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During the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Polish capital of Warsaw was partly destroyed by bombing. Damage to many homes and the city's sewer system contaminated Warsaw’s water supply, leading to unsanitary living conditions that sparked outbreaks of typhus throughout the city.1
Although the German attack largely caused the epidemic, Nazi propaganda blamed Jews for spreading contagious disease in the city.2 The outbreaks were not only in Jewish neighborhoods, but German authorities and medical professionals blamed Warsaw's Jewish population and posted signs labeling the city's Jewish neighborhoods "restricted epidemic areas" (Seuchensperrgebiet). Although this first wave of typhus began fading by late summer 1940, German doctors in occupied Poland continued to urge German occupation authorities to create a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw to limit the spread of the disease.3 However, the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto in fall 1940 actually created a second, much larger typhus wave that began spreading to the rest of the city by the end of the year.
Overcrowded conditions and lack of food made ghetto inhabitants particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease. German authorities ordered extended quarantines for entire buildings wherever typhus was reported, and they put in place ineffective and humiliating disinfection requirements. Ghetto inhabitants were often forced to stand naked in public while awaiting disinfection, and sanitation teams stole personal belongings when disinfecting homes.4 The methods that the Germans adopted had little effect on the spread of the epidemic, and many cases went unrecorded due to fear of the Germans’ disinfection protocols.5
The featured photograph was taken by Erhard Josef Knobloch, a German photographer in a propaganda company of the German army. Likely taken during a trip to the ghetto in early 1941, this photograph raises questions about anti-Jewish prejudice and Knobloch’s perspective as a German soldier.6 In the image, an unidentified person peers out from a building that has been placed under quarantine. Printed in both German and Polish, a sign on the door warns that it is forbidden to enter or leave the premises because of a typhus outbreak.
Though German public health officials insisted it was not their task to provide medical care to Poles, they still tried to prevent the spread of diseases among them because German personnel regularly interacted with non-Jewish Poles. On the other hand, Nazi authorities isolated Jews in conditions that quickly produced a deadly epidemic. This photograph points to the ways in which the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto—already segregated from the rest of Warsaw—experienced an even more extreme form of isolation when their homes were placed under extended quarantine. Because very few people in the ghetto had the means to stockpile several weeks’ worth of food, an extended quarantine could also mean starvation.
The rate of infection in the ghetto rose dramatically over the summer of 1941. More than 3,000 new cases of typhus were being reported monthly by fall 1941, but ghetto inhabitants’ own efforts began to slow the spread of the disease. Public sanitation campaigns, underground medical schools, and hundreds of public lectures on hygiene and contagious diseases contributed to the end of the epidemic and—for the time being—helped save thousands of lives.7
Typhus is a deadly contagious disease spread by lice. Common symptoms include fever, rash, cough, and disorientation. Typhus often flourishes during times of war, when large groups of people are crowded together without regular opportunities to wash their clothing or bathe themselves.
For more in Experiencing History on Nazi portrayals of Jews as carriers of disease, see this Nazi propaganda poster depicting Jews as lice.
German authorities used typhus to justify the establishment of Jewish ghettos throughout occupied Europe. For more on the roles played by typhus and the German medical profession in the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto, see Christopher R. Browning, "Genocide and Public Health: German Doctors and Polish Jews, 1939–41," Holocaust & Genocide Studies 3 (1988): 21–36.
For more on German responses to contagious diseases in Jewish ghettos, see Naomi Baumslag, Murderous Medicine: Nazi Doctors, Human Experimentation, and Typhus (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005); and C.G. Roland, Courage under Siege: Starvation, Disease and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
For more in Experiencing History on efforts to conceal cases of typhus from German authorities in Jewish ghettos, see this Oral History with Avraham Tory.
Although Knobloch and other photographers in his company captured many staged scenes of daily life in the ghetto, some of their images evoke sympathy with their Jewish subjects even as they perpetuate common anti-Jewish stereotypes used in Nazi propaganda. For more, see Ulrich Keller, The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941 (New York: Dover Publications, 1984). See also the related item in Experiencing History, Undated Photos from the Warsaw Ghetto.
These public health initiatives were organized in part by the Warsaw Jewish Council (Judenrat). The Judenrat and the Jewish ghetto police have been heavily criticized for enforcing German policies and guarding quarantined buildings within the ghetto, but epidemiological models reveal that the council’s campaigns to eradicate typhus likely helped save tens of thousands of lives. For a multidisciplinary study of this subject, see Lewi Stone, Daihai He, Stephan Lehnstaedt, and Yael Artzy-Randrup, "Extraordinary Curtailment of Massive Typhus Epidemic in the Warsaw Ghetto," Science Advances 6, no. 30: July 24, 2020.
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US Holocaust Memorial Museum
|Photographer / Creator||
Erhard Josef Knobloch
|Still Image Type||Photograph|
|Description||The featured photograph depicts Jews imprisoned in a building as part of a quarantine in the Warsaw ghetto.|