31 July 2020 / 10 Av 5780
I want to share with you a very timely and inspirational story. In November 1941 some 450,000 people were housed in the Warsaw Ghetto, most of them Jews. They were packed into an area ten times the density of modern-day high-rise cities. Typhus was spreading like wildfire through the overcrowded ghetto with tens of thousands of Jews ill and dying. The harsh European winter, when the typhus is especially virulent, was still looming.
The Nazis blocked food and supplies from getting in, thereby causing thousands to die from famine. Those who lived were more susceptible to infection. Then, inexplicably, miraculously, despite the ideal conditions for the typhus to spread, the disease ebbed away. Historians couldn’t explain it, and witnesses at the time called it a miracle.
Now, a team led by Tel Aviv University bio-mathematician Lewi Stone, thinks it has an answer to the mystery. The key was the very thing helping to combat the spread of COVID-19 today, social distancing, hygiene and education.
When the Nazis herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into the ghetto, there were some 800 doctors and thousands of nurses and other medical professionals who went with them. Immediately the doctors embarked on a far-reaching program that included lectures, the opening of a secret underground medical school and calls to socially distance. There were hundreds of public lectures on the fight against typhus and epidemics and an underground university was set up to train young medical students.
Social distancing was considered basic common sense by all, although not enforced. Home self-isolation was put in practice, although not comprehensively. Finally, highly elaborate sanitation programs and measures were developed by the Health Department of the Jewish Council with the goal of eradicating typhus.
The historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who chronicled ghetto life, wrote in November 1941, “The typhus epidemic has diminished. Even in the winter, when it generally gets worse, the epidemic rate has fallen some 40 percent. I heard this from the apothecaries, and the same thing from doctors and the hospital”.
Physician and historian Howard Markel, who coined the term “flatten the curve” said of this episode: “It’s one of the great medical stories of all time. Mathematical models based on case reports in the lead-up to November 1941 suggest over 300,000 people should have contracted the disease, three times the numbers that actually did. This was due to good hygiene practices and education that was put in place.
We should take inspiration from the courage, bravery and resilience of these doctors, nurses and patients alike to combat an infectious foe under the direst of circumstances. We need to take heart that by following the guidelines of health and medical professionals, we can defeat this insidious virus and bring normalcy back into our lives in the near future.
Rabbi and Sheyna Riesenberg