Against Impossible Odds, The Warsaw Ghetto Stopped A Typhus Outbreak

12:13 minutes

a black and white image of a crowded market in a ghetto
Warsaw Ghetto market, 1941. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-134-0780-21 / Cusian, Albert / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in November of 1940. The Nazis purposefully tried to starve to death almost half a million Jews, who were kept with little food and water in a space about the size of Central Park. 

Theoretical mathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University has been studying a concurrent public health crisis that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto: a Typhus outbreak. The infectious disease is spread by lice, and can be deadly. 

“When I began the project, I didn’t know that public health was a part of World War II—but it turns out it had a huge role,” Stone said. He says Nazis even used the infectious disease as an excuse, falsely “saying that the murder of three million Jews in Poland was unavoidable.”  

Typhus ran rampant in the Warsaw Ghetto for the better part of 1941. But when the winter rolled around, the expected second wave never came. Researchers have found evidence that public health measures enacted under these impossible circumstances—think public education and social distancing—actually worked.

Stone talks to SciFri producer Kathleen Davis about this research, and potential takeaways for 2020’s public health crisis.

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Segment Guests

Lewi Stone

Lewi Stone is a professor of Theoretical Biology at Tel Aviv University in Melbourne, Australia.

Segment Transcript

The transcript for this segment is being processed. It will be posted within one week after the episode airs.

Meet the Producer

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is an assistant producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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