World War 2 History: Doctors Create Fake Epidemic— Saves Thousands
Germans Feared Typhus
During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, two doctors managed to fool the Germans into quarantining twelve Polish villages by making them believe a typhus epidemic had taken hold in the area. The Germans so feared typhus no one with the disease was allowed contact with the rest of the population. This included being sent to labor camps, prisons and concentration death camps. Germans would not even enter the areas affected.
Eugene Lazowski was a soldier and a doctor in the Polish Army when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Later, he secretly worked for the Polish Underground Army. He refused to carry a weapon; he would only save lives, not take them. After a time in a POW camp, he returned to his family in the village of Rozwadow, Poland to work for the Polish Red Cross.
Dr. Lazowski's house backed onto Rozwadow's Jewish district and, even though it was certain death to give aid to Jews, he had concocted a scheme to provide his services to them. If a cloth was placed on a post, he would sneak through his fence into the ghetto and attend to the Jewish patients. Most nights found him there and lines of people waited patiently for his services. As time went by, the Gestapo stepped up their operations in Poland, murdering and shipping Poles off to labor and death camps-- especially Jews. By 1942, all the Jews in Rozwadow had been rounded up and taken away-- eventually, a fifth of Poland's population would share this fate. Lazowski, deeply distressed, didn't know what to do. He could not kill, only save, but the situation seemed hopeless.
Notice of Death Penalty
Matulewicz and Lazowski Hatch Their Plan
Then a colleague of his, Dr Stanislaw Matulewicz, discovered that, by injecting dead typhus bacteria into healthy people, their blood would test positive for typhus without actually giving them the disease. Typhus had swept through war-ravaged populations during and after World War I and killed millions and the Germans were especially terrified of it.
The two doctors hatched a plan to inject people with the dead bacteria to convince the Germans there was a typhus outbreak in the area. People the Germans thought had the disease would be quarantined and therefore safe from expulsion. Lazowski and Matulewicz had to be incredibly careful; they knew they would be executed if they were found out and, of course, the villagers would be slaughtered. The doctors kept their secret even from their wives. There fear was great, however, and Lazowski carried a cyanide pill with him at all times.
Location of Rozwadow, Poland
“Typhus” Spreads Through a Dozen Villages
They also knew that any Jews with typhus would be immediately shot and their houses burned. Jews still made up more than ten percent of the population of the twelve villages in the area, so the doctors were careful to inject only non-Jews. Blood samples were sent to the German labs where they were tested and confirmed to be typhus-positive. At first, the Germans issued red telegrams quarantining the affected families to their houses. Lazowski was careful to send a fair number of injected patients to other doctors in order not to draw undo attention to the same two doctors. As the number of typhus cases grew, the Germans became alarmed and quarantined all twelve villages. Around each village they posted signs that read “Achtung, Fleckfieber!” (Warning, Typhus!). No German would enter the area and no one was allowed out. Deportation of workers from the villages was forbidden.
As time went by, even the villagers began to suspect something strange was going on-- for all the typhus cases, no one seemed to be dying. Some guessed the truth but kept the doctors' secret. However, by late 1943, Polish collaborators informed the Gestapo that no one seemed to be dying. A team of investigators was dispatched to inspect the typhus “victims” first hand. Lazowski got wind of this and rounded up the sickest, most unhealthy-looking patients he could find who had been injected and convinced them to wait in filthy huts. Then a welcoming party was arranged with plenty to eat and drink. The German team of doctors and soldiers enjoyed the hospitality so much the senior doctor ordered the younger doctors to inspect the patients. The conditions were so bad and the fear of contagion loomed so large, the doctors merely took blood samples and retreated as quickly as possible without giving thorough examinations. Of course their tests confirmed typhus infection and the Germans stayed out of the villages until near the end of the war when the Soviet Red Army approached.
Saved By a Murderer
As the Germans began fleeing the area, a young German military policeman approached Lazowski, who had secretly treated him earlier for venereal disease. The young soldier told him that the Gestapo knew he was a member of the Underground and his name was on an execution list. He had been spared to fight the epidemic. Dr Lazowski and Dr Matulewicz both escaped with their families toward Warsaw, but as Lazowski was leaving Rozwadow, he saw the same young soldier shooting down women and children in street, sending chills up and down his spine.
Eventually, Lazowski immigrated to the US and Matulewicz went to Zaire. Only after they were in the US did Lazowski tell his wife what he had done. And it wasn't until much later that the two doctors told the world. They had been afraid of reprisals from Polish collaborators. There were plenty of witnesses that verified their story. They had spared 8,000 Poles from death or deportation to concentration camps, many of them Jews. In the year 2000, the two doctors returned to visit the villages where they were treated as heroes and reunited with some of their patients. People from all over Poland and Europe came to greet them. Lazowski, didn't always know what to say. “I was just trying to do something for my people. My profession is to save lives and prevent death. I was fighting for life.”
Eugene Lazowski passed away December 16, 2006 in Eugene, Oregon at the age of 92.
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