Eugene Lazowski had the extreme misfortune of being scooped up by the Nazis immediately after the 1939 invasion, as they sought to eradicate Poland’s intelligentsia.
This man did, however, have the extreme fortune of not being executed like the majority of the captured, instead being shipped to a PoW camp.
One night at the camp, after three years in captivity, he spotted a hole in the barbed wire fence, and took his chance. After scaling the perimeter wall, he landed outside, next to a horse and cart. Moments later, a Nazi soldier walked past, and Lazowski saluted him. The soldier smiled back.
Lazowski rode back to his hometown, Rozwadów, and promptly joined the Red Cross – and the Polish Underground. He went on to wage a devastatingly successful, impressively daring one-man crusade against the Nazi occupation of Poland, without firing a gun once – and in plain sight.
He began by giving medical help to Jews – a crime punishable by death. His home was located near the Rozwadów ghetto’s fence, and he devised a system whereby sick inhabitants would tie a white rag to the fence, and he would slip out to surreptitiously give treatment and supplies under cover of darkness. Using creative accounting, he massively inflated the amount of medicine and supplies he was using on non-Jewish patients to hide his plot. It was never even suspected in the three years it operated.
His next ruse, an absolutely sublime intrigue, was concocted when a young local visited him towards the end of 1942. The lad had a unique complaint – he wanted Lazowski to diagnose him with a serious disease, so he wouldn’t be sent back to the labour camp he’d been toiling in for some time. The Nazis were terrified of epidemic outbreaks among their soldiers, and demanded Polish doctors alert them to any cases of infectious diseases they came across. Infected Poles were simply expelled from the camps and allowed to return home; infected Jews were killed on the spot.
Lazowski was keen to help, but knew he’d have to offer the Nazis more than a paper diagnosis for the ‘patient’ to be set free. He decided to give the man an injection, and then sent a sample of his blood to a German lab. He soon received a telegram confirming that his patient had typhus, and was exempt from having to serve in a labour camp ever again – as were the patient’s entire family.
You see, Lazowski and his medical school friend, Dr. Stanislaw Matulewicz, had discovered that if patients were injected with dead typhus cells, they would test positive for the disease.
The pair didn’t stop there. Inspired and emboldened by their success, they set about ‘infecting’ the entire town with dead typhus. As they noted in a paper authored after the war:
“When many cases were reported in an area, it was declared by the German Public Health Authority to be an ‘epidemic area’ – the Germans were inclined to avoid such territories and the population was free from atrocities.”
The plan was carried out in total secret, with even their patients unaware of the true nature of the injections they were receiving. So as not to arouse suspicion, the pair emulated the fluctuations exhibited in real epidemics – the rate of detection would slow down in warmer climes, and more cases would be ‘discovered’ when the temperature dropped.
Lazowski and Matulewicz would also ‘infect’ patients and send them to other doctors (locally and elsewhere) for diagnosis. These doctors would duly report the infections to the Nazi authorities.
In time, Rozwadów was deemed an epidemic area, and the Nazis stopped visiting them. The Jews were now free to leave the cramped, inhuman conditions of the ghetto, and live as normal people – completely free from the threat of execution, or transportation to Auschwitz.
Despite their meticulous attention to detail, the cunning scheme was almost derailed when the inhabitants of Rozwadów didn’t start dying. The Nazis smelled a rat, and dispatched a team of doctors to investigate.
Lazowski greeted them with a range of fine food, and plenty of strong vodka. While the higher ups sat around chatting, snacking and getting thoroughly sozzled, their gophers toured the town with him.
The junior doctors were absolutely horrified by what they saw. After quickly conducting a few token blood tests, the existence of the epidemic was determined to be very real, and they scarpered in short order.
You see, Lazowski had gathered the unhealthiest looking inhabitants he could find (and ‘mocked up’ a few to look like they were at death’s door for good measure), and injected them with dead typhus cells. The visitors were so scared of getting infected they checked no records, and barely inspected the hospital.
In a gorgeous irony, as WW2 neared its end in Europe, the Nazi occupiers began to flee from the advancing Russians. A military policeman, whom Lazowski had befriended (and secretly treated for venereal disease), approached and urged him to escape. He had been put on the Gestapo cleanup hit list.
The policeman went on to reveal that Lazowski’s membership of the Polish Underground had been known about for some time by the occupying authorities.
He hadn’t been executed though, as they needed him kept alive to fight the typhus epidemic that had befallen Rozwadów.
Lazowski emigrated to the US in 1958 on a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1976 he became professor of paediatrics at Illinois SU. He kept quiet publicly about his intrigue until 1977, when he and his friend Matulewicz published an article in the American Society for Microbiology’s newsletter.
In private, he told his wife Murka. It turned out she had long-suspected the plot, and knew he was in the Polish Underground too. He had frequently traded secret messages with another Polish Underground member, Pliszka.
Pliszka was none other than Murka herself.
He went on to write over a hundred scientific dissertations, and also published a memoir, Prywatna wojna (My Private War). Strongly recommended reading.
In 2000, Lazowski returned to Rozwadów for the first time since 1958, to take part in a wartime reunion.
He received a hero’s welcome, with people flocking from Israel, Poland and all over Europe to salute him.
Ever humble, Lazowski explained his actions thus:
“I was just trying to do something for my people. My profession is to save lives and prevent death. I was fighting for life.”
He died in 2006, aged 93.
In all, Dr. Eugene Lazowski rescued as many as 10,000 Jews from the holocaust, and a great many Poles from potential death too.