Dr. Lazowski may not have had a weapon in the traditional sense, but he nevertheless took on the Nazis with little more than his own cunning. In this way, Lazowski was a true, unsung hero of wartime Poland. After all, sometimes a clever plan can defeat a whole army, but it takes a good heart and some serious courage to set it in motion.
Born in 1913 in Częstochowa – a small city on the banks of the Warta River in southern Poland – Dr. Eugene Lazowski is now referred to as the “Polish Schindler” for his exemplary humanitarian efforts during the Second World War. In fact, his wartime résumé reads as a succession of heroic episodes.
After completing his medical degree at Warsaw’s Józef Piłsudski University, Lazowski served in the Red Cross, the Polish Army and the Polish Underground Army during World War Two. Tending to wounded soldiers on Red Cross trains, he was an open target for the Nazis, who eventually put him in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Not one to be confined, though, Lazowski made a daring escape one night by climbing over the camp wall and stealing an untended horse and cart. He made his way to the city of Rozwadów, where he was reunited with his wife and daughter. Thereafter, he waged his own secret war on the Nazis.
It began in Nazi-occupied Rozwadów, where Lazowski’s own house bordered a Jewish ghetto. Lazowski was a Catholic, but the Nazis strictly forbade him from treating Jews; to do so, then, meant certain death. Of course, this was a flagrant violation of his oath to help anyone in need, regardless of their creed or color, and so he devised a clever system.
When anyone in the ghetto required medical attention, they’d fasten a white cloth to the doctor’s fence. Later, after nightfall, Lazowski would sneak into the ghetto, tend to the person or persons in need and smuggle in any necessary medicine. Beyond the city, his “private war” included helping resistance fighters living in the woods.
He plotted his most daring act of sedition, however, with his friend and working partner, Dr. Stanislaw Matulewicz. Together, they hatched the ingenious idea of staging a fake health scare – an epidemic so widespread and deadly that the Nazis would be forced to quarantine the whole region. They knew exactly which disease to choose.
Typhus, often fatal and spread by lice, was greatly feared by the Germans. There was no cure for it, after all, and entire regiments could be wiped out if an outbreak was not contained. Therefore, Jews found to have typhus were shot, while non-Jews were quarantined. However, if an outbreak was sufficiently large, an entire area would be designated a no-go “fleckfieber” zone.
So how would Lazowski and Matulewicz go about creating the illusion of a typhus epidemic? At the time, the so-called Weil-Felix test for the disease involved examining blood samples for specific antibodies. However, Matulewicz had made an incredible discovery: injecting subjects with dead typhus bacteria caused them to test positive without actually falling ill.
Thus, the doctors’ strategy was twofold. First, to protect the inhabitants of the ghetto, they prevented any Jewish blood samples from reaching German authorities. Second, they injected as many non-Jewish patients as possible with deceased typhus bacteria and dispatched the samples to Nazi labs. Soon, Rozwadów appeared to be the epicenter of a massive typhus outbreak.
The doctors told no one of their plan and cunningly targeted patients who appeared to be showing outward symptoms of typhus, such as fever, aches and coughing. They even replicated the seasonal patterns of an epidemic, causing a spike of cases in the colder months. And to cover their tracks, they often transferred “infected” patients to other doctors, unaware of their scheme, who made their own typhus diagnoses.
“More and more positive Weil-Felix reactions were reported by German-controlled laboratories to German authorities and confirmed by our reports,” the medics later wrote. “Soon the number of reported cases was sufficiently large to declare the area of our practice an ‘epidemic area,’ with relative freedom from oppression.”
Lazowski and Matulewicz were, sadly, unable to save Rozwadów’s Jews, who were transported to concentration camps before the epidemic was declared. However, the quarantine zone that was later established in the surrounding countryside is believed to have saved at least 8,000 lives from Nazi persecution.
As time went on, however, the fact that nobody was dying from the supposed epidemic began looking suspicious. How long would it be before Lazowski’s plot was uncovered? “I was scared, of course,” Lazowski later told the Sun-Times Media Group. “I didn’t know if I would be arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. So I carried a cyanide pill in case I was arrested.”
In late 1943, then, a team of German health inspectors arrived to assess the supposed outbreak, and they had apparently been tipped off by Polish collaborators. Lazowski, however, sneakily plied the officials in charge with vodka and sausages, which distracted them from the task at hand.
As the top brass made themselves comfortable, the junior doctors set about testing Lazowski’s patients. He had gathered up the sickest-looking people in the city and left them in dirty huts. The young medics were apparently so concerned for their own health and safety that they left very quickly after obtaining blood samples. Lazowski’s ruse had worked, and the health authorities never returned.
In retrospect, however, it seems that the Nazis weren’t entirely blind to Lazowski’s tricks. For instance, toward the end of the war, with the Red Army advancing on Rozwadów, the good doctor received a tipoff from a military policeman he’d once treated. “Doctor, run, you are on the Gestapo hit list,” he said. Apparently, Lazowski had once been spotted helping the resistance.
But despite knowing about some of his subversive activities, the Gestapo never arrested Lazowski, because he was seen as an essential weapon in the fight against typhus. And the doctor furthermore later continued to live in Poland after the Nazis had lost control.
In 1958, though, Lazowski moved to Chicago after securing a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship. He went on to write more than a hundred research papers and became a pediatrics professor at the State University of Illinois. However, it wasn’t until 1977 that he broke his silence about the “epidemic” that he’d staged in Rozwadów.
Together with Matulewicz, who worked as a radiology professor in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – before returning to Poland, Lazowski wrote a bestseller about the pair’s experiences. His attitude, however, has always been humble. “I was just trying to do something for my people,” he told the Sun-Times Media Group. “My profession is to save lives and prevent death. I was fighting for life.” Lazowski died in Oregon on December 16, 2006, at the grand-old age of 92.