Why he didn't, we'll never know.

We're almost forced to conclude that Mengele had some measure of respect for her skill. He didn't expect any babies to survive full-term, and was astounded that Stanislaw, in such horrid conditions, with no medicine, in freezing cold, could boast a better record of healthy births than even well-funded German hospitals of the time. It behooved him to have her handy, because any babies born with blue eyes (or were otherwise appropriately "Aryan-looking") were taken from their mothers and given to childless Nazi couples. Once, he joked with Stanislawa that under different circumstances, she would be making so much money as a midwife she could "stand for beer" for the whole camp (that is, buy all the guards a beer). Mengele even said to other officers, on the record, that Stanislawa was "the personification of hope" for the inmates. Lest he seem too friendly, though, let's remind ourselves he was one of the most sadistic butchers of all time.

For example, even though Mengele didn't kill Stanislawa for defying his orders to murder babies, he did have his subordinates viciously beat her to break her resolve. It didn't work. In the end, he directed a child-murderer who happened to be a prisoner to drown all non-Aryan-looking newborns in a barrel of water. This prisoner, known only to history as "Klara," was aided in her baby-killing by a redheaded prostitute named Pfani. But what they didn't know was that Stanislawa was actually managing to hide babies from them.

Some 3,000 children were born on Stanislawa's watch. Of those, 2,500 were either discovered and killed, or died from freezing or starvation. Only about 30 lived through the war and grew to adulthood - and most are still alive. The "Aryan" babies who were allowed to live and were taken from their mothers, Stanislawa marked with a secret tattoo, in the desperate hope that maybe, after the war, the mothers could find their lost children. When mothers couldn't breast-feed their babies due to malnutrition and ill health, she did the best she could to round up wet-nurses. Not once was she ever reported by another prisoner hoping for better treatment or a reward from the camp guards. If that's not a ringing endorsement of the bravery of the entire sick ward, I don't know what is.

The vast majority of the babies were Jewish, but Stanislawa secretly baptized every single one as a Catholic. Under normal circumstances this would be rude to say the least, but in this case I think we can overlook it. Stansislawa's faith is probably what kept her going. Over and over, she attributed the birth of the healthy babies to the direct intervention of God. She also provided hope and comfort for prisoners of all races and religions, organizing very quiet prayer meetings attended by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike.

"She stayed up every night, hardly ever sleeping," said one survivor, Maria Salomon, whose daughter, Liz, was delivered and successfully hidden by Stanislawa. "She was able to create a peaceful atmosphere in a terrible place. My Liz owes her life to Stanislawa Leszczynska. I cannot think of her without tears coming to my eyes."

Liz and Maria were members of a lucky few who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. So were Stanislawa, her daughter, and her two sons who'd been captured. When the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, she quietly returned to her home in Lodz, where, amazingly, her entire family was reunited, minus Branislawa. She continued working as a midwife until her retirement in the 1950s.

Stanislawa was taciturn about her experiences at Auschwitz. Understandably, she didn't like to talk about it. But in 1970, the Polish government honored her at long last, and she shared part of her story. At the celebration, she was moved to tears when some 30 of the children she'd delivered - adults by then - sang to her a lullaby she used to sing to babies at Auschwitz. The local obstetrician's college was named in her honor. Stanislawa died soon after in 1974.

So while the image of a "badass" often conjures up fists, blades, and guns, I can't think of anyone more badass than a women who managed to stand up to Dr. Mengele and get away with it, who was a beacon of comfort and hope in conditions that are as close to Hell as Earth has ever been, who had the courage, the skill and the wherewithal to not only deliver, but successfully hide, precious babies from the worst villains the world has ever known. When I think of some of the jackasses, butchers, and madmen that have achieved sainthood, to deny this role to Stanislawa would be nothing short of spiritually criminal.

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