Fighting Epidemics Today and During the Holocaust

COVID-19 elicits the worst kinds of anxiety because we don’t know when, where and how forceful the disease will strike. Many baby boomers and older Americans still remember the devastating polio virus of the 1950s which brought a haunting fear of paralysis, respiratory failure and death. How sad, that again the darker side of nature pounces upon us. Whether we bond together in mutual support or fragment into elements of scapegoating and blame will determine how our current history will be written. I hope that future accounts of the 2020 COVID pandemic will reveal brotherhood and compassion for one another in our struggle to cope with the virus.

At this crucial time, when many are suffering so bitterly at the hands of this epidemic, I’d like to look back in history to share some lessons from the Jewish doctors and public health administrators who designed and implemented public health policies in the most challenging environments imaginable, the ghettos throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Those measures went a long way toward thwarting the spread of diseases. Many are now being implemented by our own health care profession.

The subject of how Jewish leaders developed and instituted creative and progressive solutions to fight against typhus, dysentery, cholera, and other diseases that threatened to annihilate the masses in nearly every ghetto population, is almost lost. It has been eclipsed by the larger narrative of atrocities during the Holocaust. However, given the backdrop of today’s pandemic, those leading our fight against coronavirus should study the policies adopted by the administrators of the Vilna Ghetto.

The Germans ordered the establishment of the Vilna Ghetto on September 6, 1941. The nearly 60,000 Jews who would be forced into the poorest section of the city, were no strangers to crisis. In order to empty the section of the city that would contain the ghetto, thousands of Vilna’s Jews had already been shot in the first days of the war in the nearby Ponar Forest. With less than one hour’s notice, Germans and Lithuanians herded the rest of the Jewish population into an area that was intended for less than one tenth of their numbers. Old sewer systems were completely inadequate, as was housing, food, water, medicine, wood and coal. Indeed, cold and starvation were as rampant killers as disease.

Almost at the onset, the Jewish Council in the ghetto formed and began implementing a systematized public health policy based on the known principles of hygiene and disease transmission. Of particular concern was typhus. Throughout the Vilna Ghetto “teahouses” were established by the Sanitary/Epidemiological Section. The “tea house” provided critical services such as hot water for sanitizing, cooking, laundry and washing children. The sanitation commission oversaw the distribution of food. Food handlers received immunizations against typhoid.

In the early 1940’s, in the Vilna Ghetto and ghettos throughout Europe, Jews relied on an age-old tradition of community assistance. Food, shelter, medicine and medical help were distributed to all, based on need and availability. Even though the ghetto was packed tightly with people, medical personnel insisted on creating a space to isolate victims of communicable diseases. Officials forcibly accompanied those diagnosed with typhus, or exposed to typhus, to the Ghetto hospital where they remained in quarantine. The Jewish Sanitary Police imposed fines and even jail time for those who violated the restrictions. The combination of community self help and official sanctions for those who refused to cooperate was highly successful in thwarting the typhus epidemic in Vilna. It is a strategy that is worth revisiting today.

So as not to be wholly reliant on obtaining outside drugs, Increasingly, essential pharmaceuticals began being produced inside the ghetto: vitamins B and D, calcium, phosphorus, and iodine as well as many analgesic and holistic medicines. Self-reliance was forcibly imposed on the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto, possibly another valuable lesson for those here and now.

Ghetto children were considered a priority in all aspects of health and welfare. Although resources always fell short of demand, the concerted effort to protect children safeguarded the Jewish value of prioritizing women and children, in direct contradiction to the Nazi priority of “ability to work” as a prime factor.

So what are the lessons that we can draw upon to face our own crisis? We can establish and enforce public health policies, take care of ourselves and help those in need. Given all the obstacles the Jewish leaders of the ghettos were up against– the double whammy of annihilation from humans as well as disease–we can surely summon our vast resources to mentally and physically win the fight against the virus. In the end, when the virus is spent, our mutual caring will create a legacy that speaks louder than even the grimmest of facts.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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