World War 2 History: Doctors Create Fake Epidemic— Saves Thousands

Updated on August 17, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

FleckFieber! (Typhus!)

WW2: Poland, Warsaw ghetto. Boy looking through a door, under Typhus quarantine. Entering and leaving is strictly prohibited.
WW2: Poland, Warsaw ghetto. Boy looking through a door, under Typhus quarantine. Entering and leaving is strictly prohibited. | Source

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

WWII: Nazi announcement of the introduction of the death penalty for Jews leaving the ghettos and for Poles helping them; dated Nov. 10th, 1941
WWII: Nazi announcement of the introduction of the death penalty for Jews leaving the ghettos and for Poles helping them; dated Nov. 10th, 1941 | Source

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

A markerRozwadow, Poland -
Stalowa Wola, Poland
get directions

“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.

Anti-Semetic Poster

World War Two: German anti-semetic poster, written in Polish, displayed on Polish streets. It says "JEWS-SUCKING LOUSE-TYPHUS".
World War Two: German anti-semetic poster, written in Polish, displayed on Polish streets. It says "JEWS-SUCKING LOUSE-TYPHUS". | Source

Suspicion

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.

Polish Heroes

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.

Razwado Yesterday and Today

© 2012 David Hunt

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Perspycacious. Readers Digest...hmm. That's something to consider, though that would mean unpublishing it from HubPages. Thanks for the flattering idea.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 3 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      I am impressed to think that Readers Digest would love to print this story. Did you submit it to them?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks Nate. There were so many terrible endings in the war that compassion, care and intelligence really stand out. What turmoil the doctor must have felt to see the young soldier who had saved his life gunning down children a short time later. War is madness.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      What is striking to me about what these doctors had done is the intelligence behind their actions, in addition to the care and compassion. And I'm glad there was a happy ending.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for your comment, wba108. Playing on tormentors' fears is an effective, if dangerous, game.

    • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

      wba108@yahoo.com 4 years ago from upstate, NY

      Seems there's more than one way to skin a goose! Faking an epedemic may have been the only way to save these folks. Maybe this strategy should be incorporated in partison warfare as a means for survival.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi RonElFran. One of the pleasures of writing Hubs is to bring forward incidents like this so others can be aware of them. Thanks for your kind comment.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Great story and great story-telling. I never heard of this incident before. It's an encouraging reminder of how the courage to do what's right, even in the face of hopeless odds, can prevail.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Your comment is most welcome, highland terrier. It IS amazing courage to risk all for other people-- especially when they could have taken the path of obeying and no on e would have blamed them.

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      highland terrier 5 years ago

      Thank you so much for a very encouraging hub. And so informative.

      It is so nice to know that people can have this amazing courage and respect for their fellow humans, to risk everything for them.

      Thank you again.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      sharewhatuknow, isn't that the truth? Thank you for your comment.

    • sharewhatuknow profile image

      sharewhatuknow 5 years ago from Western Washington

      What an awesome story. Those two doctors have to be sitting to the right of God at this very moment. It is such a shame that infamous names like Manson and Billy the Kid are immediately recognized, but that the names of these two wonderful heroes are not! Awesome and beautiful!!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you so much, RedElf, for reading, commenting and sharing. I share your enthusiasm for millions of views :)

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      RedElf 5 years ago from Canada

      Congrats on Hub-of-the-Day! What a marvelous story you have shared with us - such bravery even in the face of their fears! I hope this has millions of views to show what a few can do. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. Up, awesome, and shared

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Pavlo, always nice to hear from you my friend. Your comments are most welcome.

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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      RTalloni, thanks for the return visit just to congratulate me! Very thoughtful of you.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Wow! Congratulations UM! I am so glad you have Hub of the Day award. I always liked your hubs. Evidently I am not the only one :)

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Just coming back by to say congrats on your Hub of the Day award--well done!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for commenting, jpcmc. How they kept it up for all those years is unbelievable.

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      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Great historical info. These men really put their necks on th eline to save people.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for reading and your kind comment, Jenn-Anne.

    • Jenn-Anne profile image

      Jenn-Anne 5 years ago

      An amazing story and a wonderful hub!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you very much, AliciaC. I'm so glad you liked it.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a fascinating and very inspiring story. I have never heard of these doctors' names before or of their clever plan and courageous work. Thank you very much for the information, and congratulations on Hub of the Day.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi JKenny. Thanks for your continued interest. If I can do my little part to get these heroes known to a wider audience, I'm grateful for the chance.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for commenting and sharing, pstraubie48. I'm glad to hear your grandson is interested in history-- we can learn a lot from the past.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      What a fascinating story, surprised its not really known to the wider world. But hopefully that'll change now. Congrats on getting the HOTD very well deserved.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      This was very interesting. I had no idea. I must share this with my seventeen year old grandson. He is so interested in history and especially the World Wars. This is quite an incredible story. Thank you for sharing it.

      and congrats on hub of the day.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      nochance, when someone who isn't into history that much tells me they enjoyed one of my history articles, that is a high compliment indeed. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      daskittlez69, I hadn't heard of it either until I was looking for inspiration. That's one of the perks of writing-- we're always learning new things. If I had to "write what I know" I'd probably only have a dozen hubs :)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hey Thomas! Yeah, how about that? As the Brits might say: I'm dead chuffed! Thanks for commenting.

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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks E-five. I appreciate the comment, the vote-ups and especially the tweet!

    • nochance profile image

      Chloe Davis Smith 5 years ago from Minnesota

      This is such an interesting story. Thank you for sharing. I'm not much of a history person but this really intrigued me.

    • daskittlez69 profile image

      daskittlez69 5 years ago from midwest

      I am a history nut and have never heard of this exact story. Thanks for the Hub!

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      UnnamedHarald,

      A history hub as the Hub of the Day? AWESOME and congratulations! This is an incredible story of bravery that is very well told! Thank you for sharing this information.

      Thomas

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 5 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      What a moving story. The doctors played on Nazi prejudice to accomplish their goals. Rated Awesome, Thumbs Up, and Tweeted!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Michael, I agree completely. To my mind, a hero who is unassuming and modest is even more of a hero. Thanks for your comment and vote up.

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      The60life 5 years ago from England

      Another brilliant hub! How typical that the best and most heartwarming stories are true ones, and the bravest heroes and heroines are usually the most unassuming, modest and reluctant to ever ( even when the threat of discovery is over) to proclaim ,or allow others to announce, their immense achievements. The scale of the saving of life by a couple of people. My thanks with a vote up. Michael

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi hmlm3. Thank you for reading and commenting. I imagine it's episodes like this that make you proud of your heritage. It makes me proud to be a human being, instead of all the terrible stuff we read about.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hey Judi Bee. Always great to hear from you. Yes, it was a very unexpected and pleasant surprise to get the HOTD. Kind of makes a Hubber's day!

    • hmlm3 profile image

      hmlm3 5 years ago from Georgia

      I never heard this story before. Being the daughter of a historian, as well as being a quarter Polish myself, this story strikes home for me. Thanks so much for sharing it!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      flacoinohio, great comment. I wish I'd seen the documentary you mentioned-- I wasn't aware there was one. I will have to keep my eye out for it. Thanks again.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      A great story, well-told - so glad it's made HOTD for you!

      Voted up and shared.

    • flacoinohio profile image

      flacoinohio 5 years ago from Ohio

      I saw a documentary on this man a few weeks ago and it is amazing how people can think of ways to not only survive, but to save others in the process. As far as the German soldier, I am sure self preservation was a major part of his despicable behavior but he could have turned the good doctor in and been a hero to the Reich.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And thank you, whonunuwho, for reading and taking the time to comment.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      A great story pf WWII and well presented. There are many stories of a courageous people during these terrible times that show the best in the human spirit and strong will to survive.Thanks for this wonderful work.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thelma Alberts, thank you so much for your comment. This was one WWII story that was a pleasure to research and write, with its happy ending. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for reading and commenting, beverlyfaye.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Happyboomernurse. I'm afraid it's just pure coincidence that Eugene Lazowski moved to Eugene, Oregon. I understand he was so low-key that most of his fellow citizens were unaware they had a hero in their midst. Thanks for the vote-ups and the congrats. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, DzyMsLizzy. It was a very pleasant surprise to wake up this morning and discover my hub had been selected. Discovering stories like this is an inspiration to us all (especially writers :)). I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      RTalloni, thanks for commenting. I enjoyed discovering their story and the fact that they lived long enough to get the recognition they deserved. I appreciate the interest.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 5 years ago from Germany

      What a great story! I enjoyed reading it. I have heard about this story before. We should be always thankful to those people who risk their lives by helping the weak and sick people in times of that horrible WWII. This 2 doctors are indeed heroes. Congrats on the HOTD!

    • beverlyfaye profile image

      beverlyfaye 5 years ago

      I really enjoyed this hub.

      Thanks for telling the story.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 5 years ago from South Carolina

      Congratulations on earning Hub of the Day for this excellent hub. I had never heard this story before but it illustrates how resourceful and brave people with high integrity can be under terrible circumstances.

      I do have one question. Was the Oregon town, Eugene, named after Eugene Lazowski, or was it just coincidence that he lived in a town that was the same name?

      Voted up across the board except for funny.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on Hub of the Day!

      Very well done, and most interesting. This is a piece of history I'd not heard about before, and those are the kinds of people that make us think there may be hope for the human race.

      Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and honoring these heroes.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      This is an amazing read! Thank you for putting these doctors' story together for us. I'll be checking out more of your work.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for your kind words, varshamaniar. That's what I like about the Internet-- these unsung heroes can be brought forward.

    • varshamaniar profile image

      varshamaniar 5 years ago from Mumbai, India

      I have always been fascinated by stories, mysteries and events surrounding World War II. The curiosity refuses die and I would like to thank you for publishing such a good piece. There are several unsung heroes whose stories are never told. Voted Up.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, girishpuri. I hadn't heard of it either until just recently.

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      Girish puri 5 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      Great piece of history, i never heard the story and indeed an addition to my knowledge, thanks.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Nice to hear from you, Jennzie. I definitely agree. Thanks for the nice comment.

    • jennzie profile image

      jennzie 5 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

      I never heard about this story until now. These doctors were very brave and definitely deserve to be called heroes.

      Great hub!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, voting and sharing, Larry!

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Inspiring hub! Voted up, shared and more.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      jainismus, thank you very much for reading and commenting. It is much appreciated.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, mary615. I was born in the 1950s but we still had rationing when I was a baby. I enjoy finding out some of the things that don't make it into the history books.

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      Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

      I remember WWII although I was a young girl. I wish I remembered more about it. The two doctors were truly heroes to do what they did. I enjoyed reading this Hub very much.

      I voted it UP, etc.

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 5 years ago from Pune, India

      World War II is an interesting topic for many. This Hub of yours discusses less known facts of the war. Thank you for sharing this interesting information.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for stopping by, Gypsy. I understand that Lazowski's parents also hid a Jewish family in their home. Looks like it ran in the family. Thanks for commenting.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Very interesting piece of history. Not surprised that God blessed Lazowski with a long life what he did was awesome. Stories like these warm the heart that two such heroic doctors tried to save so many. Passing this on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Joan, I think most writers-- including myself-- write for many reasons. As a fellow writer, you know the effort you put into your own writing. When someone takes the time to enthuse about a small piece of work, it's one of the perks of the trade and is much appreciated. So, yes, it is encouraging!

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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi UH, your comment made me think! I don't quite agree with "intended effect". I feel that the "encouragement" could probably be considered a welcome secondary effect as a result of the main intention: I wanted to give back in some measure what you had given me in the first place, i.e. a very well presented and interesting read! You gave something of value to me, I wanted to give back something to you through recognizing that value. If this is encouraging for you, then I am even happier!

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      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Of course it is the intended effect. :)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      phdast7 and joanveronica: thank you both for your kind comments, which, of course, only serve to encourage me. I hope that is the intended effect :)

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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Fantastic article as usual, UH, congratulations! The story, simply told, has great impact. Voted up. awesome, beautiful and interesting!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What a great story! What incredibly heroic doctors. What a brilliant plan. I had never heard about this. Sharing.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, annerivendell. I, too, hadn't known of anything like this until I stumbled upon it. I only wish I could find more information on Dr Matulewicz but there is very little I could find. I don't even know if he's still alive, though I do know he moved back to Poland.

    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      What an amazing story! I never heard of it before, it was so interesting. Voted up.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the compliment, Richawriter. If only such good could outweigh the evil people do- especially those who hide behind institutional evil. Still, candles in the dark are better than complete blackness.

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      Richard J ONeill 5 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

      Great piece of history there.

      I had never heard of this genius by Dr Lazowski and Dr Matulewicz before and learning of it now is inspiring. Those men risked their lives in order to save thousands of others.

      Well written, great piece of history and shows that even in our darkest hour man is capable of selflessness and compassion for others.

      I enjoyed it and voted it up and interesting!

      Peace.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, RichardPac. I can't even imagine what their lives were like with the Gestapo watching them for years. And then to have to watch out for collaborators. I'm glad they were recognized by their country and others.

    • RichardPac profile image

      RichardPac 5 years ago from Sunny Florida!

      Wow, what a powerful story of survival! It's amazing how often times human desire to save lives will overcome such great evil.

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