Barbara Puc is a survivor of Auschwitz, yet she has no memory of ever having been there.
Sitting in her home, Puc, a sturdy woman with short gray hair and a warm face, warned me before we even sat down, “All I know is what my mother told me.”
Now 72 years old, Puc, whose family was Catholic, was born in 1944 on a brick tunnel furnace that ran through the middle of a barracks in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the labor and extermination camp built next to Auschwitz after the flood of prisoners flowing in from across Europe and the Soviet Union overwhelmed the original camp.
Germans treated pregnant women and newborns living in this section of the camp less harshly than in the other ones. They were given a little bit more food, sometimes even milk. Infants were registered in a registry book, which has survived until this day and holds records of 378 babies having been born. These privileges, however, were very short-term; the vast majority of these mothers, and those of their children who were not murdered soon after birth, perished not long after in the gas chambers.
In fact, thousands of babies were born in Auschwitz, the vast majority of whom the Nazis killed virtually upon their emergence from the womb. In Poland, at least, Puc (pronounced Putz) is today the only known survivor able to represent and tell her own story of birth and survival as she heard it from her own mother.
I came to listen to Puc’s story in her modest but elegantly decorated home in Tychy, a cozy middle-size Polish town just a 30-minute drive from the very charnel house where her life began.
“She first told me I was born in the camp when I was 9 or 10,” Puc recalled, referring to her mother. “We went to Auschwitz for the first time after the war. There were still piles of shoes and clothes lying around, even though it was 10 years after the war. I still can’t comprehend what happened there,” Puc said with a shaking voice.
Nobody knows how many children were born in Auschwitz overall. The Nazis did not bother to record their existence before murdering them. The only remaining camp registry for all of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is a notation from January 10, 1945 that mentions a total of 247 pregnant women and midwives, and 156 living children ages 0 to 3 on that day. Yet on January 27 — just 17 days later — when the Soviets liberated the camp, there were only 60 children there.
One of the main reasons these children survived was the fact that their mothers weren’t forced to join the Death March. Nine days before liberation, the Germans forced 60,000 prisoners to walk 35 miles to a town of Wodzisław Śląski; 1,500 of them died on the way.
Puc’s parents, Stefania and Stanislaw Peronczyk, were sent to Auschwitz on a pretext in November 1943. Puc’s father worked in a locomotive factory that had been sabotaged. Though innocent of this act, he was one of the main suspects. German police raided the young couple’s home in search of stolen machinery parts, but found only a small stockpile of baby clothing, meant for the expectant couple’s newborn when she arrived. Nevertheless, the couple was sentenced to jail in Auschwitz. Stefania Peronczyk was three months pregnant at the time.
At first they were sent to Block No. 11, “The Block of Death.” This building served as a detention center for Gestapo prisoners, those sentenced to death by starvation and “crime suspects.” But after six months, 21-year-old Stefania Peronczyk was sentenced to prison in Birkenau, and her husband was sent to Mauthausen. The walk to Birkenau from Auschwitz was the last time they ever saw each other.
The young mother-to-be was put in barracks that had been recently cleared after the extermination of Roma families. And Puc was born shortly after.
Another Auschwitz baby who is still living today, Stefania Wernick, was born a couple of months later. Wernick is now ill, and I was not able to interview her. But her story has been published numerous times in Polish news media. It is not unlike Puc’s in crucial ways; in particular, the way her mother, Anna, who was also Catholic, ended up in Auschwitz almost arbitrarily.
Anna Wernick lived with her husband in Czubrowice, a small village near Kracow. In May 1944, Anna, then two months pregnant, went to bring food to her mother in Osiek, another village a couple of miles away. Osiek was at the time in what the Nazis had decreed was part of Germany proper while Czubrowice remained outside its borders.
According to the account Wernick has given to the media, there were a dozen or so women trying to enter the Reich that day to smuggle food. But after they crossed the Reich border, German soldiers rounded up the group, detained them and eventually sent them to Auschwitz.
On their arrival, the prisoners were taken to the shower room, where their heads were shaved and they were given black-and-white uniforms and wooden shoes.
But because of her pregnancy, Anna was sent to a different barrack than the rest of the women. She eventually went into labor in November 1944 and gave birth to Stefania. The new mother was so exhausted that for the next two weeks she couldn’t move. An old Russian woman cared for her child, bringing the baby girl to her mother for breastfeeding once a day.
Stefania and Barbara were lucky they were born towards the end of the war. It was only from 1943 that the SS, the infamous Nazi force that ran the camp, ceased to instantly and automatically kill both children and their mothers right after delivery in all cases. This was probably due to the shortages that were by then plaguing Germany’s wartime labor force. Many women whose pregnancies were noticed by camp doctors were subjected to abortion, which in some cases was carried out even in the eighth or ninth month of the pregnancy. Babies who were born in the camp were thrown into the trash, drowned in a bucket of water or, most commonly, killed with an injection of phenol to the heart.
The change in the camp’s policy of routinely exterminating newborns began around the time Stanislawa Leszczynska started working as a midwife in the camp hospital. This heroic Polish nurse is believed to have helped deliver more than 3,000 children in Auschwitz, each time risking her own life. Leszczynska helped both Jewish and non-Jewish mothers. Although she did not kill a single newborn, the overwhelming majority of them were killed within a few hours after being born. Puc, whom Leszczynska helped deliver, was one of the few who were not.
According to what her mother told her, the labor was very hard and both women thought Barbara wouldn’t survive. But both mother and child made it through.
“God must have looked over me in those days,” said Puc, who has remained devout and loyal to the Catholic faith of her parents.
As it turned out, that was just the beginning of a long stretch of luck for Puc. Her mother, physically exhausted and malnourished, couldn’t breastfeed her, which would ordinarily have doomed the newborn in a place where infant formula was a notion beyond dreams. But another woman from her barracks, who just had a child that had died, offered to feed the baby girl.
“I bear my middle name after that woman — Weronika,” Puc explained. “She saved my life! My mother promised her to name me after her. But she also agreed earlier with my father to name me Barbara. So I was named Barbara Weronika.”
Stefania Peronczyk and her newborn daughter were living in barracks with women mostly from the Soviet Union. Later they were joined by Polish prisoners from Warsaw, sent there after the devastating uprising of 1944. Curiously, in later prison testimonies, Auschwitz inmates mentioned quite often that children of Soviet mothers — Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian— were the strongest ones and had the highest rate of survival.
Jewish mothers, however, had no hope for their children. Before Leszczynska began her work at the hospital, Jewish newborns were thrown into the trash right after delivery. The Polish midwife refused to carry out this horrifying practice. After a baby was born she would wrap it in paper bandages and lay it next to the mother. As Jewish women were forbidden to breastfeed, the children would die within a few hours. Very few survived.
Yet, not all newborns were destined to die. Josef Mengele, the camp’s psychopathic doctor, chose some children who were “Aryan” looking — blue-eyed and blond-haired —for “Germanization.” When Mengele saw little Barbara, he wanted to take her away for adoption by a German family. But at that very moment there was a power outage in the camp, causing chaos; Mengele got distracted and forgot about her.
Later, in 1945, as the Germans forced thousands of the camp inmates to evacuate Auschwitz and undertake the Death March in the face of the advancing Allies, Stefania Peronczyk devised an escape plan for herself and her 2-year-old daughter.
Along with two other women, she took some clothes from barracks used for sorting prisoners’ belongings and used a table as a sleigh. She put her baby girl on it and started walking toward her former home in the town of Chrzanow, about 13 miles away.
As related by Puc, the women thought it was the end of the war for them, but as they walked to safety they encountered a couple of German soldiers. Their clothes from the barracks were marked with yellow Stars of David, the garments issued to the camp’s Jews. Taking them for Jews, the German soldiers wanted to kill them. But one of the women, Janina Busz, who also gave birth to her son in the camp, spoke German and begged the soldiers to leave them alone. Somehow, they let them go.
Puc’s stretch of good luck didn’t end there. Being happily married for more than 50 years to a man she met at a scout camp, today she is a retired hospital staffer and scout instructor, a mother of two, a grandmother of four and a great-grandmother of one.
“It is important people will hear this story,” Puc said. “My mother didn’t want to give her testimony, because she was scared the Germans would come back. War is the most horrible thing, and it cannot happen again. If we forget what happened, we are doomed.”
Sergiusz Scheller is a journalist in Poland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org