In a time when innocent people were brutally murdered only for their nationality and religion, one soldier stands out among the rest.
He defied the Germans, repeatedly risking his life to save the lives of thousands. Dr. Eugene Lazowski is considered a hero to many people, but for him, saving others was his only option—it was simply the right thing to do.
In German-occupied Poland in 1942, Lazowski was a 29-year-old doctor, somewhat soft-spoken, working for the Polish Red Cross in the tiny village of Rozwadow. The Gestapo was terrorizing the countryside--committing random murders, seizing young Polish men and women to work as slave laborers, and dispatching Jews to death camps.
Lazowski was deeply distressed. As a doctor, he felt he could not pick up a weapon and kill another man. However, as a Polish patriot and man of conscience, he could not stand by and do nothing. So, when a fellow doctor, Matulewicz, told him he had discovered a way to make healthy people test positive for typhus, Lazowski was delighted--and immediately knew what his role in the war would be.
"I was not able to fight with a gun or a sword," he said, "but I found a way to scare the Germans."
Typhus is an infectious disease spread by body lice that is often fatal, and at that time there was no cure and vaccinations were scarce. The German army dreaded the disease because in unsanitary wartime conditions, it could race through a regiment. So doctors who suspected that a patient had typhus were required to submit blood samples to German-controlled laboratories for testing.
Jews who tested positive were shot, and their houses burned. Non-Jews were quarantined or sent to special hospitals.
Matulewicz desperately wanted to bypass the German labs. He dared not send the labs blood samples from Jewish patients--it would mean their deaths. He had to figure out a way to perform the typhus test on his own.
"It was very important for us to make a final diagnosis for people who were hiding from the Germans or who were Jews because it could be very dangerous to send their blood for examination," Lazowski explained.
The accepted test for typhus at that time consisted of mixing a certain strain of killed bacteria with a blood sample from the patient. Under proper laboratory conditions, if the patient had typhus, the blood sample would turn cloudy.
Matulewicz did manage to devise a way to do the test on his own, and in the process he stumbled upon a curious discovery--if a healthy person were injected with the bacteria, that person would suffer no harm but would test positive for typhus.
When Matulewicz told Lazowski of his discovery, Lazowski immediately proposed that the two doctors secretly create a fake typhus epidemic to frighten the Germans into quarantining the area. A typhus scare could hold off the German army as effectively as a line of tanks.
From that day on, Lazowski and Matulewicz injected the killed bacteria into every non-Jewish patient who suffered from a fever or exhibited other typhuslike symptoms. They sent blood samples from the patients to the German-controlled lab. And, sure enough, every patient tested positive for typhus.
So, as not to draw suspicion to themselves, the two doctors referred many of their patients--after injecting them with the bacteria--to other doctors who weren't in on the ruse. These doctors would "discover" the typhus on their own and report it separately. Better yet, when a patient really did have typhus, Lazowski and Matulewicz publicized the case as much as possible--but only if the patient was not Jewish.
Within a few months, the Germans became alarmed.
One by one, "Achtung, Fleckfieber!" (Warning, Typhus!) signs went up in surrounding villages, until a dozen towns with a total of about 8,000 people were under quarantine.
The deportation of workers to Germany from these areas was stopped. German troops kept their distance. Villagers began to feel more relaxed. And only Lazowski and Matulewicz knew there was no epidemic.
They told no one, not even their wives.
It looked promising for the young doctor Lazowsky until the Germans sent a medical inspection team into the region to verify the “disease.” The team, comprised of a few doctors and several armed soldiers, met Dr. Lazowski just outside the city, where a hot meal awaited the team. They started eating and drinking with the young doctor. The lead doctor was having fun drinking, and thereby sent the younger two doctors to the hospital. Fearing for their own safety, they only drew blood samples and left. Dr. Lazowski knew he had succeeded.
Close to the end of World War II, Eugene Lazowski was warned that the Gestapo was after him by a soldier whom he had secretly treated for a venereal disease. The soldier told him that they were aware of him treating members of the resistance and had known for some time. Eugene later speculated that they had known about him, but had allowed him to live so that he may contain the ‘epidemic.’ So, in a way, Eugene had not only saved an estimated 8,000 people with the ‘epidemic,’ but he had also saved himself from execution.
When the doctor heard that he was being sought by the Gestapo, he grabbed his wife and daughter and fled the city. He moved to the United States in 1958 and became a professor at the University of Illinois Medical Center. Dr. Eugene Lazowski passed away in Oregon in December of 2006.
He saved 8,000 people from certain death in Nazi concentration camps. It was his private war—a war of intellect, not weapons. Dr. Lazowski followed in his parents’ footsteps, who helped save the lives of Jewish people during the holocaust. His parents, later named Righteous Gentiles, hid two Jewish families in their home. While Dr. Lazowski did not hide families, he did help many Jews medically against German orders.
A documentary about Dr. Eugene Lazowski entitled "A Private War" was made by a television producer Ryan Bank who followed Lazowski back to Poland and recorded testimonies of people whose families were saved by the fake epidemic.
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