The 1993 film Schindler’s List will forever immortalize the heroic efforts of Oskar Schindler to save the lives of more than one thousand Jews during World War II.
Yet, there is another far lesser is a story of deception and just plain sheer genius.
This is the story of two Polish doctors: Dr. Eugeniusz Lazowski and Dr. Stanislav Matulewicz and the fake epidemic that they created to trick the Nazis and save countless lives.
With the swine flu capturing the headlines in recent weeks, this seemed a good time to share the story. In 1939, a young man on special leave from a Nazi work camp desperately searched for a way to avoid being sent back, since it meant slave labor and probable death. He had few options. The only way to avoid the camps was to have a serious disease or commit suicide.
Dr. Matulewicz found the answer in an insignificant soil microbe simply called Proteus 0X19. Insignificant, except for one highly critical detail. Proteus 0X19 has the same antigen as the bacteria responsible for typhus.
That if one is exposed to Proteus, the body will produce the same antibodies that it would produce if one was exposed to the typhus bacteria. That means that someone exposed to Proteus 0X19 would have a false positive reading on the typhus test. Dr. Matulewicz wondered if injecting this man with Proteus 0X19 would cause him to test positive for typhus. So he decided to give it a try and see what happened.
The young man’s sample was sent to a German State Laboratory for testing and indeed it came back positive for typhus. He was not allowed to return to the camp and it is assumed that his life was spared.
A single case of typhus is no laughing matter to the Germans at that time. During World War I, typhus caused more than 3 million deaths and ravage the troops on the Western front. Symptoms included prolonged fever, headache, chills, and general body aches followed by a rash over most of the body. It spreads rapidly and is often fatal.
Typhus is generally associated with poor living conditions and transmitted by lice, conditions like those found in the slums, and can cause severe epidemics. During World War II it spread like wildfire through the Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps its most famous victim at the time was Anne Frank and her sister Margot.
The second important character in our story is Dr. Lazowski. He lived next to a Jewish ghetto in Rozwadow in Poland. Helping the Jews at this time was punishable by death, so Dr. Lazowski devised a system where a piece of white cloth would fly on his fence whenever a Jew needed help.
The Germans kept careful inventory of the medicines dispensed, so Lazowski faked the records. Basically telling them that the medicines were given to people treated the pass through town.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they rounded up Polish men and women and sent them to slave labor camps, while the Jews were sent to death camps.
Dr. Matulewicz mentioned his typhus deception to Dr. Lazowski. After hearing of Dr. Matulewicz’s success, Dr. Lazowski made a brilliant proposal. What if they could create a typhus epidemic in the town? If anyone found out, they would surely be put to death, but then think about how many lives to be saved…
The two men secretly put their plan to create the pseudo-epidemic.
They could inject Jews with the Proteus 0X19 since that would certain death. Instead, they injected the kill bacteria into any non-Jewish patient that suffered from a fever or other typhus-like symptoms. To avoid being caught, they referred many of the patients to other doctors who had no clue that this was happening. These unsuspecting doctors would then discover that the patients had typhus.
So, did it work? You bet.
They started the deceptions slowly, but by the time they reached epidemic proportions, several months later, the Germans quarantined twelve villages in the area, home to about eight thousand people. The deportation of workers stopped. The German troops stayed away until the end of the war.
But, by late 1943, word started to trickle back to the Germans that no one was dying during this epidemic. The local Gestapo notified health authorities and they sent in an investigative team.
The team consisted of an elderly doctor and two young assistants. While the elderly doctor stayed behind drinking vodka, he sent out the two assistants. They were taken to see staged patients, basically, those living in the worst conditions with the worst symptoms. Fearful of the disease, they made a quick examination and concluded that the typhus epidemic was real.
The two doctors were off the hook, at least for now.
Now the end of the war, a German soldier treated by Dr. Lazowski tipped him off that Germans know about him helping the Jews in the ghetto and that he was on the Gestapo hit list. He escaped with his wife and daughter to Warsaw. After the war, Lazowski lived in communist Poland until moving to Chicago in 1958. He kept quiet about his epidemic until he came to the United States. Sadly, he died on December 16, 2006, at the age of 92.
Dr. Matulewicz became a professor of radiology in Zaire is now retired in Poland.
In the end, these two doctors use brains over weapons to quietly save over 8000 people from almost certain death. They are true heroes.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.