When your home is invaded, your country destroyed, your town, village, or city occupied, it takes heroic courage and herculean effort to resist, to fight back. To protect your loved ones, your friends, your way of life. You’d imagine either a plucky band of rebels or a diehard group of fighters. Or sometimes, all you need is a couple of clever, but still heroically brave doctors. Here’s their story.
When the Germans invaded Poland and splintered it in half, with the other half going to Stalin and the Soviets, the town of Rozwadów found itself in German territory. The Germans in Poland at this time were rounding up Jews in the country to be herded into ghettos (and later to be sent to concentration camps) and the Poles themselves were often forced to work in camps or factories to support the German war effort.
Enter the two hero doctors of our story.
One was Eugene Lazowski, who had served in the Polish army before it totally collapsed along with the country itself. He was sent to a POW camp but escaped it to return to his hometown of Rozwadów and join the Polish Red Cross there. Here Lazowski started a “private war” of his own against the Nazis. His own home abutted the walls of the Jewish ghetto in the region and he had been forbidden to treat them by the German authorities. But treat them he did. Whenever someone in the ghettos needed medicine, they’d tie a rag around a fence post and Lazowski would sneak into the ghettos to treat the ill. To account for the missing medicines, he’d fudge his records stating that he used much more to treat his non-Jewish patients and passing travelers. This was dangerous as had he been found out by an eagle-eyed auditor, he would have been shot.
The other doctor was Lazowski’s friend, Stanislaw Mateluwicz. By chance, he had discovered a way that a popular test used at the time to detect typhus could yield false positives. The test was called the Weil-Felix test and it was a test that the Germans relied upon.
This was important because the German army was deathly afraid of typhus. To give you an idea of why armies across time feared typhus, understand that when Napoleon went conquering Russia with his Grand Army of 600,000 men, only 90,000 returned and half of the casualties were due to typhus and dysentery. During WW1 the Germans had suffered mightily in the trenches due to typhus. They did not want to be hit by the disease again.
When a man from the town who had been given a 2-week reprieve from his forced labor camp was due to return, he turned to Mateluwicz for help. The man had contemplated cutting off his own arm so he wouldn’t have to go back to the work camp, or worse, suicide. But he hoped the doctor could somehow give him a diagnosis of some serious disease, one verified by an independent lab, one that the German authorities could accept and thus let him off the hook. He just didn’t know how this be done.
Mateluwicz knew. The Weil-Felix test that was common for the time for typhus, the one that the Germans would want verified by an independent German lab, relied on a reaction of the Proteus OX-19 bacteria (known to cause urinary tract infections) with antibodies for typhus from a patient’s blood. If the two were mixed and the mixture turned cloudy, then the patient was declared to have typhus. But, Mateluwicz discovered that by injecting dead cells of this same bacteria into a person would cause the person to develop the very same antibodies needed to yield a positive for the Weil-Felix. He used this fact to save the laborer.
When Mateluwicz shared this discovery with Lazowski, the latter knew how he could fight back against the hated Nazis. Thus was born a way to fake an epidemic.
The German policy at the time was to quarantine Poles and spare the infected detention in the labor camps. After all, the Nazis needed their slave labor to be healthy to be useful. Any infected Jews would be executed. This was the reason why Mateluwicz was experimenting with the bacteria and the typhus tests in the first place. He was trying to treat his Jewish patients without alerting the Germans.
But the two doctors now schemed to use the German policies against them. The German Public Health Authority declared any area that had any reported cases of typhus to be an epidemic area and the German army tended to avoid such areas, leaving those regions relatively free of abuse at the hand of the Nazis.
The added benefit of the fake typhus results was that not only was the “infected” spared detention and forced labor, any family member that he or she had come in contact with was spared as well, given how contagious typhus was.
This then started an invisible shield of protection not only the town of Rozwadów but a dozen other towns around it as well.
Starting with that fake patient zero, the two doctors starting giving “protein stimulation therapy” to any non-Jewish members of the populations of Rozwadów and its neighboring towns with symptoms of fever, cough, rash, and aches – symptoms similar to early onset typhus. They didn’t dare do this with the Jews in the ghettos since (a) the doctors weren’t supposed to be treating them by the new German law, and (b) any Jewish patient would’ve been simply killed and not quarantined. Often the doctors didn’t even tell the patients what they were doing and took care to mimic the ebb and flow of a real epidemic, giving more injections in the fall and winter, creating more “typhus” cases in those seasons. To further their deception, they sent some of their patients to other doctors after the injections, so that the typhus positive results would be reported to the German authorities by more physicians in the area.
Soon the number of reported cases had risen to the point where the whole region was declared an epidemic area, a zone that the German army feared to go, leaving the region a relatively safe haven for both Poles and Jews alike. In fact, many Jews hid in Rozwadów under the cover of the fake epidemic without fear of discovery.
Given the virulent and often fatal nature of typhus, the lack of deaths did raise some eyebrows. The Germans not being complete dummies became somewhat suspicious. A team of doctors was sent from Germany to investigate.
But Lazowski was ready. He apparently greeted the visitors to a great feast. And true to hierarchical bureaucracies everywhere, the senior officials enjoyed the Polish food and vodkas while the junior underlings were sent out to inspect the town with the doctor.
He had also prepared for the German team’s arrival by collecting his most unhealthy looking patents that had had the injections in the dirtiest, dingiest building possible. The junior underlings, not too thrilled at their task and definitely scared of infections themselves, only gave the patients a once over. They ran the cursory blood test, verified the Weil-Felix results, and then left as quickly as they could. The senior doctors apparently didn’t check their work, but simply signed off on it, made sure all the paperwork was in order and left the dangerous “epidemic zone” as quickly as possible.
Lazowski and Mateluwicz had pulled off their deception so well that not even those who had been saved by the two doctors knew what had happened until 1977 when they revealed what they had done in an article for the American Society for Microbiology newsletter.
Lazowski eventually moved to the US in 1958 and retired from medicine in the 80s. Mateluwicz had escaped the war region in 1943 or after, and later in his life ended up teaching radiology at Kinshasa University in Zaire, Africa. The two reconnected in the 1970s. In 1975, Lazowski wrote an article for a British newspaper describing what he had done, and in the 80s, wrote a memoir in Polish called Prywatna Wojna, or “Private War.” The world didn’t notice their story then. But they are starting to find this story now.
During WW2, nearly 20% of the population of Poland perished in mass executions or in concentration camps. Doctors not only had to save and treat the sick but also defend their fellow countrymen from an even bigger menace. These two doctors showed that not all war heroes wear armor and carry guns. Sometimes they wear lab coats and carry syringes.