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Maria Stromberger – Finding Courage in Extreme Circumstances


What is courage? Do nurses have courage? Do they need courage? Is courage something we need for everyday living, or is it something that we need in only very extreme circumstances?

I have a story about a nurse who was inordinately courageous in terrible circumstances. Her name was Maria Stromberger, and she lived in Austria in the middle of the 20th century.

Maria Stromberger

Maria Stromberger was working in a hospital in occupied Poland during World War Two when she began to hear disturbing rumours circulate about a place called Auschwitz.

Maria, who was a devout Catholic, found it so hard to believe some of the terrible things that were supposedly occurring at Auschwitz, that she decided to find out for herself by looking for work there. Despite her sister’s misgivings, she obtained a position in the hospital for SS soldiers in the camp. She worked there for two years.

During that time, she did indeed see terrible things happen there. The hospital overlooked the main crematorium. In addition, prisoners were made to work in the hospital, and were able to tell Maria first-hand about the camp.

The gas chambers and subsequent burning of the bodies; the experiments in other parts of the hospital; and the starvation, deprivation and terrible living conditions the prisoners faced before they were killed.

Maria smuggled in food, medication and letters for prisoners, as well as guns for the Resistance. At the same time, she smuggled out diaries, letters and photographs to the Polish Resistance cells who were in the area. Miraculously, she was never caught.

Unfortunately, Maria’s health declined – probably due in no small part to the constant stress and fear of being discovered. At the end of 1944 she was diagnosed with polyarteritis and left her employment.

With the end of the war came the liberation of Auschwitz. Maria was arrested by the French military government and served six months in prison because she was suspected of complicity in the Nazi crimes.

Eventually, Polish and Jewish prisoners and members of the Polish Resistance found out that she was in prison, and were able to testify to the occupying forces that she was not only innocent of all crimes but had indeed at great risk to her own safety helped and saved many people.

In 1947 she gave evidence at the trial of the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Höss, who was executed for his crimes.

After Maria was released from prison, she returned to Austria and worked in a textile factory, never again practising as a nurse. She died of a heart attack in May 1957 at the age of 59.

Finding Courage in Extreme Circumstances

What was it that made this woman so exceptional? She was obviously very courageous, and she must have been resilient and imaginative to be able to avoid exposure and arrest for so long.

What is it about courage that makes people go to extreme lengths to help others?

Why do nurses need courage? Surely today no nurses are going to see the horrendous conditions that Maria witnessed at Auschwitz? Or, can we be so sure of that?

Can we be confident that, in the world’s current political climate, restrictions on health spending, emerging technologies, racism and intolerance, we won’t see the re-emmergence of conditions such like those in Nazi Europe?

Is it just the large things for which we need courage?

We can learn a valuable lesson from Maria Stromberger on resistance when facing something we know is wrong – be it on a large scale, or more subtle.

If we find a medicine order that is incorrect; if we see colleagues doing something that goes against the nursing code of conduct, or practices which are not ethical.

How much courage do we need to question the people doing these things, given that many of them may be in superior positions to us?

We need courage to support our patients and clients; we need courage to be able to advocate for them; we need the courage to be able to claim that, as nurses, we have an obligation to stand up for the wellbeing of all patients.

We can learn much from Maria Stromberger.

For further information, read:

  • Benedict, S 2006, ‘Maria Stromberger: A nurse in the Resistance in Auschwitz’, Nursing History Review, vol. 14, pp. 189-202.
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