From the midst of the Nazi death camps arises a story of subterfuge and triumph which has been largely unknown until the recent publication of The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arther Allen. Widespread death during World War II is often attributed to military destruction (fighting on the ground and bombings from the air) and genocide committed in the concentration camps. But there was a pervasive killer which was every bit as dangerous and deadly — one which attacked both sides without prejudice.
Typhus was one of the worst illnesses in the history of mankind. Many died of suicide from the symptoms of typhus alone, which caused horrific hallucinations. The presence of typhus, particularly on the Eastern Front of the war, made it as formidable an enemy to the Nazis as the Allies, and the urgency for a vaccine created a safe haven for those who would otherwise be destroyed. Rudolf Weigl was a Polish biologist making progress on a typhus vaccine before the war broke out, thus turning him into a valuable and protected scientist despite his Polish roots, as well as his Jewish assistant, Dr. Fleck. Weigl’s vaccine drew its formula from the intestines of infected lice which required humans to feed and keep them alive until the microscopic treasure they incubated could be harvested.
It is horrific to imagine strapping small boxes filled with thousands of typhus-laden lice to your body in order to facilitate them feeding off your blood, but this was preferable to the death camps and Weigl was able to save many doomed scientists, doctors and others by providing such life-saving assignments. While preserving the lives of many, Weigl and his staff managed to weaken the vaccines being sent to the front lines, while smuggling potent varieties into the Jewish ghettos, where the suffering people were enclosed for the very purpose of allowing typhus to overwhelm and do the killing for the Nazis.
The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl is a journey into the underworld of Nazi “Geomedizine” which held that typhus and “societal illnesses” were the result of a parasitic people whose riddance was a cure for the Aryan society. The book reveals the intricacies of the research labs, many of them set up within such locations as Auschwitz and Buchenwald. While the image of people daily strapping thousands of hungry lice to their legs (where they were most often fed) is grotesque, the author also gives details of the other less productive and more deadly experiments happening just steps from the vaccine laboratories, which are almost incomprehensible.
I have read numerous books on the Holocaust and World War II, many of them told in first person by those who lived through the atrocities. However, reading this book I learned far more about the operations of the camps, and the struggles which existed not only for those imprisoned, but the people whose lives were caught between the sinister authorities who threatened the lives of everyone below them and the misery over which they personally ruled.
The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl is a fascinating study of the science behind the development of a vaccine as well as the psychology of people such a vaccine either saved or destroyed. I was captivated by the informative storytelling and barely put it down. It is not for the faint of heart, as descriptions of such human cruelty are hard to bear, but it is an important book for everyone to read. Atrocities must be witnessed in order to be prevented.
Review by LiveTrue reviewer, Melanie Davis.
Thank you, Melanie, Timely…given recent 70th anniversary of Auschwitz…
This was shocking – unreal – Never heard of before. Learned much from the review!