Life of ‘hero biologist’ Rudolf Weigl who invented typhus vaccine and saved Jews during WWII to be retold in timely new film
With the fourth wave of coronavirus spreading across Europe, a timely new film tells the incredible story of the Polish scientist who first developed a vaccine against the typhus epidemic - and then used it to save the lives of countless numbers of Jews during the Holocaust.
Entitled To Conquer Typhus, the film currently in production tells the real life story of Dr Rudolf Weigl, a biologist who during the interwar period had discovered the vaccine.
Being filmed in Jasło in south-eastern Poland, the film’s producer Bogdan Miszczak said: “When I started looking for information on Dr Weigl, I came to the conclusion that we could not have thought of a better hero.”
Told from the perspective of a family of five who are locked at home under quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the family members recalls the stories of his mother, who was saved during the war by Dr Weigl.
Typhus had taken a heavy toll during the First World War, killing up to three million people. It also caused millions of deaths during the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1922.
Weigl, though born to an Austrian mother and Polish father, considered himself Polish, having grown up near Lwów in an atmosphere in which Polish language and culture predominated.
During WWI, he joined the Austrian army and was delegated to research parasites. Hence his interest in typhus, which was a disease that particularly plagued soldiers fighting in the trenches
He knew that the disease was spread by lice or fleas. In 1930, he developed a method for producing a vaccine.
Spread by body louse among populations that were exhausted, poorly nourished, filthy and under-clothed, Hitler feared that typhus could jeopardize the German army just as much as bombs and bullets.
Following the outbreak of WWII, Weigl continued his research into the disease but was soon forced into working with the Germans to provide Hitler’s troops with the vaccine.
Instead, through courage, charisma and fierce intelligence, he bamboozled the Germans into giving him a totally free hand in choosing his own employees, even if they were Jewish.
After the massacre of Lwów professors in July 1941, many of the scientists remaining in the city were in extreme danger of execution or removal to concentration camps.
It is estimated though that Weigl saved around 5,000 academics, university and secondary school students and Polish resistance fighters.
Much of the vaccine he produced, instead of going to German soldiers on the eastern front, was secretly distributed to civilians, partisans and also to the Warsaw ghetto.
Thanks to Professor Weigl, many scientists were saved from execution by finding employment in his institute.
The institute’s ID cards stamped by the German military authorities allowed freedom of movement without the fear of being detained in roundups and deportation to Germany for work. This, of course, was a great assistance to the Polish underground in the city.
However, the work in Weigl’s institute was not easy. His method depended on obtaining a large amount of infected lice. First the lice had to be fattened up.
This was done by staff known as feeders. The lice were put in cages attached to their legs. The lice sucked their blood, the beginning of a lengthy process that ended up as a vaccine.
Although they lost a lot of blood this way, which the extra rations of bread and beetroot marmalade did not make up for, they were so valuable to the Germans that they were allowed to stay alive.
Those who were saved this way included poet Zbigniew Herbert, mathematician Stefan Banach, conductor and composer Stanisław Skrowaczewski, writer Mirosław Żuławski, rector of Jan Kazimierz University Stanisław Kulczyński, and world-famous geographer Alfred Jahn.
Not all staff were able to be shielded at the institute indefinitely. Polish Jew Ludwik Fleck was sent to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald. There, he was ordered to run a vaccination laboratory.
He tricked the Nazis by producing a fake vaccine for German troops, but produced smaller quantities of an effective one, which he distributed to prisoners at risk of infection.
As Weigl produced more of the vaccine, it was easy to hide the surplus. Ampoules were distributed to the Polish underground and to the Lwów and Warsaw ghettos.
After the war in communist Poland, Weigl was blocked from receiving a Nobel prize by a group of professors at the Jagiellonian University who accused him of collaboration with the Germans.
He died in Zakopane on 11 August 1957 at 73 years old after suffering a stroke.
In 2003 he was honoured as a Righteous Among the Nations for his work in saving Jewish lives.
The film To Conquer Typhus is expected to be released next year.