How the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto Defeated a Pandemic

July 30, 2020 | Eva Botkin-Kowacki
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In the summer of 1941, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were struck by a severe outbreak of typhus—to which they were especially vulnerable due to overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions, and widespread malnutrition. Yet infection rates dropped by some 40 percent in November, just when they would be expected to rise sharply as the weather grew colder. Emanuel Ringelblum, the ghetto’s leading historian, wrote at the time that “there was no way of explaining rationally” why the plague abated. But a recent scientific study appears to have found an explanation, as Eva Botkin-Kowacki reports:

Official numbers suggest that there was a total of 20,160 cases [of typhus in the ghetto], but the researchers . . . dug into other historical reports and estimated that 80,000 to 110,000 [of about 460,000] residents were infected. They suggest that the official numbers are likely low because residents were afraid to come forward in fear of repercussions from the Nazis. Some 20,000 residents died of typhus, and many more died from hunger while suffering from the illness.

[T]he Nazis’ efforts to ghettoize Jews in Warsaw had inadvertently created a hub of doctors. There were about 800 physicians among those imprisoned there, and many more nurses and scientists. . . . [They] established a health council, procured vaccines as much as they could, held public lectures on preventative health, sanitation, and hygiene, set up an underground medical school, and conducted scientific studies.

[T]he new health council advocated for a decentralized approach to fight the epidemic. While the Nazi authorities forced draconian quarantines and mobilized punitive sanitation squads, . . . the health council focused on education and independent empowerment whenever possible. Cleanliness was encouraged and often enforced. Self-isolation and social distancing became basic practice and common sense. And community kitchens were set up by volunteer groups and food smugglers to help feed the starving population.

Of those who survived disease and privation, most were murdered at the Treblinka death camp during the subsequent two years.

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