I recently listened to a book entitled, Treasures From The Attic, by Mirjam Pressler (in conjunction with Gerti Elias, wife of Buddy Elias, cousin of Anne Frank). I was not sure upon beginning the book, if it would hold any value concerning my interest in World War II and the Holocaust, but my concerns were quickly laid to rest as I listened to the story unfold. I’m not going to go into the story line really, except to say that the “treasures” that lay in the attic were partly about Anne Frank, but really more about the Frank family, and their torturous journey to learn the truth, and then to recover from it.
The many letters written to the various members of the family to other members of the family, told the tale of not just loss, but the tragic and horrific time of not knowing. It was the “not knowing” that most tore at my heart. First the fact that most of Otto Frank’s extended family had no idea that his little family; comprised of his wife, Edith and daughters Margot and Anne; had fallen into the hands of the evil Nazi Regime. As was the practice during the Holocaust, the family was separated, and Otto did not know of the fate of his wife and daughters at the time of his release from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of course, we now know that Edith had passed away on January 6, 1945, of starvation. His daughter, Margot died sometime in February or March 1945 of Typhus, and his daughter, Anne also died in February or March 1945 of Typhus. The bodies of the girls were thrown behind a building and later into a mass grave as their burial. The Jews were considered no more important that trash, and so were treated as such. While this is horrific enough, worse was the fact that all too often no record was kept of the dead, or their place of burial.
It was here that I began to feel the horrible longing, dread, and finally grief that the Frank family was going through. As anyone who has lost a loved on and doesn’t know what happened can tell you, the not knowing is almost worse than the reality of what happened. Your mind can conjure up so many things, and for Otto, who had also been in the camp can readily attest, the reality of Auschwitz-Birkenau was beyond all human comprehension, unless you had been there, and then you could not get it out of your head. Still, the months of waiting for news of his family, followed by years of grief and heartache over what they had suffered, was beyond anything that most people can fathom. As I finished the book, I felt a tremendous sense of loss, not only for the Frank family, but for the many Jewish families, who suffered in the camps, and after the Holocaust as they endeavored to locate lost loved ones, or at least to learn their fate. Many searched for years, and some have never found out the fate of their loved ones at all. It was truly heartbreaking, and yet, that search and not knowing, was the reality that was faced by many Holocaust survivors.
Heroes come in many forms, but few could be said to have been as sneaky as Eugene Lazowski, who was born Eugeniusz Slawomir Lazowski, in 1913 in Poland. His bravery was combined with genius, and in the end, he saved 8,000 Polish Jews at the height of the Holocaust. Lazowski saw the horrible way the Jews were treated, and he saw a way to help. Eugene Lazowski had just finished medical school when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Typhus was spreading across the country. The disease was killing an average of 750 people a day. In an attempt to contain the disease, the Nazis increased their isolation and execution of Jews. Eugene joined the Polish Red Cross, but he was forbidden by the Nazis from treating Jewish patients. Nevertheless, under the cover of darkness, he sneaked into the Jewish ghetto and took care of the people there. Lazowski’s plan took an incredible amount of intellect, not to mention bravery. His life was on the line too. Lazowski created the illusion of an epidemic of a deadly disease, playing on the deep fears of the Nazis.
The plan came about in an unusual way. One day, a Polish soldier on leave begged Eugene and his colleague, Dr Stanislaw Matulewicz, to help him avoid returning to the warfront. I think there were many people who fought on the Nazi side of that era, who would give anything not to take part in what the Nazis were all about. Matulewicz had discovered that by injecting a healthy person with a vaccine of dead bacteria, that person would test positive for epidemic typhus without experiencing the symptoms. In an attempt to help the young solider fake a life-threatening illness, the doctors who had discovered that a dead strain of the Proteus OX19 bacteria in typhus would still lead to a positive test for the disease. Eugene realized that this could be used as a defense against the Nazis.
The two doctors hatched a secret plan to save about a dozen villages in the vicinity of Rozwadów and Zbydniów not only from forced labor exploitation, but also Nazi extermination. Lazowski began distributing the phony vaccine widely. Within two months, so many new (fake) cases were confirmed that Eugene successful convinced his Nazi supervisors a typhus epidemic had broken out. The Nazis immediately quarantined areas with suspected typhus cases, including those with Jewish inhabitants. In 12 other villages, Eugene created safe havens for Jews through these quarantines. His work would eventually save 8,000 Jewish lives.
When the war ended, Eugene continued to practice medicine in Poland until he was forced to flee with his family to the United States. They settled in Chicago, where Eugene earned a medical degree from the University of Illinois. Decades later, he finally returned to Poland, where he received a hero’s welcome for saving those in desperate need of salvation through his unyielding love for humanity.