fantastic laboratory

The subtitle of this book is “How two brave scientists battled typhus and sabotaged the Nazis”. Those scientists are Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl, an unsung and mostly forgotten hero of WW2, and Ludwig Fleck, a Jewish immunologist. Both men were condemned to Buchenwald and commanded by the Nazis to concoct a vaccine against typhus, a disease equated with Jews and feared more than almost anything else.

Typhus is spread by lice, and to create this vaccine it had to be obtained from live lice, that were nourished by inmates of the concentration camp. Originally there were lice that didn’t carry typhus, and so they were given the disease, allowed to feed on human blood, and then they were sacrificed and their intestines removed and made into a kind of slurry. That’s the basic way, I suppose. However, it’s not that easy to do; but these brave men in the lab convinced the Nazis that they DID make a vaccine. And they did! Thousands of doses were sent up to Germans at the front. Those vaccines didn’t prevent anything. The small batches of protective vaccines were secretly distributed at the camps to prisoners. Gutsy!

This book has everything: stories of how Jews were abused, scientific theory, intrigue (will the lying scientists get caught?) and morality (some medical personnel felt that creating a fake vaccine went against their “do no harm” tenet and wanted to truly protect the Nazis against typhus).

Sprinkled throughout the book are tidbits of Nazi behavior, such as “The camp commander, Fritz Gebauer, was generally mild-mannered but occasionally needed to strangle a woman, an action that produced a state of red-faced passion.” That is a sentence that is hard to top. Any Holocaust deniers out there: read this book. There is NO WAY that all this was made up. Realize this now.

While I read this book, I kept thinking that the Nazis weren’t really all that gullible, were they? Apparently so. They were more interested in abusing the prisoners than checking on the scientific methods being used. The political intrigue and back stabbing gets convoluted as former enemies become friends, and vice versa.

I did learn a lot about typhus, which is always a plus for me. Give me plague and pestilence and I’m a happy camper. I also marveled at the resilience and strength of the prisoners and displaced Polish Jews of the story. Time after time I shook my head in amazement after finishing a gory paragraph or three.

This book explains an important and mostly unknown back story of WW2, and I feel better for having read it. The resilience of the human spirit is truly wonderful.

You can get a copy of your own here!