In Southern Poland, about 40 minutes from Kraków, there is a long concrete slab in a horse stables, upon which it is estimated that 700 women gave birth. Yet this was no medieval maternity ward, as I found when I visited Auschwitz in 2010. This was a death camp. Bringing new life into the world wasn't in the Nazi playbook, yet countless brave Jewish mothers survived just long enough to defy them. The very idea that women could even carry a baby to term in this most trying of circumstances, seems almost unfathamable.
Now Wendy Holden has written about three of these women, and her interview with BBC History Magazine reveals some startling evidence of the brutality they could expect to face if found pregnant, and the struggle they endured to keep themselves and their babies alive. Below is a summary of this interview, but I strongly recommend listening to the whole thing, and then reading Holden's book, Born Survivors:
- Camp physician Josef Megele would often squeeze women's breasts to check to see whether they produced milk. If so, the unfortunate soul would be sent to the gas chambers.
- So incensed was he with one woman who was found to be pregnant, that he tied both her child and her to a bed and let them starve over several days.
- The women in Holden's book gave birth among either dead or dying women.
- Nazi guards chided and teased one of the women in labour and took bets on the sex of the baby.
- One of the babies was only saved through the intervention of US doctors when their camp was liberated. They took the baby away and gave her a groundbreaking medication called penicillin.
- According to a midwife Holden interviews, severely malnourished mothers can still produce milk for their babies but it comes at a cost. One of the mothers lost all of her teeth due to calcium deficiency.
- All the mothers and babies in the Holden's book survived. This is perhaps the most startling fact of all.