Nazi Doctors’ Perverse Response to Typhus in Jewish Ghettos

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German propaganda antisemitic poster, written in Polish and plastered on Polish streets in 1942, German-occupied Poland.
An anti-Semitic German propaganda poster that was plastered on the streets of German-occupied Poland.

Courtesy Archives of Institute of National Remembrance, Poland/Creative Commons

This article is excerpted from The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen, publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Ludwik Fleck was a Polish immunologist and infectious disease specialist who trained under Rudolf Weigl in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Later, Weigl moved to Lwow in newly independent Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), where he invented the world’s first typhus vaccine. Fleck returned to Lwow with Weigl and received his doctorate at the university there.

Being a Jew, however, Fleck was unable to find a job in a Polish university, and instead established his own diagnostic laboratory. When the Soviets invaded Lwow in 1939, Fleck was promoted to lead the state bacteriological laboratory. After the Nazi invasion in June 1941 he lost his job, was thrown out of his apartment, and forced to live in the Jewish ghetto.

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Weigl offered Fleck and his associates a modicum of protection by getting them carnets that identified them as workers in the German Army’s typhus institute. This enabled them to survive while working in the ghetto hospital on Kuszewicz Street, just outside the “Aryan” section of the city. Weigl was also in close contact with Ludwik Hirszfeld, a famous hematologist, public health leader, and co-discoverer of human blood types, who by then had been forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto.

Hirszfeld and Fleck both continued to work as doctors and scientists in the respective ghettos, despite the constant threat of death. Both had contact with German doctors throughout the process and thus were able to describe the degree of complicity and callousness with which these German professionals treated their Polish and Jewish colleagues.

As the weather turned cold in late 1941, typhus broke out in the unheated dwellings of the beaten-down Jewish ghetto. A disease that Fleck knew from the First World War now added its monotonous terror to the other threats of annihilation. A dozen or more people were stuffed into each ghetto apartment room. The possibilities of bathing or cleaning one’s clothes were very limited. Everyone was hungry, and many were starving. “That typhus should quickly spread in these circumstances,” wrote Fleck, “was no wonder.” The outbreak began in a Soviet POW camp the Nazis had created at the Citadel, a 19th-century Austro-Hungarian barracks. That winter, there were thousands of cases; a year later, Fleck estimated that 70 percent of the ghetto residents had been infected with the disease. The German doctors responded to the epidemic with utter perversity.

The pattern had been established in Warsaw, occupied since September 1939, where German public health officials at first tried to fight the disease by requiring Jews to submit to delousing baths and quarantines. These measures were impractical and punitive. Delousing meant standing naked in the freezing cold while one’s apartment was searched and often robbed, and handing over a precious set of clothes likely to be damaged by powerful chemicals. A Warsaw public health official estimated that only one-fifth of all typhus cases were being reported to his officers.

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