About 450,000 Jews were crowded into the Warsaw Ghetto in an area of 1.3 square miles as typhus raged through the streets in November 1941.
Hunger and filth reigned, there were no medical supplies available, and people lay dying on the streets. The conditions were ripe for typhus to decimate the entire population of the ghetto, saving the Nazis from liquidating the ghetto through other means: starvation, shootings, and deportations to concentration camps.
But something mysterious happened and the typhus was stopped it its tracks. Those who witnessed it said it was miraculous and historians have never been able to explain it.
But according to a recent Times of Israel report, a team at Tel Aviv University headed by bio-mathematician Lewi Stone thinks that they may have the answer, an answer very familiar to today’s readers: social distancing, hygiene and education.
According to the report, about 800 doctors and nurses were part of the population of the ghetto at the time and were aware that typhus, which is spread by lice, can be stopped through social distancing and proper hygiene.
The medical professionals began an educational campaign, including lectures that called on the Jews to socially distance and even opened a secret underground medical school.
“Residents were terrified of accidental contact and practiced social distancing,” the researchers wrote.
“There were hundreds of public lectures on the fight against typhus and epidemics. An underground university was set up to train young medical students, and scientific studies on the phenomenon of starvation and of epidemics were undertaken. Building and apartment cleanliness was encouraged and often enforced. Social distancing was considered basic common sense by all, although not enforced. Home self-isolation was put in practice, although not comprehensively.”
“Last, complex and highly elaborate sanitation programs and measures were developed by the Health Department and [Jewish] Council with the goal of eradicating typhus. These efforts under the given conditions were what Adina Blady-Szawjger, a surviving doctor of the Warsaw Ghetto, called ‘superhuman medicine’ after the war. It is proof of the successful politics of the Jewish Council, which often was blamed as being corrupt and incompetent,” the researchers said.
These professional efforts produced impressive results.
“The typhus epidemic has diminished somewhat — just in the winter, when it generally gets worse, wrote Jewish Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, known for his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto and other works. “The epidemic rate has fallen some 40 percent. I heard this from the apothecaries, and the same thing from doctors and the hospital.”
The researchers did note that the reduced transmission of the disease occurred at the same time that food rations to the ghetto were increased. Improved nutrition would have helped the residents of the ghetto to better fend off disease but better nutrition alone was not a sufficient explanation for the dramatic reduction in disease transmission.
“There are no other reasonable alternative hypotheses [to those campaigns] to explain the early demise of the epidemic at the onset of winter,” the researchers said.
According to the researchers’ mathematical models based on the number of cases reported prior to November 1041, over 300,000 people should have contracted typhus, three times the number that actually did.
“It’s one of the great medical stories of all time,” physician and historian Howard Markel, who coined the term “flatten the curve,” told The Christian Science Monitor.
“We should take heart and inspiration from the courage, bravery, and unity of doctors, nurses, and patients alike to combat an infectious foe,” Markel said. “We need to do that today, and they did it under much more dire circumstances.”
Ultimately, up to 30,000 ghetto residents died from typhus before the ghetto’s liquidation. Ringelblum, who faithfully chronicled life in the ghetto, ended up escaping with his family and hiding in the Polish side of Warsaw but they were discovered by the Gestapo in 1944 and subsequently executed in Pawiak Prison.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)