When Social Distancing Worked: How Warsaw Ghetto Beat Typhus

According to new study, doctors showed other residents how to avoid the epidemic, but they couldn’t save the survivors from being murdered in the death camps

Ofer Aderet
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Warsaw Ghetto
Warsaw GhettoCredit: Yad Vashem
Ofer Aderet

Social distancing, isolation and strict personal hygiene helped Jews overcome a typhus epidemic in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. That’s the conclusion of a historical-science study published in the July 24 issue of Science Advances.

The authors, who made use of mathematical modeling alongside historical documents, argue that education, explanation and behavior are more important than reliance solely on government decisions in controlling epidemics. Prof. Lewi Stone, a biomathematician from Tel Aviv University, led a research team that included colleagues from Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Berlin.

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The Warsaw Ghetto was established in 1940 and at its peak it held around 450,000 people, crammed into an area about the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. Starvation, overcrowding and terrible conditions made the ghetto ripe for the spread of bacterial infection that lead to an outbreak of typhus – less infectious, but more lethal than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

In January 1941, a major typhus epidemic broke out in the ghetto. According to the study, 120,000 prisoners in the ghetto were infected with the disease, and around 30,000 died as a direct result of the illness. Many others died from a combination of typhus and starvation. While a steep rise in the number of infections was expected in the winter of 1941, in October the infection curve began to fall, in an unexpected and even “mysterious” manner, according to Stone.

A factory in the Warsaw Ghetto
A factory in the Warsaw GhettoCredit: Unknown / Anka Grupiska, Bogna

Stone used mathematical modeling in an attempt to determine whether the epidemic burned out naturally or was due to the actions of the ghetto’s doctors and prisoners. He discovered that the key lay in education, public health measures and the cooperation of residents. “There were many experienced physicians and specialists in the Warsaw Ghetto,” says Stone. One of them, Ludwik Hirszfeld, was an eminent Polish-Jewish bacteriologist and Nobel Prize nominee.

For his study, Stone pored over piles of documents in archives and libraries throughout the world, in search of contemporary descriptions of the measures that were taken to fight the epidemic in the ghetto. He found evidence of training sessions on hygiene and infectious diseases as well as lectures on these topics in the medical school that operated secretly in the ghetto.

Sadly, nearly everyone who avoided typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto thanks to these measures was eventually murdered in the Nazi death camps. The study cites Hans Frank, the head of the General Government (Occupied Poland) in Poland during the war, as having said in 1943 “that the genocidal murder of 3 million Jews in Poland ‘was unavoidable for reasons of public health.’” It also quotes Jost Walbaum, the chief health officer of the General Government, as saying in October 1941 that “The Jews are overwhelmingly the carriers and disseminators of typhus infection.... There are only two ways [to solve this]. We sentence the Jews in the ghetto to death by hunger or we shoot them.”

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