The Nazis often portrayed those they persecuted as vermin, parasites, or diseases. Nazi ideology focused on the idea that Germany’s "racial purity" was under attack from the "blood of weaker peoples," and Nazi propaganda often depicted Jews, political opponents, and others as parasitic organisms that threatened the overall health of the so-called Volksgemeinschaft (German racial community).1 During the years of the Nazi regime, German doctors frequently argued that Jews spread disease. Reflecting common themes in Nazi propaganda, these medical professionals repeatedly pushed the false claim that Jews were especially responsible for outbreaks of typhus—a deadly contagious disease spread by lice.2
The Nazi propaganda poster featured here was created in 1941 for public display in German-occupied Poland. The Polish-language words translate roughly to "Jews are lice; they cause typhus." Designed to link Jews and typhus closely together in the minds of non-Jewish Poles, the poster shows one of the feared typhus-ridden lice drawn on top of the face of a Jewish man that has been made to look like a skull. Several other examples of antisemitic Nazi propaganda depict Jews covered in lice, but this image seems designed to suggest that Jews and lice are fundamentally similar creatures equally responsible for spreading the disease.
German doctors and public health officials in the Nazi regime helped advance these antisemitic ideas. They did not acknowledge that the German invasion of Poland and the creation of Jewish ghettos were actually responsible for creating typhus epidemics in occupied Poland by imposing hunger, poverty, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions.3 Instead, German medical professionals published essays claiming that Jewish people’s supposedly “low cultural level” and "uncleanliness" were to blame.
The respected status of German physicians helped spread the lie that Jews were responsible for spreading typhus. Concerned only with preserving the health of German personnel, German public health officials in occupied Poland repeatedly urged occupation authorities to isolate Jews further from the rest of the population and deny them access to medicine.4 Their professional medical advice was used to rationalize the creation of Jewish ghettos throughout occupied Poland.5 German occupation authorities used propaganda posters like this one to spread these unfounded justifications for the isolation of Jews from Polish society.