But For The Grace of God

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With the cocked German Lugar pistol pressed into her neck, the newborn baby squealing, and the umbilical cord dangling after being cut, the Polish nurse midwife refused to strangle the Jewish baby by his own cord as ordered by the SS Doctor.

Ungodly stenches hung over the so-called delivery suite. Rats waited to bite anything in their path, living or dead. Rodents were the only plump mammals in sight; the humans were emancipated. The ether of Dante’s Inferno was like fog.

The woman, in her forties, stood silent as the SS Officer raised his voice. She whispered for him to pull the trigger, for she took an oath and “will not follow your order.” The SS officer winced, then lowered and holstered his weapon. Nurse/midwife S. Lesczynska R.N. carried on, as she had for the last 165 times the Angel of Death threatened her for not murdering the Jewish babies. She cleaned the baby with what filthy water there was and placed a ragtag cloth on him and continued her 16-hour shift.

The year was 1945. The place was Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Doctor was Joseph Mengele: the infamous “Angel of Death” who was notorious for his human experimentation.

The nurse was S. Leszczynska, and her son Dr. Stashu Leszcznski was one of my dearest friends, who died recently at 93. He and his younger brother had survived Mauthausen in Austria as a teenager; their family paid dearly for their clandestine printing of exit visas for the Warsaw Ghetto Jews.

The recent Pittsburgh slaughter of innocent Jewish Americans in a synagogue propelled my experiences in Poland over the last 25 years and prompted this reflection along with the abject paucity of moral turpitude in our leaders for the last few years.

In 1992, I was a cardiac surgeon and was invited by Polish Professor Zbignew Religa to advise his team on how to stop the heart for several hours in order to carry out complicated procedures while preserving function. They were excellent surgeons but the communist government was not interested in healthcare, so they performed 500 cases a year in the most Spartan of conditions. After two days of mentoring them in cardioplegia techniques for heart surgery, he required me to go to Auschwitz for what became my first of three visits. Any person who has walked those sacred grounds where the grass grows in ashes is typically profoundly disturbed. I was no exception.

When I went to Warsaw on my way home that first time, I met Professor Lesczynski M.D., a revered physician, a Holocaust survivor, and a respected European radiologist. He was excruciatingly humble, warm, and outgoing with the finest sense of humor and a marbleized sense of character that I have never before experienced. His concentration camp experiences as a teenager would have broken a lesser man. He entered Mauthausen with 885 other children and exited two years later with only 15. He weighed just 55 pounds. He survived on whatever he could find, mainly insects and dirt.

He recently told me that once, he was being carried to the incinerator but at the last second was dumped back onto the side of the road in a fetid stream. I was the first person he ever shared his camp experiences with, and when I asked him why he didn’t tell his family, simply answered – why?

His mother – the Auschwitz midwife and Mengele ‘s insubordinate nurse – has been beatified by the Catholic Church awaiting Sainthood. I have no idea what the Church requires, but she has my vote.

The human condition is frail. It’s susceptible to ignominious behavior and denying truths that millions gave their lives for, and we the living must stand tall. We must firmly brush off false statements, lies and scurrilous principles, and recognize propaganda and BS, or we are doomed to be treated in the same manner as told above.

Hope springs eternal and thus allow me one more powerful anecdote on the moral stature and character, especially character of the Leszcznski family, that we would do well to remember.

A few years ago, my now-departed friend Stashu Leszcznski, at age 90, gave a speech at Mauthausen to survivors, dignitaries, and the Presidents of Germany, Austria, and Poland. Professor Lesczynski was the invited speaker and spoke in perfect German, which he explained was due to the fine teaching techniques of the SS (with a mischievous wink). After his warmly received speech, a 60-year-old man came up and asked:

“Professor, was your mother a nurse?”


“Was she a midwife?”


“And was she at Auschwitz?”

“Yes, again. Why do you ask?” The man looked Stashu straight away with a moist eye.

“I was one of those Jewish babies your mother refused to kill.”

When the time comes and we all must make difficult decisions, maybe we will reach down to the pit of our souls and emulate the resolve and addiction to duty of an ordinary nurse in extraordinary times.

Words count but not nearly so much as character.