The Doctor Who Protected Jews from Disease and Destruction

Dr. Rudolf Weigl

Credit:Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

During the Holocaust, a good doctor helped save Jewish lives in multiple ways — ways both active and proactive — through his medical work fighting disease, as well as his covert work sheltering Jews.

While gas chambers and firing squads were the Nazis’ preferred methods of murder, disease also claimed millions of lives during World War II. Chief among these epidemics was typhus, an especially nasty bacterial infection that claimed far too many Holocaust victims, including Anne Frank.

And so we come to the story of Dr. Rudolf Weigl, a biologist who came up with a vaccination against typhus and a plan to save the Polish Jews he had long befriended and defended.

Combating — and Catching — an Epidemic

A well-known and well-liked professor of biology in Lwow, Poland, Dr. Weigl focused on developing a vaccine for typhus, as none had yet been created. At last in the late-1930s — after he had developed typhus himself, the very disease he was trying to eradicate — Weigl’s vaccine worked.

The first beneficiaries of the new vaccine were actually Christian missionaries. Belgian missionaries stationed in China were given the vaccine from 1936 to 1943. While it proved effective in this case and in others, Weigl’s medicine was dangerous to make, as seen by his own illness. In later years, other, safer vaccines would be developed. But Dr. Weigl’s was the first.

Standing for — and Saving — Jewish People

But fight against disease was not the only war Dr. Weigl waged during his long career. He also resisted the anti-Semitism that was common in Poland, even before the Nazis invaded. Many of his friends and peers were Jewish, as were many of his students. When Poles acted out in hateful ways against their Jewish countrymen, Dr. Weigl protested loudly, branding the anti-Semites “barbarians.”

When the Hitler did overtake Poland, the doctor of German descent refused to cooperate with the Nazis’ insistence that he embrace his inner Aryan. And then his words became actions.

The Nazis, wanting a typhus vaccine for their own, forced Dr. Weigl to set up a production plant. That very Nazi-run facility became a shelter for hundreds of Jews. You see, Dr. Weigl hired his Jewish friends and colleagues to work for the very Germans who wanted them dead! Working in the plant meant these Jewish Poles were not deported to death camps as they waited for liberation.

But even more lives were saved because of Dr. Weigl’s work. Throughout the war, as the Jews of Lwow and Warsaw were held to await deportation and extermination, thousands of doses of vaccine were smuggled into the ghettos. Each of these vaccinations saved a Jewish person from  succumbing to the incredibly infectious disease that often strikes during times of war and starvation — both of which were happening during the Holocaust. And that is how a Christian doctor saved Jewish lives in a multitude of ways, acts for which he was named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Tags: Advocates and Allies Doctors History Holocaust Medicine Rudolf Weigl science Typhus

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