The Polish Doctors Who Used Science to Outwit the Nazis
The young man wanted to cut off his arm. Maybe it would kill him. Or perhaps it would save his life—and his family.
It was 1941. The man was 35 years old, and after enduring months of forced labor in a German factory, he had just received good news: He had been permitted a temporary leave of two weeks.
When the man returned home to Poland, he found his family impoverished and with little food. In vain, he tried to think up schemes for how he could remain with them. Nothing felt feasible. If he refused to return to the labor camp, the Gestapo would likely arrest and kill him. If he and his family fled into the woods, they risked capture—the Germans would ship them all to a concentration camp. Even if he eluded the Nazis, the police would surely find somebody else in his extended family to take his place. The man’s only escape was through a doctor. If a physician could provide some medical excuse, perhaps he’d be allowed to leave the factory.
The man thought about hacking off his arm. True, it might kill him—but he also might live and escape life as one of Hitler’s slaves.
His doctor, also a Pole, had another idea. He rolled up the man’s sleeve, cradled a syringe, and carefully inserted the needle into his muscle. The doctor calmly explained that he did not know if the injection would do anything—if it’d cause a rash, an infection, or worse—but it was worth a try. He sent the man home with a two-part admonition: Come back in a few days, and don’t tell a soul what happened here.
The man followed orders. At his next appointment, the physician took a blood sample and, following wartime protocol, mailed the sample to the county’s Nazi-operated laboratory for testing.
Days later, a red telegram returned: “The Weil-Felix test is positive.” The young man had tested positive for typhus.
The doctor smiled.
Typhus was one of the deadliest infectious diseases a person could have, especially during wartime. The Germans went to great lengths to keep it out of their factories and forced labor camps. And when the authorities learned about the man’s diagnosis, they ordered him to be quarantined at home, where he would surely die.
What the Nazis didn’t know was that the man was not dying. He did not have typhus. The diagnosis was medical smoke and mirrors; the secret injection contained a substance that duped medical tests into returning a false positive.
A few weeks later, that enterprising doctor, named Stasiek Matulewicz, invited a fellow physician, Eugene Lazowski, to his lab. Matulewicz knew his friend would be interested in the discovery. After all, few people knew how to cheat death like Eugene Slawomir Lazowski.
More than a year earlier, Eugene Lazowski had watched Warsaw burn. He saw Germany invade Poland, saw the earliest bombs of World War II spill from the clouds and raze the city he called home. Born to devoted Catholic parents, Lazowski had grown up in Warsaw and had entered the city’s Army Medical Cadet School, which was located in the territory of an old castle near the heart of town. Sometime around age 26, Lazowski was engaged to a woman far above his station, an aspiring laboratory technician named Murka Tolwinska. He held the rank of Cadet-Sergeant and was just a few tests shy of his medical degree.
As Poland came under siege, Lazowski was ordered to leave his fiancée behind. He was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. He was told the med-school tests could wait: He was a military doctor now. In September 1939, he was assigned to a hospital train full of wounded that was bound for modern Belarus.
“Hospital train” is a generous turn of phrase. Upwards of 500 patients, suffering from all kinds of injuries, were crammed into industrial freight cars with large red crosses painted on the exterior. These crosses were supposed to protect the medical convoy from attack, but German aircraft bedeviled the train anyway. Nazi machine-gunners saw the crosses as moving bullseyes, as invitations for target practice.
One day, the train stopped and Lazowski was ordered to secure food for the wounded. He ventured into a village, only to return finding the freight cars mangled and ablaze. His nurse was dead. A bloody stocking dangled from a nearby tree branch, a foot slung inside.
Lazowski joined a new battalion and, for a time, the worst wound he dressed was a blister. That was until the Soviet Army, which had joined Germany’s endeavor to overtake Poland, invaded from the east. Between them, the Soviets and Nazis squeezed Poland like a clamp. The Red Army opened fire on the Poles.
Lazowski stood next to a heavy machine gun and watched helplessly as a bullet pierced the forehead of the soldier charged with feeding the weapon ammunition. The man crumpled into blood-soaked dirt. Lazowski took over until a soldier relieved him and, in the deafening midst of gunfire, felt a concussive thump rattle his sternum.
He surveyed his chest for blood. It was clean. Then he checked his camera, which dangled from his neck. A gaping hole in the lens stared back at him.
Close calls kept coming. One week later, a Soviet biplane strafed a horse-drawn ambulance Lazowski was in. That aircraft had also ignored the red crosses and assaulted the ambulance with a hailstorm of bullets. Lazowski leapt into a ditch and watched as a bomb tumbled.
Hours later, Polish troops discovered him unconscious, caked in soil, lying along the rim of a bomb crater.
In the span of two months, both the Soviets and the Nazis would take Lazowski prisoner. The Russians nabbed him first. After Lazowski’s battalion surrendered, the Soviets packed the Polish troops into an overcrowded freight car. By a stroke of luck, they failed to successfully bolt shut the doors of Lazowski’s boxcar and he jumped from the speeding train. The Germans captured him in mid-October and transported him to a POW camp. He was their prisoner for a measly two hours: Lazowski scaled the camp’s 10-foot brick wall—a skill he’d learned as a Boy Scout—and escaped.
Lazowski scrambled to southern Poland, setting his sights for the town of Stalowa Wola, where his fiancée’s mother lived. (He traveled one segment of the journey by bicycle.) By the time he reached Stalowa Wola, Poland had surrendered and the streets belonged to Germany’s “General Government.”
But all Lazowski could think about was his fiancée. When he tracked down her mother, he asked: “Where’s Murka?”
She was there. She had survived the Warsaw Siege, escaped the city, and was living with her family. When they reunited, Murka tearfully refused to tell Lazowski all she’d seen in Warsaw. Instead, they discussed their impending marriage.
The ceremony would take place that November in the nearby village of Rozwadów. It was there, in late 1940, that Dr. Lazowski, taking a position at a Red Cross clinic, would try to build something resembling a normal life. Instead, the practice of this soft-spoken doctor would become ground zero for one of the most cunning conspiracies of World War II.
Rozwadów was a whistle-stop town on the banks of the San River. Before the German occupation, the region was a beehive of Orthodox shtetls—Rozwadów’s own formed a modest community of some 2000 Jewish shoemakers, craftsmen, and, carpenters. But by the time the Lazowskis settled there, Jewish life in Rozwadów had withered.
Only a year before, on August 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler had given a speech to his military commanders at his Bavarian home The Berghof, calling for the annihilation of Poland and its Jews.
Our strength is our rapidity and our brutality. Genghis Khan sent millions of women and children to their deaths, consciously and with a joyous heart. History sees in him only the greatest founder of a state … Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.
About a month after the invasion, the Nazis had forced hundreds of Rozwadów’s Jews to cross the San River. Many could not swim. Many did not reach the far bank.
The Jews who remained were exiled. The shtetls of Rozwadów transformed into ghettos. Polish laborers in Stalowa Wola, home to an enormous steel factory, began constructing cannons and armaments for Germany’s military. The laborers were told that Poland had ceased to exist: Everybody in Rozwadów lived to serve the Reich.
Elsewhere, Germany greased the wheels of its economy with slave labor. Millions of ethnic Poles—who the Nazi party also termed Untermenschen, or subhumans—were deported to Arbeitslager camps and forced into labor. They were joined by Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, and Jews—who were often expedited to death camps. People were put to all kinds of work for the war: assembling aircraft, making military uniforms, forging weapons, munitions, and mines, and, later, the components of the V2 rocket. Their enslavement built profits for the German government and thousands of private corporations, many of which still operate today (and some of which were American). In total, about 1.5 million to 3 million ethnic Poles were forced into labor. Children were not exempt. Possibly 200,000 Polish children, some no older than 10, were kidnapped by the Germans.
“Almost every day in different parts of town they staged ‘roundups’ to capture people,” Lazowski recalled. “Police and soldiers surrounded designated areas and arrested everyone who was young and strong. These people were sent to Germany as slave labor. They released only those who had work permits and were employed by German approved institutions.”
Untold numbers of these prisoners were worked to death. At one of the largest and most brutal Arbeitslager complexes, called Mauthausen-Gusen, the prisoners (including Polish intellectuals and even scouting troops) were forced to work in a quarry for 12 hours every day, carrying 110-pound blocks of granite up a slippery and uneven 186-step staircase. The steps were crowded. Whenever a prisoner collapsed, a domino effect ensued. Cascades of heavy rocks tumbled down the stairs and crushed anybody unlucky enough to be standing below. Sometimes, when an inmate reached the top of these steps, the SS would direct him to stand at the edge of a cliff rising 120 feet above the quarry and jump. Inmates called the precipice “The Parachutist’s Wall.”
At its peak, slave labor would account for nearly 20 percent of Germany’s workforce.
The Reich had an interest in keeping some ethnic Poles out of slave camps. The Fatherland needed food, and rural Poland was the place to grow the grain that would keep Germany’s bellies full. Local farms, for their part, were given unattainable production quotas. The Nazis also hijacked Poland’s industry. And Lazowski, as a Polish Catholic, was conscripted to Germany’s cause, too. His job was to keep these Polish servants of the Reich—especially those working in the Stalowa Wola steelworks—healthy.
The doctor secretly saw his work differently: to help his fellow Poles live through the occupation so they could rebuild the country they loved.
Lazowski’s Rynek Street clinic sat on Rozwadów’s town square. It was busy. The local steel works sent laborers to his clinic, as did the local monastery and the family of a local prince (who lavished the doctor with “coffee” contrived from dried roasted peas). Locals were grateful to have another doctor in town. Most of them self-medicated, managing headaches with cupping glasses and treating tuberculosis with dog lard. Lazowski, with the help of Murka, who worked as his laboratory technician, would help anybody who walked into his clinic. “Anyone who struck me as too poor or too proud to ask the [Polish Red Cross] for help, I treated anyway,” he wrote. For his first house call, the patient’s family paid with a live duck.
Lazowki kept it as a pet. According to his grandson, Mark Gerrard, “he cherished all creatures, great and small.” In fact, he’d keep a menagerie that included pet chickens, a goose, a tailless German Shepherd that followed him on house calls, and a hedgehog named Thumper that slept in his bed.
In the spring of 1941, a beefy man cloaked in a heavy sheepskin coat stalked into Lazowski’s Red Cross office. He resembled a peasant—solid mustache, tall boots—but swaggered with confidence. He introduced himself as “Captain Kruk,” and asked a question: Did the good doctor want to join The Resistance?
By 1941, Poland’s military was a memory. The Germans and Soviets had massacred thousands of Polish thinkers, political leaders, and military officers. After the occupation, the country’s armed resistance splintered into a messy collage of underground militant organizations: the Peasants Battalions, the People’s Guard of WRN, the Confederation of the Nation, the Union of Armed Struggle, the National Armed Forces, the Camp of Fighting Poland, the Secret Polish Army, and more.
Captain Kruk commanded the Underground National Military Organization, or NOW. Lazowski did not hesitate to join. “At that time I did not care about the politics of the organizations to which I belonged,” he wrote in his memoir Private War. “All I cared about was fighting the Germans.” He took the codename Leszcz, presumably after a type of fish.
Lazowski’s primary job was to help ailing Underground soldiers. His other duty, however, was as dangerous as it was quotidian: Pass along the news. Poland’s press had been annihilated—all of the pre-war newspapers had been closed—and the only reading material available was propaganda. Owning a radio in order to try to listen to outside news could get you killed—but somebody in the Underground owned a Philips radio, took notes on scraps of toilet paper, and published the reports in Underground newspapers. Like a group of schoolboys passing notes behind the teacher’s back, conspirators would pass news of current events along a chain, one by one: One person informed Leszcz, and he, in turn, informed the next member.
Lazowski didn’t know who comprised the Underground. “One of the basic rules of a conspiracy is to know as little as possible about your co-conspirators,” Lazowski wrote. “The less you know the less you can reveal in case of arrest or torture.” But one unknown conspirator, codenamed Pliszka, became a vital link. Lazowski never spoke with Pliszka directly—they always communicated through a third party—but Pliszka helped organize first aid to wounded soldiers of the Underground and even supplied Lazowski with a much-needed nurse.
Conspiracy made Lazowski nervous. The Gestapo could barge into his house at any time—and they did. Once, a German officer pounded on the door and held Lazowski at gunpoint for the crime of not pulling his curtains fully during a blackout. In the event that he needed to escape, he loosened a few boards from his backyard fence.
Instead of an escape route, the hole became a portal to Rozwadów’s ghetto.
Law forbade Polish doctors from treating Jews. But, one day, as Lazowski and Murka relaxed in their backyard, a pleading voice emerged from the hole in the fence: “Doctor, we need your help.” Lazowski stepped through the hole.
Lazowski would eventually meet an old man, a family patriarch with a cloudy beard and a black, gangrenous toe. Lazowski treated him, and the man would become one of his regulars. The Jewish community built a clandestine routine: If somebody needed medical assistance, his neighbors would hang a rag near the hole to dry. The escape route opened up medical care to the entire Jewish neighborhood.
All of these activities—joining the Underground, passing along banned news, treating Underground soldiers, and providing medical care to Jews—were punishable by death.
There was no way Lazowski could avoid contact with the Reich. As a medical doctor, he was required to report any infectious diseases he saw in his patients. Such diseases had the potential to devastate factories and hurt Germany’s productivity. But his clinic didn’t have the resources to perform the necessary tests for such diseases. Instead, he had to mail blood samples to a county lab where a Nazi scientist scrutinized the results. The process was frustrating. Sometimes Lazowski had to wait more than a week to get a diagnosis confirmed.
He wasn’t the only one bothered by the system. A friend of his from medical school, Stasiek Matulewicz, had recently started a job as a physician nearby and was living in a village six miles upriver. Sometime in 1941, Lazowski traveled to the town of Zbydniów to visit his friend’s cottage. There, Matulewicz revealed his secret to working around the Nazis. Impatient with waiting days for a diagnosis, Matulewicz built a laboratory in his backyard shed and taught himself to perform some blood tests himself.
That included the Weil-Felix reaction, the standard means of testing for endemic typhus.
A quarter of century earlier, two doctors, Edward Weil and Arthur Felix, had discovered that you could verify typhus by exposing a patient’s blood serum to a bacterium suspension called Proteus OX19. All you had to do was add heat. If the blood serum clumped, then the blood test was positive. Matulewicz had attained a stockpile of Proteus OX19 serum and jerry-rigged an electric heater to perform the test himself.
Lazowski was impressed. “The fact that Matulewicz was able to perform the Weil-Felix test in his lab was significant,” he wrote. “It meant that we could get a typhus diagnosis within a few hours and did not have to wait six to 10 days for the results from labs in Tarnobrzeg or Lublin.”
During their visit, Matulewicz asked Lazowski a question: What do you think would happen if, instead of adding Proteus OX19 to serum samples, you injected it directly into a patient? Lazowski wasn’t sure. Matulewicz smirked. He had already tried it.
Lazowski was gobsmacked. ”You injected Proteus bacteria suspension into a man without fear of infection?”
Matulewicz nodded and told Lazowski the story about the man who had wanted to cut off his arm to escape forced labor. The patient, he explained, showed no signs of infection, not even a rash. But there was a bigger surprise. “Six days later I examined the patient's blood,” Matulewicz said.
Matulewicz smiled. “The blood tested positive for Weil-Felix.”
Lazowski’s mind must have raced at the news: A doctor working in a wooden shed in the middle of a rural patch of Poland had discovered something that decades-worth of doctors and scientists in well-equipped labs had failed to notice. He was also the first to realize that this was more than a medical party trick. This could save dozens, possibly hundreds, of lives! As he later wrote, “I finally knew what my role in this War was to be.”
“I would not fight with swords and guns, but with intelligence and courage,” he explained in a 2004 interview with American Medical News.
He was going to give his village fake typhus.
The most lethal enemy in war is arguably neither bullets nor bayonets, but bacteria.
Typhus is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii, a rod-shaped bacterium named for H.T Ricketts and S. von Prowazek, two scientists who studied typhus in the early 20th century and were eventually killed by it. It’s carried by body lice. After gorging on human blood, the bugs transmit the bacteria by infecting the feeding site with their feces. Once Rickettsia enters the body, it multiplies inside cells lining small blood vessels.
Chills, headache, thirst, fever. The first symptoms can resemble the everyday flu. The only indication that something graver is amiss is a freckle-like rash, which usually appears on the chest or abdomen. That’s when victims begin to deteriorate. Patients grow skittish, mentally unfocused, even stuporous. Some plunge into a coma; others become prey to secondary infections. Renal failure is common. During wartime, as many as 40 percent of typhus victims may die.
Typhus loves war because lice thrive in crowded, unsanitary spaces—trains, buses, tenements, campsites, refugee camps. The risk is the worst for people who wear the same clothes every day, as soldiers often do. It’s also the worst in the winter, when people huddle for warmth and bathe less from cold.
Joseph M. Conlon, a Navy entomologist writing for Montana State University [PDF], details all of the ways typhus has hobbled history’s armies. During the Thirty Years' War, approximately 350,000 men died in combat—but approximately 10 million more died of plague, starvation, and typhus. Lice crippled Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, killing more than 80,000 of his soldiers in one month. (By the end, about half of his grand army had died of dysentery and epidemic typhus.) During World War I, the disease is said to have affected 25 million people, killing untold numbers—including Lazowski’s own uncle.
The Germans knew how dangerous typhus could be. “The immunological resistance of the Germans was lower and mortality was higher in respect to epidemic typhus than was that of Poles and Russians,” Lazowski and Matulewicz would write in The American Society for Microbiological News in 1977. Eastern Europeans possessed a greater resistance to typhus than Germans (the disease had an intense history in those countries). That very fact bruised a basic tenet of Nazi ideology: that a “superior race” had the right to destroy an inferior one. The truth was that Germans, in this case, were inferior. A well-placed typhus epidemic could cripple the Reich.
As a result, the Nazis didn’t dare go near anybody with typhus. To Lazowski, a fake typhus epidemic represented immunity, a way to help his townspeople avoid participating in the war. Every neighbor who came down with the disease would become safe from deportation, slave labor, and harassment from the Gestapo. And if enough people in the region reportedly had the disease, entire villages could be quarantined. He and Matulewicz could build peaceful oases in the heart of German-occupied Poland.
The two doctors hatched a plan. Any patient who visited their practices complaining of headache, rash, or fever would be diagnosed with typhus, no matter the true illness. They would secretly treat the ailments and then give the patient a shot of Proteus OX19, which they masked as “Protein stimulation therapy.”
When the patient returned for a checkup, the doctors would withdraw a blood sample and mail it to the Nazi labs. The Germans would mistakenly confirm the typhus.
The two decided that the fake epidemic would start with patients who hailed from the region’s more remote forested villages. When winter crept in, the doctors would increase the injections and move the disease closer to the village centers. To avoid any suspicion, they’d follow the pattern of a true typhus epidemic, decreasing injections at springtime. The doctors would tell no one: not their patients, not their wives, and not a soul in the Underground. Everybody—both the Nazis and townspeople—would believe typhus was ravaging the villages. Any panic gripping the villages was a small price to pay for freedom.
Sometime near autumn of 1941, an electrician named Jósef Reft visited Lazowski’s clinic with complaints of fever. He dozed in and out of consciousness, a symptom Lazowski recognized as pneumonia. He prescribed Reft medicines that treated his true illness—and then injected Proteus OX19. A few days later, Reft’s blood serum sample was in a laboratory about 20 miles away in Tarnobrzeg.
The red telegram arrived: “The Weil-Felix reaction is positive.”
The epidemic had begun.
In the spring of 1942, a German military policeman visited Lazowski’s clinic. He was tall, red-headed, and dressed in full uniform. His name was Nowak. He had a venereal disease (likely gonorrhea), and he wanted to know how much treatment would cost.
Lazowski sized the soldier up. German militarymen were forbidden from seeking medical care from Polish doctors, but Lazowski was an obstinate moralist and believed a doctor was duty-bound to treat anybody who needed help—at least, in this case, for a price.
“Normally 20 zlotys,” Lazowski said. “But for you, 100.”
The doctor’s chutzpah surprised Nowak. “Aren’t you afraid to talk to me like that?”
Lazowski didn’t miss a beat. “Aren’t you afraid to seek help from a Polish doctor?”
Nowak sat down. The doctor hooked up an IV drip of Cibazol, and the two began to chat.
“If you only knew what I was doing September of ‘39, you would kill me,” Nowak said. During the siege of Warsaw, he gave directions to the Luftwaffe, telling them which buildings to bomb. Lazowski knew what that meant. He had seen the smoke rise over schools and hospitals, recalled witnessing 18,000 civilian souls getting erased. He called Nowak a “swine.” The Nazi did not wince.
When the procedure finished, Lazowski unplugged the IV and Nowak slid off the chair and walked outside without paying. “Let him go to hell,” Lazowski muttered to his mortified nurse. A hundred zlotys didn’t compare to his other worries.
Winter had passed and the first typhus epidemic was winding down. It had been a success. The doctors had targeted villages that the Germans were already hesitant to visit—wooded villages infested with guerilla forces hiding in the forest—in the hopes that the disease would scare them from visiting at all. And whenever the duo encountered a real case of typhus, they would send the patient to a different doctor in the region. It was like an advertising scheme: It got everybody talking about it. Even the county doctor would pull Lazowski aside and express his fears. “That was good,” Lazowski wrote. “We wanted them to be worried.”
But the first epidemic had to end, and it ended at the worst possible time. Months earlier, the Germans had broken their non-aggression pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia. The Soviets had responded to initial heavy defeats by drafting an astonishing 20 to 30 million people into their military. The Soviets began pounding back. Meanwhile, resistance was growing in Rozwadów too. Underground militants bombed bridges, roads, railroad tracks, and trains almost daily. Farmers who were supposed to send grain to the German front forged papers and smuggled provisions to hungry locals. Saboteurs targeted the local steel works. All of these attacks crippled German arms production in the region by 30 percent. Rocked back on their heels, the Nazi troops took their fear and frustration out on the Poles.
Word spread that German troops were deporting more and more Poles. In one month alone, an estimated 30,000 people had been rounded up. The news likely hung heavy in the Lazowski house: Murka, who was newly pregnant, attended church almost daily now.
Lazowski knew the typhus outbreak was Rozwadów’s sole hope. When autumn returned, he’d inject more locals with Proteus OX19, but in the meantime, he had to travel to Warsaw to fetch more Weil-Felix reagent and a stash of typhus vaccine. He planned to vaccinate the region’s most valuable Underground soldiers in case a real epidemic broke out.
Aiding the resistance was risky enough as it was—he was being dispatched by agent Pliska regularly to dress the wounded—but vaccinating Underground soldiers was another matter. Polish doctors were outlawed from owning or using the typhus vaccine. Months earlier, the Gestapo had tortured Polish physicians at the State Hygiene Institute for hoarding the medicine. Lazowski began carrying a cyanide pill in his breast pocket.
“I was not afraid of death,” he wrote. “But torture was another story.” If he were caught, he’d poison himself.
A crew of anonymous Underground contacts, particularly Pliszka, ensured that wouldn’t be necessary. “I was very curious to know who Pliszka was but was afraid to ask,” he wrote. Whoever it was, they did a brilliant job finding hiding spots for wounded soldiers. ”My respect for this unknown co-conspirator grew daily.”
Lazowski covered his back by keeping two sets of books, one for himself and one for the Germans, just in case investigators barged in to inspect his files. And one day, somebody did barge unexpectedly into his office: Officer Nowak.
“Ein Mann, Ein Wort,” the Nazi intoned. That is: A man, a word. He handed the doctor 100 zlotys and walked out.
On July 21, 1942, Lazowski peeled back his curtains and watched as a red-haired officer outside clutched a pistol. It was Nowak, and he and handful of armed German police officers were shouting orders. It didn’t take long for the doctor to piece together what was happening: The village’s Jews were being rounded up in Rozwadów’s town square.
Men, women, and children huddled outside, clutching whatever possessions they could carry. Soldiers jammed rifle barrels into their backs and shoved them toward the town square. Lazowski watched as people stumbled to the sidewalk and were treated to gunfire.
Nowak waved his handgun in the air. At first, it appeared that he was using it to point people where to go. Lazowski quickly realized that he was, in fact, using the weapon for its designed purpose: Gray-haired people fell everywhere Nowak looked.
The police targeted both the very old and very young. They used rifles, pistols, the butts of their guns, their own hands. In the town square, a young woman pushing a baby carriage tried to blend in with the crowd. Nowak noticed. He charged the woman, kicked the pram, and approached the infant after it tumbled to the dirt. Nowak raised his foot and brought it down.
Murka fell to her knees and began to pray. Lazowski wrote that he “felt the grinding in my own head.”
With the exception of the barking of orders and the firing of bullets, there was little noise. Hardly any screams or cries rose from the crowd. The people looked numb, traumatized into collective paralysis. They did not put up a fight. They waited quietly for the trucks that would transport them to the train station.
These were one-way freight trains. Lazowski recalled tales of boxcars littered with shredded money—stocks, bonds, and currency from countries across Europe—which the Jews, realizing their destination, had destroyed “so the Germans couldn’t profit.”
The doctor watched from the window as the trucks pulled out of the town square and his neighbors, his patients, his friends disappeared.
The popping of gunshots continued into the evening. The police swept one last time through Rozwadów’s old shtetl and discovered people hiding in closets and under furniture. Lazowski later heard rumors that some people successfully fled into the woods. Nobody knows how many, if any, eluded capture.
As the sun set and the sound of gunshots grew infrequent, Lazowski peered into his backyard. On the other side of the hole in his fence, his neighbor’s home sat empty. His favorite regular patient—the elderly man with the long beard—had been shot while lying in bed.
The cyanide capsule in Lazowski’s pocket had never felt so heavy.
The nightmare was always the same. The gestapo had detained and restrained him. They told him they knew the typhus epidemic was a hoax. They knew he was behind it. Then they gently placed a metal rod against his temple. Out of the corner of his eye, a hammer came into view.
The middle of 1942 was a restless time for Dr. Lazowski. Night after night he’d lunge from bed screaming. The quietest of noises would wake him.
It also didn’t stop him from waging what he called his “Private War."
Winter neared. Lazowski and Matulewicz prepared to inject more patients with Proteus OX19. Lazowski would write very little about the details of the people he injected, but we do know that red telegrams from the Nazi testing facility confirming typhus poured in. Each positive result, he wrote, was an “epidemiological statistic and was registered with the Germans as a case of a dangerously contagious disease.” By snowfall, the county doctor again expressed concerns that the epidemic was going to decimate the town.
One day, signs appeared across the villages stamped with the most poetic words in the German language: ACTHUNG, FLECKSFIEBER!
Attention, Typhus! The Germans had declared a territory of about a dozen villages as under quarantine. “Our epidemic now covered over 8000 people,” Lazowski wrote.
The designation brought “relative freedom from oppression” because “the Germans were inclined to avoid such territories and the population was relatively free from atrocities,” Lazowski wrote in ASM News. The epidemic became something of a bargaining chip. When the “Governor Oberleiter,” who controlled much of the region, personally complained to Lazowski about the village’s health, the doctor used it to drop hints: Perhaps, he suggested, you should give your people more soap?
Lazowski and Matulewicz planned to expand the outbreak to the center of Stalowa Wola, but their own success hobbled their progress. Dr. Richard Herbold, the Nazi Chief of Medicine at the local steel works, became worried and began asking the doctors questions about the epidemic.
This was trouble. During the war, typhus reportedly killed hundreds of people every day. Yet in the villages around Rozwadów, fatality rates were miraculously low. “When questioned by the patients, I always answered that yes they had typhus but by the grace of God they had a very mild case,” Lazowski wrote. The explanation was unlikely to soothe Nazi doctors.
“We could not afford to spread the epidemic … in case Dr. Herbold personally started treating our typhus patients and discovered that whatever they had, it wasn’t typhus,” he wrote. The doctors limited the epidemic to the outer villages.
All of this was accomplished as Lazowski faced a private war of a different kind. His wife was fighting for her life.
On December 15, 1942, Murka had given birth to a healthy baby girl. The baby was fine, but a post-natal infection left Murka bedridden.
For three weeks, Murka slipped in and out of consciousness, plagued by fever dreams of the Warsaw Siege. Murka’s husband wrapped her in wet sheets and sat by her side. He checked her heartbeat, applied a cold compress, gave her medicine and injections of caffeine. None of it seemed to work. Her pulse was a whisper. “Death was lurking in the background, not in the form of a skeleton with a scythe, but in the form of mercury in a thermometer which climbed above the measurable level,” Lazowski wrote.
The fever persisted. Murka grew gaunt, her arms mottled with bruises from the IV. Friends flooded the house to help. Matulewicz carried on the typhus epidemic by himself as Lazowski “lived only for taking care of her and trying to save her life.” When the priest visited, Murka said goodbye to her friends, her mother, and, lastly, her husband.
At one point, she gestured for him to come closer. He bent over and put his ear to her lips. In a frail voice, she whispered: “I am Pliszka.”
Murka would live. Lazowski later learned that his wife had been attending church daily not just to pray, but to retrieve information from the Underground. “I felt that Murka was a better conspirator than I because she knew that I was Leszcz and I did not know that she was Pliszka,” Laskowski wrote.
But she didn’t know that her husband had staged two giant typhus epidemics and would soon embark on a third.
The summer of 1943 came and went. And with it, so did Laskowski’s co-conspirator, Dr. Matulewicz. Over the two years he’d lived in the area, Matulewicz had witnessed many examples of German brutality. Once, a neighbor of his had slaughtered one of his own pigs without a permit. Within days, the neighbor’s house sat empty. (The offense was punishable by death.) The last straw likely came during the summer of 1943 when Governor Oberleiter ordered a raid of a nearby farming estate during a wedding celebration. Twenty-one people, including children, were massacred.
It appears Matulewicz had seen enough. He escaped the region. His friend would have to stage the epidemic alone.
Lazowski didn’t falter. As usual, he left few notes about the specifics of his work, but the third staging appears to have been a success. “The benefits of the epidemic for the local population were enormous,” he wrote, “especially the delivery of the required food quotas.” The Volksdeutsche (Poles with a Germanic heritage and outspoken Nazi sympathies) made their living by delivering food to Germans. But with so many Poles quarantined and out of work, their treasonous profits plummeted.
The Volksdeutsche grew suspicious. After all, Lazowski’s biggest problem had returned: Nobody was dying. That winter, the county doctor, Ludwig Rzucidlo, visited Lazowski’s office to deliver a message he dared not utter over the phone: The Germans suspected the typhus epidemic could be a sham.
The Germans knew nothing about Proteus OX19. Rather, they suspected a local doctor was withdrawing blood from a single typhus-infected patient and splitting it among multiple test tubes. The Germans decided to perform an in-person inspection: They wanted to see Lazowski’s patients.
Lazowski’s nightmares of torture at the hands of the Nazis were never far from him. He knew he needed a plan. Blood samples were not a huge issue—the new tests would most likely be positive—but the problem remained that few people in Rozwadów diagnosed with “typhus” actually showed physical signs of the disease. Any experienced doctor would see they were not seriously ill.
Lazowski pored over his charts and dug up files on the most infirm of the patients he had injected with Proteus OX19. He planned a grand tour of the invalids. First, he’d show the Germans the unhealthiest patients in town, people with telltale signs of typhus: fever, dry cough, rashes. (One patient had a blotch on his forehead from cupping glasses. It would do.) He’d also stage a feast. A village elder would throw a bash overflowing with food and drink. The elder would insist that everybody make merry. Lazowski would tug the inspectors in the other direction and insist they see patients first. Hopefully, the siren call of the feast and the revelry would compel the Germans to rush through the investigation.
On a frigid February day in 1944, a truck of German soldiers—a colonel, two captains, an officer, and two NCOs—pulled into Rozwadów. The village elder greeted the men and invited them inside for libations, as planned. The colonel was pleased. He stayed behind and sent a handful of men into the cold to perform the check ups.
Lazowski led the Germans into the homes of the sickest people in the village. He regaled the Germans with horror stories of lice infestations. Get close at your own risk, he said. The truth was, the first “typhus” patient on the tour only had pneumonia. The visiting doctors never noticed. Lazowski had stoked their paranoia to such a pitch that they were too afraid to perform a physical examination. They took a blood sample and left.
The same was true of the next patient, and the next, and the next. The winter cold was so biting, and the Germans’ fear of typhus so great, that it took only a few visits for the group to quit. They returned to the party and drank. “The house was warm and everyone had a jolly time,” Lazowski wrote. Not once did they perform a physical exam. All of the tests would later test positive for typhus.
After the investigation, Lazowski slept soundly through the night for the first time in months.
In July 1944, artillery fire rumbled from across the San River. The Soviets had pressed into Poland—Operation Bagration, the largest military confrontation in history, was underway—and now the Iron Curtain was knocking on Rozwadów. The knife’s edge of Germany’s front abutted the river, but their retreat was imminent. As both Russia and Germany exchanged fire, military vehicles kicked up dust down Rozwadów’s roads as the Nazis high-tailed it deeper into Poland.
A motorcycle came to idle in front of Lazowski’s clinic. An officer in army fatigues rushed into the doctor’s office.
It was Nowak.
“Doctor, run!” he yelled. “You are on the Gestapo hit list. They are going to eliminate you.” The Germans, he explained, knew that Lazowski had helped wounded members of the Underground.
Lazowski took news of his nightmare becoming a reality rather coolly. “Why?” he said. “I worked loyally as a doctor.”
Nowak shrugged. “Do what you want.” He hurried out the door.
Murka was the first to react. She snatched up their baby, and together the family snuck through the hole in the fence and ran. Missiles screamed overhead. Mobs raided warehouses. The town fell into chaos. For some reason, rolls of toilet paper flapped from tree branches. “The people were not afraid of the Germans any more, and the Germans were afraid to shoot at the mob,” Lazowski would write. The family took refuge at Murka’s mother’s house in Stalowa Wola.
It’s here that Murka became violently ill. Her breathing turned shallow and her stomach hardened to steel. Lazowski recognized her symptoms as a terribly timed case of peritonitis, a possibly deadly inflammation of the abdominal membrane. She needed surgery. The closest surgeon, however, had been arrested. So, as shells whistled overhead, Lazowski pushed his wife in a wheelchair five miles through an active war zone to the nearest hospital with a surgeon.
The doctors placed Murka in a pleasant room on the second floor. Sunshine poured through the window and lit up a vase of flowers on a nightstand. Explosions rumbled ever closer. The couple were the only people on the floor and, feeling increasingly at risk, decided to move. Lazowski picked up his wife, carried her into the hospital basement, and laid her on a cot.
An instant later, the building rattled, lights vanished, and dust rained from the ceiling.
The last missile of the battle had struck the hospital, destroying Murka’s room. When Lazowski surveyed the rubble later, he saw that “the wall and the bed were gone.”
Over the coming days, Murka’s health improved. The Germans retreated for good. And for the first time in nearly five years, the people of Stalowa Wola saw the flag of Poland flap over their homeland.
Shortly after, Lazowski removed the cyanide pill from his breast pocket and tossed it into a stove.
When Eugene Lazowski was born, his father argued with the local priest over what to name the newborn. Mr. Lazowski wanted to name his baby boy Slawomir. The holy man wouldn’t allow it: No saint, he scolded, ever had that name. Mr. Lazowski was beside himself.
“He will be the first!” he said.
The priest didn’t buy it: “I doubt it.”
In a snub to the priest, Lazowski would go by the nickname Slawek—short for Slawomir—for most of his life. It was a name fit for a saint. And to the people of Rozwadów, few people deserved the honor more than the man who spent three years conspiring to save thousands of his countrymen, all the while successfully hiding the story of his success from his wife, his patients, and his enemies. For years, Lazowski hardly spoke about it.
He didn’t tell Murka the truth about the epidemic until 1958, when they left Communist-ruled Poland to emigrate to the United States. (Lazowski hated what the communists did to Poland and never forgave Roosevelt for acquiescing to Stalin.) For the next two decades, Dr. Lazowski continued saving vulnerable lives in a quiet fashion, working for the Illinois Children’s Hospital-School. In 1981, he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he taught pediatrics.
In the 1970s, he reconnected with Matulewicz, who was teaching radiology at Kinshasa University in Zaire, Africa. In 1975, Lazowski wrote an article describing their conspiracy for the London-based Polish newspaper, Orzel Bialy. Nobody noticed. In the 1990s, he wrote a Polish-language memoir entitled Prywatna Wojna, or “Private War.” The book was published in Polish but not in English. The only public English-language version of Lazowski’s tale, translated by his daughter, Alexandra Barbara Gerrard, sits in the Special Collections & University Archives of the University of Illinois Library of Health Science in Chicago. It is from that single, string-bound account that most of this story has been taken.
During World War II, nearly 2 million ethnic Poles died, many of them in forced labor camps. But thanks to Dr. Lazowski’s and Dr. Matulewicz’s epidemic, people from more than a dozen villages eluded deportation. By some estimates, the two doctors saved more than 8000 people over three years. If that number is true, then the doctors were far more successful than Oskar Schindler.
“I was just trying to do something for my people,” Lazowski told the Chicago Sun Times in 2001. “My profession is to save lives and prevent death. I was fighting for life.” As his grandson Mark Gerrard says, Lazowski would say he was just doing his part: “He always insisted that anyone who had his training and knowledge would have done it. It just happened that they came upon this idea in the midst of war.”
In 1996, Lazowski lost Murka. In her waning days, he became her nurse. “They were the kind of old couple you see and think, ‘Oh, nobody can be into each other that much in their 70s,” Gerrard says. “But they were. They were very much in love their whole lives.”
Four years later, Lazowski, then 86, returned to Rozwadów for the first time in more than five decades. Stasiek Matulewicz joined him, and locals greeted the two doctors with a jubilant homecoming. Some were unaware that the typhus epidemic that had ravaged their town was fake.
At one moment, a man would approach Lazowski and thank him for saving his father from typhus. Lazowski grinned and gently corrected him.
“It was not real typhus,” he said. “It was my typhus."