If you asked the average American to name a victim of the Holocaust, chances are good they would name Anne Frank. What fewer people remember is that, while the young diarist did die in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she wasn’t shot or gassed. She died of typhus, a contagious disease carried by lice that causes fever, rash and other complications.

Like many contagious diseases, it flourishes in unsanitary, crowded conditions (for example, those at a concentration camp); untreated, it has a fatality rate of between 10 percent and 60 percent, more if the patient has a compromised immune system from being starved and overworked. In the camps, it was a death sentence regardless of the clinical mortality rates: If a prisoner became too sick to work, they were killed. In fact, Nazis deliberately created crowded, unsanitary conditions in their camps and the Jewish ghettos they forced citizens into, in the hopes that disease would assist them in their genocide. And it did.

I’ve been thinking about this because a lot of anti-vaccine grifters and crackpots have been using Holocaust imagery to draw attention to themselves, up to and including slapping Stars of David on their clothing to accessorize their histrionics. Unfortunately, even our steadfast and sensible state of Maine is not immune to this hysteria; I’ve written about Rep. Heidi Sampson before, so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that even the most idyllic of small towns has a dark side, and sometimes that dark side gets elected to public office.

Comparing immunization requirements to the Holocaust is incredibly offensive for several reasons. First of all, your employer asking you to receive a vaccine in order to continue your employment is not the same thing as the murder of 6 million Jewish people. It’s just not, and that people feel comfortable drawing that comparison really speaks poorly of the American education system. Second, it’s an insult to the memory of several heroes who risked their lives to develop vaccines during World War II, in the midst of Nazi-occupied Europe.

You’ve heard of Oskar Schindler, but you probably haven’t heard of Dr. Rudolf Weigl. He was a Polish physician and biologist who was working on a typhus vaccine when the Nazis invaded Poland. Desperate to prevent illness among their soldiers, the Nazis forced Weigl to produce vaccines for them. Weigl quickly realized that his employees were left alone by the Nazi occupiers because their work was considered essential to the war effort, and because nobody wanted to get too close to anyone working at a place called The Typhus Institute. The good doctor immediately began hiring every Jewish person, Polish intellectual and resistance member he could find. He sheltered thousands of people in his institute, and then, when he had developed an effective typhus vaccine, he smuggled it into the Jewish ghettos, to protect as many people as he could from at least one fate.

And yet, somehow, Weigl’s gambit wasn’t the craziest anti-Nazi pro-vaccine story of the Second World War. While Weigl was stockpiling rebels in his lab, the Nazis decided to set up another typhus vaccine production center in the Buchenwald concentration camp – they thought the Allies would be less likely to bomb it, and they had a bunch of doctors imprisoned there besides.

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Drs. Ludwik Fleck, a Jewish microbiologist and physician who had worked with Rudolf Weigl in Lvov, and Marian Ciepielowski, a Polish Catholic physician-scientist who was imprisoned for “anti-German activities,” were placed in charge of the vaccine development. Why the Nazis thought it was a good idea to put a scientist who had been arrested for being anti-Nazi in charge of their vaccine production program, I do not know. Being the brave men of the resistance that they were, the group immediately began producing a fake, ineffective vaccine (colored water) that was sent to the German soldiers on the front lines.

Now, it would have been more than enough if they had just sabotaged what little part of the war effort they could while putting their heads down and surviving a brutal concentration camp. Nobody would have argued against their bravery. But the constant threat of immediate execution isn’t enough to stop a doctor from caring for their patients.

So in secret, right under the noses of the SS, these doctors created a real, effective typhus vaccine, which they gave to the prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp. This allowed untold numbers to survive until liberation. None of the Nazi scientists or military officers caught on to their deception, which went on for nearly two years. It was revealed only in the course of the Nuremberg trials. I’m pretty sure the only reason this story hasn’t been turned into a big-budget Hollywood production is that it involves quite a bit of what modern audiences would consider animal cruelty. (The vaccine involved growing bacteria in the lungs of immunosuppressed rabbits, and the techniques to make them immunosuppressed weren’t very ASPCA-friendly.)

I never intended for this column to turn into The Maine Millennial’s Marvels of Medical History. But although they are all long gone, given the rise of antisemitism and anti-vaccine sentiments we are currently seeing in our country, the stories of Drs. Weigl, Fleck and Ciepielowski should be known to us all.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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