He duped Nazis, saved thousands
Because Eugene Lazowski was a doctor, he believed he should not kill. He
would not even shoulder a rifle.
But he also could not stand by while other good and innocent people were
And so when the Nazis overran Poland in World War II, Lazowski yearned to
find a way to fight back, to protect human life, and he seized upon a
paradoxical instrument of salvation--the German army's profound fear of
disease. While German industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose heroic story was
told in the movie "Schindler's List," employed bribes and influence to
protect as many as 1,000 Jews who worked in his factory, Lazowski slyly used
medical science to save the lives of thousands of Jews and other Poles in 12
Polish villages. He and a fellow physician, Stanislaw Matulewicz, faked a
typhus epidemic that forced the German army to quarantine the villages.
Thanks to that quarantine, many of the villages' 8,000 men, women and
children likely were spared the fate of being deported to prisons, slave
labor camps or death camps, where Poland lost a fifth of its population.
"He's why I became a doctor," one of those villagers, Jan Hryniewiezki, says
today about Lazowski. "He was a patriotic hero because he wasn't afraid to
do what he did during very bad times."
For decades after the war, Lazowski's and Matulewicz's audacious actions
went unheralded and were almost forgotten. Lazowski, his wife and their
daughter immigrated to Chicago in 1958, where he became a professor of
medicine at the University of Illinois Medical Center. Matulewicz resettled
in Zaire, where he became a professor of radiology. He now is retired in
But eight years ago, the two doctors finally got around to writing a book,
in Polish, about their exploits. Private War became a best seller and made
them heroes in Poland. And now a young documentary filmmaker from north
suburban Bannockburn, Ryan Banks, is completing a film about the doctors'
exploits that he hopes will also make them celebrated figures here.
Not that the doctors much care. They say they just did what doctors should
do. "The basic duty of a physician is to preserve life," Lazowski explained,
"and this was a way of saving lives."
FIGHTING WITHOUT A GUN
In German-occupied Poland in 1942, Lazowski was a 29-year-old doctor,
somewhat soft-spoken, working for the Polish Red Cross in the tiny village
of Rozwadow. The Gestapo was terrorizing the countryside--committing random
murders, seizing young Polish men and women to work as slave laborers, and
dispatching Jews to death camps.
Lazowski was deeply distressed. As a doctor, he felt he could not pick up a
weapon and kill another man. But as a Polish patriot and man of conscience,
he could not stand by and do nothing. So when a fellow doctor, Matulewicz,
told him he had discovered a way to make healthy people test positive for
typhus, Lazowski was delighted--and immediately knew what his role in the
war would be.
"I was not able to fight with a gun or a sword," he said, "but I found a way
to scare the Germans."
Typhus is an infectious disease spread by body lice that is often fatal, and
at that time there was no cure and vaccinations were scarce. The German army
dreaded the disease because in unsanitary wartime conditions, it could race
through a regiment. So doctors who suspected that a patient had typhus were
required to submit blood samples to German-controlled laboratories for
Jews who tested positive were shot and their houses burned. Non-Jews were
quarantined or sent to special hospitals.
Matulewicz desperately wanted to bypass the German labs. He dared not send
the labs blood samples from Jewish patients--it would mean their deaths. He
had to figure out a way to perform the typhus test on his own.
"It was very important for us to make a final diagnosis for people who were
hiding from the Germans or who were Jews because it could be very dangerous
to send their blood for examination," Lazowski explained.
The accepted test for typhus at that time consisted of mixing a certain
strain of killed bacteria with a blood sample from the patient. Under proper
laboratory conditions, if the patient had typhus, the blood sample would
Matulewicz did manage to devise a way to do the test on his own, and in the
process he stumbled upon a curious discovery--if a healthy person were
injected with the bacteria, that person would suffer no harm but would test
positive for typhus.
When Matulewicz told Lazowski of his discovery, Lazowski immediately
proposed that the two doctors secretly create a fake typhus epidemic to
frighten the Germans into quarantining the area. A typhus scare could hold
off the German army as effectively as a line of tanks.
From that day on, Lazowski and Matulewicz injected the killed bacteria into
every non-Jewish patient who suffered from a fever or exhibited other
typhuslike symptoms. They sent blood samples from the patients to the
German-controlled lab. And, sure enough, every patient tested positive for
So as not to draw suspicion to themselves, the two doctors referred many of
their patients--after injecting them with the bacteria--to other doctors who
weren't in on the ruse. These doctors would "discover" the typhus on their
own and report it separately. Better yet, when a patient really did have
typhus, Lazowski and Matulewicz publicized the case as much as possible--but
only if the patient was not Jewish.
Within a few months, the Germans became alarmed.
One by one, "Achtung, Fleckfieber!" (Warning, Typhus!) signs went up in
surrounding villages, until a dozen towns with a total of about 8,000 people
were under quarantine.
The deportation of workers to Germany from these areas was stopped. German
troops kept their distance. Villagers began to feel more relaxed. And only
Lazowski and Matulewicz knew there was no epidemic.
They told no one, not even their wives.
"I was scared, of course," Lazowski said. "I didn't know if I would be
arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. So I carried a cyanide pill in case I
Hryniewiezki, who was just a boy of 15 at the time, says he remembers the
shots the doctors gave, the epidemic and the quarantines. He also remembers,
he says, that after a while, people figured out what was going on.
"When people were getting better, they realized that it was phony," he said
in a phone interview from Poland. "But, of course, no one said a word
because they knew the Germans would kill them and kill Dr. Lazowski."
Hryniewiezki, who is now a surgeon in the Polish town of Poznan, added, "He
saved lots of people who would have gone to jail or to labor camps in
Germany or death camps."
But if no one publicly raised doubts about the epidemic, they quietly
wondered why nobody was dying.
"If someone asked me why he recovered so quickly from such a serious
disease, I just told him he was a lucky man," Lazowski said.
WITH THE UNDERGROUND
Lazowski's fake epidemic came too late for the Jews of Rozwadow, the town
where he practiced. The Jews there were rounded up and deported to labor and
death camps before the quarantine. But Lazowski's sleight of hand
undoubtedly saved many other Jews--although it is impossible to say how
many--who were hiding in the countryside or living in the other quarantined
At the start of the occupation, Jews accounted for at least 10 percent of
the area's population, and that percentage may have grown as Jews fled the
big cities for the countryside.
Even before he created the fake typhus epidemic, Lazowski was active in the
underground Polish resistance, supplying information, medical care, medicine
and bandages to bands of saboteurs and guerrillas hiding in the woods. The
rear fence of his home backed up to the Jewish ghetto in Rozwadow, and he
sneaked in at night to treat patients there.
The German authorities demanded a careful accounting of all the drugs and
supplies Lazowski used, but here again he managed to fool them. Since his
office was close to the town's railroad station, he often was called upon to
treat patients who were just traveling through. In his official reports,
Lazowski would overstate the amount of drugs and supplies he used in
treating these traveling patients, knowing the Germans would have a tough
time finding him out.
But by late 1943, some among the German top brass began to suspect something
was wrong. Polish collaborators had tipped them to the fact that no one
seemed to be dying from this epidemic.
"The chief of the Gestapo was watching me because he was sure that something
was going on," Lazowski recalled. "But I was also a kind of hero to the
Germans because I was a young doctor who was not afraid to be infected, so
they needed me. But still they thought something was fishy."
The local Gestapo chief notified the health authorities, who in turn
dispatched an investigative commission and two carloads of soldiers to the
Lazowski was ready for them.
He lined up the oldest, sickest and most unhealthy-looking people he could
find, all of whom had been injected with the fake typhus. He had them wait
in filthy huts.
Then he had the town put on a big party for the visitors. The vodka flowed,
music played and many kielbasa sausages were consumed.
"We thanked them for coming and put on a great reception," Lazowski said.
"They were having such a good time they sent the younger doctors to make the
examinations. I told them to be my guest and examine the patients, but to be
careful because the Polish are dirty and full of lice, which transfer
To Lazowski's relief, the young doctors rushed through the exams and only
took blood samples from a few subjects without checking for actual symptoms
of the disease.
When the blood samples later tested positive for typhus, Lazowski heard
nothing more from German health authorities for the rest of the war.
STILL MORE SECRETS
In the waning days of the war, with the Russian army looming just across the
river, the Germans panicked and began to flee. A young military policeman
whom Lazowski had secretly treated for venereal disease roared up to his
office on a motorcycle.
"Doctor, run, you are on the Gestapo hit list," the policeman said.
When Lazowski protested that he had been loyal to the Germans, the policeman
smiled and named a specific date and place where Lazowski had been seen
treating members of the Underground.
"So they knew about me," Lazowski said, flashing a smile at the memory, "but
they didn't kill me because I was needed to fight the typhus epidemic."
Lazowski continued to live in Poland, under communist rule, until his move
to Chicago in 1958. But fearing retaliation from former Polish
collaborators, he kept quiet about the "epidemic" until he came here. Only
then did he confide everything to his wife, Murka, whom he had married at
the beginning of the war.
Murka, who died in 1996, was not completely shocked. She knew he had worked
with the Polish Underground. He had, in fact, frequently traded messages
with someone code-named "Pliszka."
After they were married, Murka told him: She was Pliszka.
Lazowski, now 87, returned to his hometown in Poland for the first time just
last fall, invited to take part in a wartime reunion.
He received a hero's welcome.
People came from all over Poland and Europe to greet him. Ordinary men and
women stopped him on the street to say thank you.
Lazowski nodded and smiled and shook hands, but he didn't always know what
"I felt very uncomfortable," he said. "I was just trying to do something for
my people. My profession is to save lives and prevent death. I was fighting
Source: The Sun-Times Company