Killing in the Name of Cleanliness

The shocking stupidity and brutality of Nazi doctors’ response to typhus.

German propaganda antisemitic poster, written in Polish and plastered on Polish streets in 1942, German-occupied Poland.
An anti-Semitic German propaganda poster that was plastered on the streets of German-occupied Poland.

Courtesy Archives of Institute of National Remembrance, Poland/Creative Commons

This article is excerpted from The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen, publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Ludwik Fleck was a Polish immunologist and infectious disease specialist who trained under Rudolf Weigl in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Later, Weigl moved to Lwow in newly independent Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), where he invented the world’s first typhus vaccine. Fleck returned to Lwow with Weigl and received his doctorate at the university there.

Being a Jew, however, Fleck was unable to find a job in a Polish university, and instead established his own diagnostic laboratory. When the Soviets invaded Lwow in 1939, Fleck was promoted to lead the state bacteriological laboratory. After the Nazi invasion in June 1941 he lost his job, was thrown out of his apartment, and forced to live in the Jewish ghetto.

Weigl offered Fleck and his associates a modicum of protection by getting them carnets that identified them as workers in the German Army’s typhus institute. This enabled them to survive while working in the ghetto hospital on Kuszewicz Street, just outside the “Aryan” section of the city. Weigl was also in close contact with Ludwik Hirszfeld, a famous hematologist, public health leader, and co-discoverer of human blood types, who by then had been forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto.

Hirszfeld and Fleck both continued to work as doctors and scientists in the respective ghettos, despite the constant threat of death. Both had contact with German doctors throughout the process and thus were able to describe the degree of complicity and callousness with which these German professionals treated their Polish and Jewish colleagues.

As the weather turned cold in late 1941, typhus broke out in the unheated dwellings of the beaten-down Jewish ghetto. A disease that Fleck knew from the First World War now added its monotonous terror to the other threats of annihilation. A dozen or more people were stuffed into each ghetto apartment room. The possibilities of bathing or cleaning one’s clothes were very limited. Everyone was hungry, and many were starving. “That typhus should quickly spread in these circumstances,” wrote Fleck, “was no wonder.” The outbreak began in a Soviet POW camp the Nazis had created at the Citadel, a 19th-century Austro-Hungarian barracks. That winter, there were thousands of cases; a year later, Fleck estimated that 70 percent of the ghetto residents had been infected with the disease. The German doctors responded to the epidemic with utter perversity.

The pattern had been established in Warsaw, occupied since September 1939, where German public health officials at first tried to fight the disease by requiring Jews to submit to delousing baths and quarantines. These measures were impractical and punitive. Delousing meant standing naked in the freezing cold while one’s apartment was searched and often robbed, and handing over a precious set of clothes likely to be damaged by powerful chemicals. A Warsaw public health official estimated that only one-fifth of all typhus cases were being reported to his officers.

The German emperor of Poland ordered that to prevent the spread of the disease, Jews trying to sneak out of the ghetto were to be shot. At a conference of 100 Nazi health officers at a Carpathian spa in October 1941, the issue came to a head with the intervention of Robert Kudicke, who had taken over the Polish Institute of Hygiene from Ludwik Hirszfeld. Speaking “purely academically without making any value judgment,” Kudicke said, “the Jewish population simply breaks out of the ghettos because there is nothing to eat. … If one wants to prevent that in the future, then one must use the best means for this, namely provide for more sufficient provisioning.” Jost Walbaum, the medical chief for occupied Poland, gave the following retort:

Naturally it would be best and simplest to give the people sufficient provisions, but that cannot be done. This is connected to the food situation and the war situation in general. Thus shooting will be employed when one comes across a Jew outside the ghetto without special permission. One must say it quite openly in this circle, be clear about it. There are only two ways. We sentence the Jews in the ghetto to death by hunger or we shoot them. Even if the end result is the same, the latter is more intimidating. We cannot do otherwise, even if we want to. We have one and only one responsibility, that the German people are not infected and endangered by these parasites. For that any means must be right.

Here, then, was the German medical community’s offer to Polish Jews: Die of starvation and typhus in the ghetto, or die by shooting. The loyalty of the German medical profession to authority and its adherence to Nazi ideology seem to have kept any humane solutions from entering their heads. Occasionally the doctors were cruel, and occasionally they were corrupt. But for the most part they were “honorable,” on their own terms—hideously impassive in the face of a genocide that they blamed on the victims. Even assuming that most of them did not, at least in the early stages of the war, envision the complete annihilation of the Jews, their membership in the thought collective caused them to tread forward like sleepwalkers. This was groupthink in its most hideous form.

Hirszfeld, who had been ousted from his job by Kudicke and Ernst Nauck of the Institute of Hygiene, was shocked at the stupidity of the German anti-typhus measures. Posters told everyone who found a louse on himself to report to a physician, and required the reporting of every case of fever. Science had long before abolished such medieval quarantine practices, Hirszfeld said, because in addition to being cruel, they were useless. “But since in this case the point was to liquidate the Jews and not the epidemic as such,” he added, “quarantines turned out to be quite useful.”

On April 24, 1943, Heinrich Himmler gave a speech to an assembly of SS officers: “Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology,” he told them. “It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, anti-Semitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany.”

A few months before the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, friends rescued Hirszfeld, and he lived out the war concealed in the country house of Polish aristocrats, where he wrote a memoir. He did not spare the German doctors under whom he had been forced to serve. “If in the institute that I had a part in molding there now works Mr. Nauck and Mr. Kudicke, whereas I—expelled—pine for my workplace: Who is the parasite, I or they? And who is profiting from someone else’s work?” In the ghetto, there had been little Hirszfeld could do to slow the epidemic. “The wonderful Dr. Weigl,” he wrote, secretly sent him large quantities of vaccine. But the shots were available only to a tiny minority. The Generalgouvernement had given Kudicke 50 million zlotys to combat the typhus epidemic when it spread beyond the ghetto in 1942; the only part allotted to the Jews was an 8,000-zloty disinfecting sprayer.

Hirszfeld created a makeshift medical school in the ghetto, and one of the topics discussed in his immunology class was the question “Are the Jews really a separate race?” His answer: No. Blood-typing research—Hirszfeld was one of the world’s experts—proved that Jews had always mingled with the nations where they dwelt. The idea was controversial among the rabbinate, but the students were fascinated. “After the lecture, several of them came up to me and told me with overflowing emotions: ‘We thank you. We feel that you have taken the curse from us.’ … [I]t seemed to me that I was fulfilling the duty of a teacher who was showing new roads to his pupils, roads beset with difficulties but also offering a hope for a better future.” At the very edge of civilization, where millions were paying for the world’s insane obsession with race, a lonely man shone a lantern of scientific truth. “Unfortunately,” Hirszfeld wrote, “I was speaking to human beings sentenced to extermination.”

Copyright 2014 by Arthur Allen. From The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.