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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


How to Live to 114

By Shlomo Maital

Yisrael Kristal

   The world’s oldest man, Yisrael Kristal, passed away quietly in Haifa on Friday August 12 and was buried the same day.   He was officially recognized by the Guiness Book of Records.   It is said that only the righteous die on the eve of the Sabbath.

   Just think of what this man lived through. He was born in Zarnow, Poland, on Sept. 15, 1903, to a religious family, 3 months before the Wright Brothers made the first manned flight. When he was 10 his father fought in World War I and was taken prisoner. His father died in 1919.     Kristal learned how to make candy and opened a factory in Lodz. He married his wife Feige, and at the onset of WWII they had two sons, aged 8 and 10.   Both sons died in the starvation conditions prevailing in the Lodz Jewish ghetto.  

   During the initial years of Nazi occupation, Yisrael survived because of his candy-making skills. The Nazis had him make confections for their parties. But in May 1944 he and his wife Feige were sent to Auswicz. When the camp was evacuated, they did the Death March. Kristal survived, in the end weighing only 37 kgs. (80 pounds). Feige perished.   At the end of the war, Kristal returned to Lodz and re-opened his candy factory.   There, he married Bat Sheva, who also had lost all her family to the Nazis. In 1950 they emigrated to Israel, and had children.  

       At the age of 113, Yisrael had his bar mitzvah – delayed by 100 years owing to the Holocaust. His great-grandchildren, grandchildren and children celebrated with him.

     He was lucid to the end. He remained in his own home almost to the end – his son, a doctor, cared for him, and had him moved to a hospital on Wednesday Aug. 10; he died peacefully two days later.

       The secret of his longevity?   Optimism. He loved his country, and was a perpetual optimist. I think he found immense satisfaction in building a new family, with many great-grandchildren, in a new country, and outliving his persecutors.  

       Optimism and hope for the future are wonder drugs. We should use them more widely, even if we are not 114 years old.

History Repeats Itself: Europe & the Extreme Right

By Shlomo  Maital

 Farage Nigel Farage, UK

 History DOES repeat itself.

  After WWI (whose centenary,  1914-2014, will soon be observed), the victors (Britain, France)  punished the losers (Germany) with outrageous demands for ‘reparations’, at the Treaty of Versailles.   J.M. Keynes was there; he warned, in a book The Economic Consequences of the Peace,  that the ruinous reparations would lead to a new war.  It did.  To pay the reparations, Germany simply printed marks. This destroyed the economy through ruinous hyperinflation, and led to the rise of the Nazis and Hitler. 

Today, Europe has adopted a misguided policy of austerity, forcing Greece, Spain, Ireland, and to some degree Italy, to adopt stringent spending cuts and tax hikes.  True, these countries overspent.  But the right way to emerge from excessive public debt is to grow the economy so the debt shrinks and so tax revenues help pay for it.  The wrong way is austerity – shrinking government demand, when consumption and investment and exports are all declining.  You cannot grow an economy by shrinking demand.  Yet many economists support ruinous austerity.   Did we forget what Depression did to Germany?  Well, it is doing similar bad things to Greece, Spain and other countries. 

   Now, it is time to pay the Piper.  The European Parliament elections have brought a huge victory for parties on the extreme right – Euroskeptics, neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic.  It was inevitable.  When times are bad, people look to those who have simple remedies – blame the foreigners, the Jewish people, and Brussels.   

    I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit I am an economist.  Not only do we economists fail to grasp reality, we have also forgotten history, and the warnings of the man who invented macroeconomics, J.M. Keynes.    

   If the neo-Nazis have risen in Europe, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital