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Social distancing in the Warsaw Ghetto

Confronted with death from all quarters and in all forms—if not typhus, starvation; if not starvation, being shot; if not being shot, deportation—Jews made a conscious decision to choose life.

Jewish Ghetto Police guarding the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto, June 1942. Credit: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons.
Jewish Ghetto Police guarding the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto, June 1942. Credit: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

“I was told that these were human beings. They didn’t look like human beings.”

With these haunting words, the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski recalled his agonized reaction as he walked around the Warsaw Ghetto for the second day in a row in mid-1942, about one year before the historic Jewish uprising.

Karski’s description of what passed for life in the ghetto was marked by a constant sense that he could not quite believe what he was seeing. As he accompanied a Jewish leader through the teeming streets, Karski asked his companion why there were so many unattended bodies lying around. He was told that because most Jews couldn’t afford to pay the mandatory tax to bury their loved ones, they were compelled to leave them in the street. “Dirty streets, nervousness, tension,” Karski remembered. “Stench, stench, dirt, stench—everywhere suffocating.”

There was another element in this assault upon Karski’s senses. On his first day in the ghetto, two Jewish leaders—one a Zionist, the other a Bundist—had underlined for Karski the spirit of resistance that was emerging among its inhabitants. “Both of them—particularly the Zionist leader—he was again whispering, hissing. Something is going to happen,” recalled Karski. “The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto are talking about it, particularly the young elements. … They speak about a declaration of war against the Third Reich.”

That was precisely the fate of the thousands of Warsaw Ghetto Jews who participated in the military rising against the Nazi occupation in early 1943. For that reason, almost 80 years later, the Warsaw Ghetto is perhaps the most salient reminder we have that, among the myriad ways in which Jews resisted Nazi occupation, self-defense and the creation of a Jewish fighting force were unmistakably present.

For Karski, who visited the ghetto in the bitter weeks before the deportation of over 250,000 of its inhabitants in the summer of 1942, this was proof that the Jews “wanted to die fighting.”

“We can’t deny them this kind of death,” he reflected—an observation that boosts our own prevailing understanding that, in choosing the time and manner of their deaths, the downtrodden ghetto inhabitants who resurfaced as resistance fighters were able to reclaim something of their own lives and of what it is to be human.

Yet not every choice facing the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto was this morbid. This week, NPR reported on a little-known episode during the early months of the ghetto, whose outcome was a quiet triumph for independent human agency.

From November 1940, when the Germans began herding 400,000 Jews into the former Jewish quarter of the Polish capital, until the end of 1941, the Warsaw Ghetto was stricken with two outbreaks of typhus—a disease that is carried by body lice, who transfer the dangerous bacteria that thrive in cramped, unsanitary conditions to the humans they come into contact with. About a week after becoming infected with typhus, humans are crippled by headaches, rashes, nausea, fever and mental anguish sparked by confusion.

The first outbreak of typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto occurred shortly after the Nazis opened it in November 1940, with the second outbreak following in early 1941. According to a pathbreaking study that was published in July by Science Advances, a scholarly journal, the Jews in the ghetto successfully beat back the epidemic against all odds.

How did they do so? “Public health measures such as social distancing, hygiene and food supplies to supplement the meager rations provided by the Nazis could have been responsible for an unexpected drop in typhus cases in the winter of 1941,” NPR explained in its summary of the study.

“People were keenly aware of their mortality, which is what made them go to such lengths to try to prevent typhus.”

According to the study’s lead author, Australian Professor Lewi Stone, there was a significant discrepancy between the actual number of typhus cases and the “official” figure. “The official number of monthly reported new typhus cases for both epidemic waves sums to a total of 20,160 reported cases,” the study notes. “Yet, according to the scattered reports of leading epidemiologists of the ghetto, there is reasonable consensus that a total of 80,000 to 110,000 residents were infected.”

Professor Stone told NPR that this number may have amounted to only 20 percent to 25 percent of actual cases, “likely because many of the Jews may not have reported having typhus for fear they’d be killed by the Nazis or otherwise punished.” During the second wave, there was an “unexpected development” as the epidemic underwent a rapid collapse in October—just as the winter was due to set in, providing the ideal conditions for an acceleration of typhus.

Stone says he is “fairly confident” that the curtailment of typhus was the result of various public health interventions. “The community’s network of social, self-help and medical organizations was intensely involved in fighting the epidemic, with public courses on public hygiene and infectious diseases often attended by more than 900 people at a time,” the NPR report explained. “There were also home-cleaning programs by self-governing bodies in the ghetto with the goal of eradicating typhus. In addition, an underground university was set up to train medical students, and scientific studies on the phenomenon of starvation and epidemics were conducted.”

Additionally, there was an emphasis on personal responsibility, even in conditions where there was no proper supply of water. “Building and apartment cleanliness was encouraged and often enforced through inspections by members of the Jewish council in the ghetto,” the study noted.

As the NPR piece made clear, not all historians have been convinced by Stone’s explanation for the curbing of typhus, with one Israeli academic, Professor Miriam Offer, arguing that it was “likely that there were reasons beyond the public health measures that the number of typhus cases dropped, including herd immunity. So many people contracted typhus that its ability to spread diminished, she theorizes.”

But what isn’t disputed is the seriousness with which the ghetto’s inhabitants adopted measures that we would now refer to as “social distancing.”

“People were keenly aware of their mortality, which is what made them go to such lengths to try to prevent typhus,” Alex Hershaft, a survivor of the ghetto, told NPR.

Are there positive lessons here for our current battle with the coronavirus pandemic?

NPR seemed to think so, but I am not so sure. As Jan Karski realized through personal experience, the world that composed the Warsaw Ghetto was utterly unlike any world he’d ever known. Confronted with death from all quarters and in all forms—if not typhus, starvation; if not starvation, being shot; if not being shot, deportation—thousands of Jews made a conscious decision to choose life. In that sense, by adopting and observing strict protocols for dealing with typhus that applied to everybody, they were affirming their own individuality at the same time.

Mr. Hershaft explained it best, saying: “Some people don’t take COVID seriously because the concept of contracting a deadly disease is so foreign to us, while in the ghetto, we were so conscious that the next day could be our last.”

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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