The Polish Schindlers
You’ve probably heard of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard—about two men who pulled off a similar miracle in Poland.
Dr. Eugene Lazowski was a young Red Cross physician living in the village of Rozwadow during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II. Life in Poland under German occupation was a time of unimaginable suffering and horror. By the time the Soviet Union’s Red Army finally drove the Germans out in 1945, one fifth of the entire Polish population had been murdered, including 3 million of Poland’s 3.4 million Jews, and 3 million Polish Gentiles. Millions more Poles were arrested and put to work in forced labor camps, including 1.6 million who were sent to camps in Germany.
As a physician, Lazowski did what he could to alleviate the suffering of his countrymen. A member of the Polish resistance, he provided medical care and supplies to resistance fighters hiding in the forests around Rozwadow. Lazowski’s house backed up against the Jewish ghetto, and though assisting Jews in any way was punishable by death, he set up a system whereby Jews who needed medical attention could let him know by hanging a piece of white cloth on his back fence, then return after dark to be treated and given medicine that Lazowski passed through a hole in the fence. “Every night a white cloth would fly and lines would form,” Dr. Yoav Goor wrote in the Israel Medical Association Journal in 2013. “The Jews trusted him. He helped anyone who needed help, creating a system of faking his medicinal inventory to conceal this clandestine activity.”
Lazowski’s biggest opportunity to provide assistance came in 1942 when a fellow physician, Dr. Stanislaw Matulewicz, told him that he’d discovered a way to make healthy patients test positive for the deadly disease typhus. The Germans were terrified of typhus, which was spread by body lice. The disease killed as many as one in every four people who contracted it, and under battlefield conditions of close quarters and poor hygiene, it spread quickly from one soldier to another. A typhus epidemic could mean the difference between victory and defeat: during Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, in which 570,000 of his 600,000 troops died, more soldiers were killed by typhus than by the Russians. During the Russian Civil War, which raged from 1917 to 1922, it’s estimated that typhus killed more than 3 million people.
To prevent the same thing from happening again, the Nazis required physicians in German-occupied Europe to take blood samples from any patient they suspected of having typhus, and send the samples to German labs for analysis. The test was conducted by mixing the blood sample with some dead typhus cells. If the sample became cloudy, the patient had typhus. Gentiles with typhus were quarantined in their homes; Jews with typhus were shot and their houses burned to the ground.
What Matulewicz had discovered was that if he injected some of the dead (and therefore harmless) typhus cells into a patient before taking the blood sample, the sample would test positive for typhus even though the patient did not have the disease. When he told Lazowski about his discovery, Lazowski suggested creating a fake typhus epidemic in Rozwadow by injecting villagers with dead typhus cells. The Germans, he hoped, would quarantine the villagers in their homes and leave them alone.
From then on, every time Lazowski or Matulewicz treated non-Jewish patients, the doctors injected them with the dead typhus virus without telling them what they were doing or why. (Since Jews risked being shot if they tested positive for typhus, they were not injected with the virus.) To avoid attracting suspicion, rather than take blood samples from all the patients they injected, the doctors referred some patients to other physicians in the area to have their blood drawn there. That way, every doctor in the area submitted samples that tested positive for typhus, not just Lazowski and Matulewicz. The two men then paced their injections, referrals, and blood sample submissions to mimic the spread of a real typhus epidemic.
Within weeks, the Germans began posting signs around Rozwadow that warned, “Achtung, Fleckfieber!” (“Warning, Typhus!”). As time passed, the “epidemic” spread to nearby communities—about a dozen villages in all. These were home to some 8,000 Polish Gentiles and an unknown number of Jews in hiding. (By then, most of the Jewish population of Rozwadow had been deported to labor camps or death camps.) All of the villages fell under the quarantine, and German soldiers began to avoid them entirely, giving the residents their first feeling of safety, however fragile, since the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939.
Faking a deadly epidemic right under the noses of the Germans was a dangerous ruse. “I was scared,” Lazowski admitted in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001. “I didn’t know if I would be arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. So I carried a cyanide pill in case I was arrested.”
The danger grew as time passed and nobody died; some of the villagers even began to suspect that something was afoot. Most kept quiet, though, either for their own personal safety or (if they guessed who was behind the ruse) to protect Lazowski and Matulewicz. But every Polish community had its German collaborators, and when those living in and around Rozwadow passed their suspicions on to the Germans, a team of Nazi physicians was dispatched to Rozwadow to investigate.
Lazowski was ready. He greeted the physicians on the outskirts of Rozwadow with a feast of sausages, vodka—both hard to come by during the war—and musical entertainment. Just as Lazowski hoped, the senior doctors stayed to enjoy the party, dispatching their two young subordinates to perform the unpleasant and (as far as they knew) dangerous task of entering the quarantine area to examine infected villagers to see if they really had typhus. The patients waiting to be examined were the oldest and sickest-looking people that Lazowski could find, and he put them up in the most ramshackle, lice-ridden huts in the village.
Examining patients for typhus exposes physicians to the risk of contracting the disease themselves, and the young doctors weren’t fools. Rather than give the patients thorough medical exams, they merely took blood samples. They raced through the process as quickly as possible, then beat it back to the party before the vodka and sausages ran out.
The blood samples tested positive for typhus, of course, and the Nazis didn’t bother Lazowski or Matulewicz again until the end of the war. They even left Lazowski alone after collaborators reported him for treating members of the Polish resistance, who were fighting a savage guerrilla war against the Nazis. “They didn’t kill me because I was needed to fight the typhus epidemic,” he recalled. “I was kind of a hero to the Germans because I was a young doctor who was not afraid to be infected.”
By early 1945, however, when the war was clearly lost and Rozwadow was about to be overrun by the Red Army, the Germans were more interested in punishing people who’d aided the Polish resistance than they were in containing the typhus epidemic. Lazowski was marked for death by the Nazis; he and his wife and daughter only managed to escape to Warsaw after a German soldier he’d treated for venereal disease warned him that he was about to be arrested.
Both Lazowski and Matulewicz survived the war. In 1958, Lazowski emigrated to the United States, where he became a professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois Medical Center. It was only after he arrived in Chicago that he began to speak of his wartime experiences; until then, not even his wife knew the full story of what he and Matulewicz had been up to. In Poland, Lazowski had been afraid of reprisals from Polish anti-Semites and wartime collaborators of the Nazis, but now he felt free to tell his story.
In the 1990s, Lazowski and Matulewicz wrote a memoir called Private War. Published in Poland, it told their story to their countrymen for the first time and was a best-seller. In 2000, the two men, now well into their eighties, made their first trip back to Rozwadow since the end of the war. They received a warm welcome from the villagers, including many old enough to remember being treated by the physicians. Some villagers still did not realize the full extent of the ruse that the doctors had played on the Nazis during the war. When one man approached Lazowski and thanked him effusively for the “miracle” of curing his father’s typhus in only five days, all Lazowski could do was smile. “It was not real typhus,” he said. “It was my typhus.”
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