During the hunger and crowding of World War 2, Typhus was a killer disease. Type the word “typhus” in the search window of Otzar Hachochma’s Torah library and you’ll raises a list of kehilla books printed after the war that mention typhus numerous times. The kehilla book of Wolkovisker (near Grodno and Slonim) mentions it 52 times, Radomsk 35, Kutna 33, Otwosk-Kartshev 29 times, Demblin-Modzitz 27 times, and Belzen 26. Wherever Nazis went in Eastern Europe, typhus followed.
Tale of Two Bacteria
Typhus epidemics changed the course of history. The earliest recorded example may be the Athenian Plague of 430 B.C.E., which contributed to Athens defeat by Sparta. Its earliest definite role in history was a typhus epidemic that decimated the army of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, foiling their attempt to oust the Muslims from Spain in 1489. It took the Christians another hundred years to drive the Moors out their country. When Napoleon marched to Moscow in 1812, only 90,000 of his 600,000 soldiers reached the city. Almost a half of them had perished from typhus and dysentery.
Typhus contributed to Germany losing World War I. For Jews, typhus casualties reached their peak in the crowded ghettos and concentration camps of World War 2. Terrible as typhus was at that time, two Polish doctors used its prevalence to save people from death and deportation.
One of them, Dr. Eugene Lazowski (1913-2006), began World War 2 as a Polish Lieutenant on a Red Cross Train. After a stint in a prisoner of war camp he went to live in Rozwadow, one of a group of shtet’ls in south-east Poland. Although Germany exiled Rozwadow’s original 2,000 Jews to the Soviet half of Poland at the beginning of the war, some 400 Jews were living there by September 1940 and later in the war the town housed a Jewish labor camp.
“On Sept. 1, 1942, 80 Jews were brought there from Sieniawa, Lezajsk, and the vicinity,” the Kehilalinks site records. “As the rate of expulsion of Jews from the vicinity grew, 600 male Jews, mostly from Wieliczka, were brought to the camp. On Sept. 15, 1942, 450 Jews from Wolbrom arrived. Late in 1942, there were more than 1,200 prisoners, including Jews from Przemysl and Rzeszow. The prisoners worked in the steel factories of Stalowa Wola. Working conditions were hard and anyone who could not withstand the physical strain was shot. More than 1,000 Jews died in the camp.”
As regional medical director of the Polish Underground Army, Dr. Lazowski supplied information and medical supplies to guerrillas hiding in the area. He also slipped into Rozwadow’s ghetto at night to help sick Jews. Incidentally, his parents, Kazimierz and Zofia, also helped Jews – they are listed among Yad Vashem’s “Righteous of the Nations” for hiding two Jewish families in their home during the war. To account to the Germans for his use of medical supplies on guerillas and Jews, Lazowski said he was using the supplies to treat sick travelers at a train station near his office.
Dr. Stanislaw Matulewicz, another doctor in Rozwadow made a useful discovery. On the face of it, two bacteria, Rickettsia powazekii, which causes typhus, and Proteus vulgaris, which causes mild infections, had little in common. Yet, Dr. Matulewicz discovered that Proteus OX19 reacted with the human immune system the same way typhus does. Due to this, typhus tests clouded the blood of a person infected with Proteus OX19 as if he had typhus. Dr. Matulewicz first used the discovery to help a friend on leave from a German work camp who did not want to return there. He injected the man with dead Proteus OX19 bacteria, sent a sample of his blood to a German controlled laboratory, and soon received a reply informing him that his patient was prohibited from returning to Germany.
Lazowski figured that he could put the Proteus OX19 bacteria to much wider use. Due to healthier living conditions in Germany, Nazi soldiers were generally less immune to typhus and the army was terrified they might be decimated by typhus in barbaric Poland and Russia. This subject was brought to light at the Nuremberg trials where many Nazi doctors were accused of conducting medical experiments on humans.
“The attack against Russia in 1941 gave rise to many military medical problem, not the least of which was typhus,” the Nuremberg protocols (vol. 1 pgs. 108-111) record. “The disease reached serious proportions in the fall of 1941, and typhus vaccines were so scarce that only doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel in exposed positions could be given inoculations. One of the most important problems with respect to the increased production of typhus vaccines was the effectiveness of the so called Cox-Haagen-Gildemeister vaccine, which was produced from egg-yolk cultures… At the conference it was decided that the typhus vaccine from egg yolks was to be tested on human beings to determine its efficacy. On the same day an earlier conference was held which discussed the same problem.
“As a result of the decision reached at these conferences, the experimental station in the Buchenwald concentration camp… was established… subordinated to the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS under Mrugowsky from the date of its establishment until the end of the war… The typhus experiments in Buchenwald were carried out on a very large scale and resulted in many deaths… Everyone selected for the experiments expected to die a slow and frightful death.”
Despite Nazi efforts to protect soldiers from the disease, typhus remained a threat for the duration of the war. In the Battle of Stalingrad for example, typhus claimed no less Nazi lives than Russian weaponry. To protect themselves from the disease, the Germans generally quarantined the areas where the disease was prevalent and left the residents to their own devices.
Fooling the Germans
Lazowsky had a brainstorm. Producing a fake epidemic could keep his district Deutschrein, free of Germans.
“I was not able to fight with a gun or a sword,” he said, “but I found a way to scare the Germans.”
Lazowsky injected his patients with the dead Proteus bacteria and sent their blood samples to a German controlled laboratory where the blood tested positive for typhus. To prevent the cases from being traced back to him, Lazowsky referred many such “typhus” patients to other doctors. He never injected Jews with his fake typhus because the German method of dealing with typhus stricken Jews was to kill them and burn their homes to the ground.
As the “typhus” cases increased, the Germans thought they had an epidemic on their hands. Village after village was sealed with quarantine notices, Achtung, Fleckfieber (Warning, Typhus) until about 8,000 people were free from Nazi intrusion. With no Germans going in, Poles were saved from forced labor. It is claimed that the subterfuge also saved Jews in the area from extermination.
No one including the doctors’ wives knew that there was really no epidemic at all. But after a while the locals realized something was going on due to the rock bottom mortality rate. When “recovered” patients questioned Lazowsky about their miracle cures, he told them they were lucky men.
By late 1943, the Germans suspected something was fishy and dispatched a commission of inquiry consisting of an elderly doctor and two younger colleagues to investigate. They were cordially welcomed at a big party replete with food, music, and plenty of vodka. This induced the senior doctor to remain at the reception and send his juniors to inspect the villages. Afraid of being infected, they made a cursory examination and were satisfied to take blood samples from a few subjects. Nothing more was heard from the German authorities for the rest of the war.
Towards the end of the war when the Russians were about to storm the area, a German military policeman whom Lazowski had helped medically in the past warned him that the Gestapo were after his head. They knew he had been helping the underground and only kept him alive to fight the typhus epidemic. Lazowski managed to escape.
After the war, Lazowski kept quiet about his exploits, afraid that the occupying Russians might look askance at his unsolicited vaccinations, even if they had saved people’s lives. He moved to Chicago in 1958, retired from medicine in the late 80s and passed away in 2003, but not before publishing a popular book in Polish about his heroism during World War 2. It was titled Private War, the Memories of a Soldier Physician 1939-1944.
Professor Rudolph Weigl
Another person who saved people through the use of typhus vaccines was Professor Rudolph Weigl (1883-1957), who researched new ways of vaccinating people against the disease. Weigl developed a technique to produce the vaccine by growing infected lice and using them for the vaccine. In 1933, he began growing the lice on human volunteers in the Institute for the Study of Typhus and Virology in Lvov in the Ukraine. He heavily vaccinated them beforehand to prevent them catching the disease. Although some volunteers became ill during the process, none of them died.
After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Weigl deliberately hired Polish intellectuals to become lice feeders for his institute. Although the Nazis were exterminating such people as part of their campaign against inferior nations, they were keen on keeping lice breeders alive in order to maximize amount of typhus vaccine for their troops. When the Nazis began murdering Lvov’s Jews, Weigl hired many of them as well. He also supplied vaccines to partisans and sent many shipments of the vaccine to the Warsaw Ghetto, ghettos in other Polish cities, and to concentration camps.
Altogether, about 4,000 feeders, technicians and nurses passed through his institute. In recognition of his valor, Yad Vashem inscribed his name in its list of “The Righteous of the Nations,” non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.