In one small region of Nazi-occupied Poland, a faked typhus outbreak helped save thousands of people from forced labor or death.
The “epidemic” was caused by physician Eugene Lazowski in and around the town Rozwadow, 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Warsaw. By forcing the Nazis to quarantine a dozen surrounding villages, the faux plague kept 8,000 villagers — including a small number of Jews in hiding — relatively safe for more than two years.
Lazowski was 26 years old when Germany invaded Poland, serving as a second lieutenant in his country’s army. After being captured by the Nazis, the Warsaw-educated doctor was imprisoned in a POW camp, from which he escaped.
After his escape, Lazowski moved to Rozwadow to work for the Polish Red Cross. By that time, Jewish ghettos had been set up throughout Poland, including a ghetto for 400 Jews that was adjacent to Lazowski’s backyard. The practicing Catholic shared a house with his wife and baby daughter.
During the final months of the ghetto’s existence, Lazowski secretly treated Jews and provided medical supplies. White rags tied to his backyard fence were used for communication. He was also active in the Home Army, Poland’s resistance movement.
In July of 1942, the Rozwadow ghetto was liquidated by the Germans. Many Jews were killed in the main square and others murdered in surrounding forests. Some were taken for forced labor, with a concentration camp set up in town.
‘Protein stimulation therapy’
Around the time of the ghetto’s liquidation, a medical school friend of Lazowski’s — physician Stanislaw Matulewicz — stumbled upon a way to make someone test positive for typhus without having the disease.
A bacterial strain of Proteus — dead Epidemic Typhus — was injected into the patient, who would henceforth test positive. Lazowski and Matulewicz immediately realized they were onto something important.
The Germans were terrified of typhus, a lice-borne illness known to decimate army regiments in times of war. The plague had not been seen in Germany for 25 years, so soldiers had no natural immunity. Anti-Jewish propaganda put out by Germany portrayed Jews as carriers of typhus-infected lice.
In 1942, an estimated 750 Poles died of typhus each day. Any Jew who tested positive for typhus was shot on the spot and his home set on fire. Poles who tested positive were sent to quarantine.
During their first two months of clandestine activity, Lazowski and Matulewicz injected many villagers with their fake typhus, telling the flu-stricken patients it was “protein stimulation therapy” for their illness.
Some patients were sent to doctors in other villages after receiving the injection, where they would inevitably test positive for typhus. The co-conspirators were careful to mimic the pace of an actual outbreak. During this tense period, Lazowski carried a cyanide pill with him, he later said.
The prevalence of typhus cases confirmed by German labs was alarming. After two months, a quarantine zone around Rozwadow and 12 surrounding villages was declared, effectively keeping 8,000 inhabitants safe from arrest or deportation.
A very close call with the Gestapo
Although the quarantine zone remained in place until liberation, the secret operation almost fell apart toward the end of 1943.
The lack of deaths in the region did not match the number of typhus infections, and the Gestapo sent an investigative committee to check up on the physicians. Lazowski used Oskar Schindler-like tactics to fob them off, keeping the vodka, kielbasa, and music flowing during their visit.
Enjoying the party, senior members of the commission sent younger doctors to collect blood samples from sick-looking patients, all of whom had been given the bacterial strain that mimicked typhus. The German doctors did not look for any symptoms among the patients, terrified of contracting the disease.
Toward the end of the occupation of Poland, a German soldier tipped off Lazowski that he was about to be arrested by the Gestapo. According to the soldier, Lazowski had been spotted treating members of the Home Army.
With the Russian army across the river from town, the Nazis were taking their final revenge on the people of Poland. Lazowski had been spared so far because of his typhus work, but — the soldier warned — his arrest was imminent. The Lazowski family fled town just before the Gestapo arrived.
‘I found a way to scare the Germans’
For 13 years, Lazowski lived in fear that his wartime activities would be uncovered, leading to retaliation from Soviet authorities in Poland. In 1958, Lazowski emigrated to Chicago with his wife and daughter. After a decade of studies, he became a professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois. Continuing to practice medicine, he never told anyone about his secret wartime campaign.
Likewise, only after liberation would Lazowski learn that his parents had hidden two Jewish families in their own home.
Only in 1977 did Lazowski write about his “private war” for the first time. In characteristic fashion, he focused on the medical aspects of the rescue operation for the American Society for Microbiology’s newsletter, as opposed to seeking flashier publicity.
In 1993, Lazowski published a memoir called, “The Private War: Memoir of a Doctor Soldier.” Matulewicz had returned to Poland after practicing radiology in Zaire for many years, and the book made both men famous in their homeland.
Lazowski does not appear in Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations database; nor is there an entry for him in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website library.
According to Yad Vashem, there was a request for Lazowski to be recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” at some point, but a lack of firsthand evidence — namely, eye-witness testimony — prevented a formal nomination from going to the committee for consideration.
“Due to a lack of survivor testimony, the case was not pursued,” said Yad Vashem spokesperson Simmy Allen.
Many articles on Lazowski contain mistakes, including the claim he rescued “twelve Jewish villages.” The number 8,000, referring to the population of the quarantine zone, has been misused to state — for example — “8,000 Jews were injected with typhus.” Similar errors appear on the websites of an Israeli museum and a US-based foundation for “unsung heroes.”
A few years before his death in 2006, Lazowski returned to Poland to film a still-unreleased documentary. In Rozwadow along with Matulewicz, the men were greeted with days of celebrations and emotional reunions.
Lazowski was 87 years old, and he could at last be at ease in the country he fought for.
“I was not able to fight with a gun or a sword,” Lazowski told people. “But I found a way to scare the Germans.”