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1943, in the Buchenwald concentration camp, doctors were trying to find a solution against typhus. Ludwik Fleck, a Polish Jewish doctor, helped him find the cure, but the “good” vaccine never reached the German soldiers on the front. At the end of 1942, German soldiers died from typhus (an infectious disease transmitted to humans by lice) while fighting the Eastern Front. The disease had caused so many casualties that the Nazis were more frightened of it than of the rival armies.

For the Nazis, typhus was a devastating disease, and doctors in the SS (Schutzstaffel) were desperately trying to find a way to combat it. Ludwik Fleck, a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, was going to find the solution for the typhoid vaccine. Arthur Allen’s book, “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl” describes how two brave scientists battled typhus and sabotaged the Nazis. Ludwik also managed to trick, for 16 months, the German authorities into sending a fake vaccine to German soldiers.

Buchenwald concentration camp

First, the disease did not bother the Nazis for a while, in fact, they made sure that it was as widespread among the Jews as in the ghettos in Warsaw, Krakow, or Lviv. That is, until the very high fever, the pains, often, and death caused by the typhoid microbe began to affect the German forces trapped in the battle with the Russians.

However, plans for a vaccine made by Joachim Mrugowsky, head of the Berlin Institute of Hygiene, were delayed. When the British bombing destroyed Mrugowsky’s headquarters in 1942, he decided to produce the vaccine at the Buchenwald concentration camp, thinking there would be a more protected area from the attacks. The plan seemed simple: Jewish prisoners in the camp would work to produce that vaccine to rescue the Germans on the front.

Rudolf Stefan Weigl (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But how should this vaccine be made? Rudolf Weigl, a renowned zoologist famous for creating the first typhoid vaccine, immediately started hiring thousands of Poles in Lviv to help produce a vaccine made from germs that had developed in human-fed lice. Weigl’s idea was approved, but setting up a lice farm in Buchenwald was impossible. That would have meant the introduction of millions of lice into a concentration camp, and those in the SS were terrified of this. Another approved vaccine method made from chicken eggs was also an impossible mission at Buchenwald. German civilians, prisoners in prison camps left alone and free, could not be trusted around their chickens or eggs.

So, on December 11, 1942, Mrugowsky decided to produce a third type of typhoid vaccine, which Paul Giroud, a French scientist, and others developed at the Pasteur Institute. This time, for the vaccine, doctors had to use bacteria extracted from the lungs of rabbits with low immunity. Dr. Erwin Ding Schuler, an ambitious but novice Nazi officer, and Mrugowsky’s deputy were chosen to lead the production and began choosing his teammates with the help of his new official, a closed German intellectual by the name of Eugen Kogon. The same team would later be joined by a Jewish biologist, Ludwik Fleck, who had been an assistant to Dr. Weigl and whom he had protected during the Nazi occupation of Lviv.

Creating the vaccine was much harder than doctors had anticipated. More tests were needed on rabbits to find a salvage solution. The first samples of the vaccine were ready before Christmas 1943. Ding-Schuler selected a group of prisoners for the experiment. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll kill myself,” he told Kogon at the time. The vaccine was not good, but instead of killing himself, Ding-Schuler falsified the results.

Prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp who were used in the test for the vaccine (1943) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ludwik Fleck’s contribution

This was the time when the SS brought in Ludwik Fleck, a somewhat friendly, cloud-headed scientist from Auschwitz, to Block 50 in Buchenwald. What neither Ding-Schuler nor Kogon or anyone else realized was that Fleck, due to his rigorous training under the guidance of Dr. Weigl from Lviv, was the only scientist out there who really knew what to do. When Fleck arrived, he immediately realized the mistake made by the other inmates. For reasons that were not entirely clear, the methods used by vaccine enthusiasts did not produce a true vaccine. The particles of water that they had identified as typhoid germs under the microscope were, in fact, white cells in the blood of rabbits.

When Fleck discovered the mistake and explained it to his colleagues, the other inmates convinced him not to tell Ding-Schuler. Eventually, with Fleck’s help, they were able to get a real vaccine. Kogon, Ding-Schuler’s former assistant, later wrote that, under Fleck’s guidance, the team began to produce two types of vaccine.

One that had no value, perfectly harmless, and that went on the front for German soldiers, and a second type, in very small quantities, which was very effective and used in special cases for comrades who worked in difficult places and conditions in labor camps. Ding-Schuler did not find out about these arrangements. Because he didn’t understand the terms, he never knew the secret of the production. It depended entirely on the reports that the experts offered. When he could send thirty or forty liters of vaccine to Berlin, he was happy. “

As the German soldiers fell ill and their commanders asked questions, the prisoners gave evidence to Ding-Schuler of the actual vaccine, which had been sent to Berlin and to the Pasteur Institute for testing. It was not unusual for soldiers to get sick even after vaccination, and versions were not always 100% effective. Nobody got caught as the “charade” continued until the Americans liberated the Buchenwald camp in 1945.

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