How Warsaw Ghetto Jews Controlled a Typhus Epidemic:

Lessons for Today

By Shlomo Maital  



                                                                                 Typhus bacteria

   This is the story of how 450,000 Warsaw Jews, crammed by the Nazis into a tiny ghetto 3.2 km. sq. (about 2 miles square, roughly Central Park) – starting in Nov. 1940 — and saw a typhus epidemic spread, with several thousand cases.. and then, by July 1942, totally flattened the curve and eradicated the epidemic. Right at that time, late 1942, the Nazis assaulted the ghetto, and despite valiant but futile resistance, destroyed the ghetto and transported its residents to Treblinka extermination camp, where more than  280,000 were killed.

So – what exactly is typhus, and how did the Warsaw Ghetto Jews flatten the curve?

   Typhus is a group of infectious diseases —   Common symptoms include fever, headache, and a rash. Typically these begin one to two weeks after exposure. The diseases are caused by specific types of bacterial infection. Epidemic typhus is due to Rickettsia prowazekii spread by body lice.

   In a just-published article in Science Advances, theoretical biologist Lewi Stone and colleagues describe the Warsaw ghetto typhus epidemic, and how it was flattened (see graph above).

In brief: Among the Jewish doctors imprisoned by the Nazis in the ghetto were several distinguished epidemiologists, including one nominated for a Nobel Prize. The doctors told inhabitants to keep apart, and as far as possible practice body hygiene (the human body louse spreads the disease).

The ghetto inhabitants respected and trusted the doctors and did what they said. Authors of the study conclude: “Strangely, the epidemic was curtailed and was brought to a sudden halt before winter, when typhus normally accelerates. A far more massive epidemic outbreak was prevented through the antiepidemic efforts by the often considered incompetent and corrupt ghetto leadership and the Herculean efforts of ghetto doctors.

So – the starving inhabitants, weakened by hunger, lacking water, packed into housing like sardines — did manage to ‘flatten the curve’, almost to zero, at a time when typhus epidemics had ravaged and killed many, in other locations.

The question arises: If they could, if they did – why in the world can’t we? Why aren’t we?

  • Extraordinary curtailment of massive typhus epidemic in the Warsaw Ghetto Lewi Stone, Daihai He, Stephan Lehnstaedt and Yael Artzy-Randrup. Science Advances, ci Adv 6 (30), eabc0927. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc0927   Feb 2020