At a time when the world’s attention is focussed on the Covid-19 pandemic a Polish friend, Yvonne Freidman, has sent me an obscure piece of Polish World War II history in the form of a letter written by her father Zbigniew Loegler, a journalist in Lviv, Poland during the war.
He wrote a letter to his grandson, Adamsiou Freidman in Melbourne, which was to be given to him at an age when he would understand. It is a story of courage, scientific creativity and ethics.
The Germans had employed Professor Rudolph Weigl to develop a vaccine for typhus at his Institute in Lviv. The Institute sheltered Polish intellectuals, journalists, including Zbigniew Loegler, and resistance fighters against the Nazis by employing them as lice feeders, meaning they were volunteers who allowed hundreds, or thousands, of lice – some infected with typhus, some not – to suck their blood.
The lice were put in tiny cages that were attached to their legs. To avoid catching the illness themselves, these human volunteers had to be clean, have healthy skin, and be able to resist scratching. After about five days the lice would be taken from the volunteers and dissected individually. Scientists would pull out the ‘louse gut’, where the typhus bacteria grew and multiplied, put it into a pot and, basically, mash it up with a chemical solution to make the vaccine.
There was a certain amount of sabotage that went on in the lab. The doses of the vaccine that were headed for the Eastern front (to Germans) were sometimes weakened. The full strength vaccines were sent to civilians, the Lviv and Warsaw ghettos, as well as concentration camps and Gestapo prisons.
This article was originally published in the March 2021 edition (vol. 120) of Australian Rationalist.