The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

by Arthur Allen

Hardcover, 384 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl
How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis
Arthur Allen

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NPR Summary

Describes the true story of how the eccentric Polish scientist tasked by the Nazis to create a typhus vaccine hid the intelligentsia from the Gestapo by hiring them to work in his laboratory.

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Excerpt: The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl


Late afternoon at the Buchenwald concentration camp, on a mountainside six miles northwest of Weimar, Germany. A cloudless day: August 24, 1944. As always, the wind sweeps ceaselessly down the slope, buffeting the barracks, the Gestapo bunker, the hospital, and the typhus experimental station, blustering through the parade ground and the ditches where road crews of matchstick inmates lift pick and shovel accompanied by the capo's cruel barking of orders. It is a hostile wind that penetrates every fold in the clothing "as if it they had placed it there with the purpose of making people feel miserable," one prisoner will say. In the winter it "seemed to come direct and unimpeded from the North Pole." In this, the eighth summer of the concentration camp's existence, it tosses grit into the eyes and mouth.

On the second story of Block 50, a stone-and—stucco building toward the bottom of the hill upon which the camp stands, Ludwik Fleck runs tests on a series of blood samples sent over from the experimental block. He is one of a few dozen scientists from around Europe who have been captured and brought to this building in Buchenwald to help the SS produce typhus vaccines for the protection of German troops at the eastern front. For two years the news from the front has been bad for the Nazis, and the trenches are past lousy. Fleck is 48, a slight, myopic, balding man with an expression of skeptical confidence. His slave scientist colleagues respect his skilled hands and knowledge of the world that swims under the microscope lens. So do the Nazi doctors who hold his life in their hands. From his lab bench, copiously appointed with all the equipment that the looted universities of Europe have to offer, Fleck can see through a window and double barbed wire to the Little Camp, where the truly doomed inmates live. Many of them are Jews like him, stumbling along on skeletal legs amid the dirt, lice, and shit.

He hears the faint hum of the planes, a hopeful sound that is more common now that the Luftwaffe, the German air force, has surrendered the skies. Then the air-raid sirens sound and unexpectedly, the shriek of explosions batters his eardrums and he falls, tossed to the wooden floor. At last, vengeance and a direct hit! The force of the blast blows open doors and shatters windows. Beakers and petri dishes tumble off laboratory shelves, fire and mud and hot metal leap into the sky. Electricity stops, silencing the lab's centrifuges; with panicked shouts, the SS duck and run and pitch themselves into their bomb shelters. The prisoners, with nowhere to hide, jump into trenches at the edge of the camp. D-day is two months past, Paris is on the verge of liberation, and SS control of the concentration camps finally seems to be weakening. Forty bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force have raided the military industries adjacent to Buchenwald. Their primary target, the Gustloff II factory, where 3,500 camp inmates make carbines for the German army, lies in rubble after the hour-long strike. A few incendiary bombs land on the camp itself, and one sets fire to the Effektenkammer, the building where the stolen possessions of the prisoners are washed and sorted, along with the camp laundry. From there, the fire catches in the dead limbs of a large gray tree called the Goethe oak.

This spot in central Germany was called the Ettersberg, after the French, hêtre, for beech. In the early 19th century it was a wild and woolly forest, 1,500 feet above sea level, part of a royal hunting ground where German poets could commune with the inner Visigoth of their tree-worshipping past. But that all changed in the summer of 1937, when the SS bused in a hundred of its political enemies and ordered them to tear down the trees and rip out the stumps. A concentration camp took shape on the wind-swept slope — crude barracks and whipping posts for the prisoners; villas, gardens, and a private zoo for the SS and their children. The Nazis renamed the place Buchenwald — the beech wood.

Having done so, they maliciously removed all the beeches, but preserved a single tree, a great oak six feet in diameter. Under this tree, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was said to have composed the Walpurgis Night scene of his Faust. The camp commandant erected a bronze plaque on the tree, an opportunity for the slaves to get a little culture while they worked themselves to death. "Here Goethe rested," it read, "during his wanderings through the forest."

As the war dragged on and the suffering of the prisoners passed beyond any understanding, a legend began to circulate that the destruction of the Goethe oak would augur the downfall of Germany. And so, as fire spread from the laundry to the oak, some wondered whether deliverance was at hand. There were many literate prisoners in the camp, but any affection for the German Romantics had been replaced with an animal sensitivity to signs and portents. The glowing embers reflected glee in the faces of the inmate bucket brigades. The bombing raid had killed 600 inmates — along with 200 SS men and their family members. But it was the symbolic oak of Buchenwald that burned now, and not Paris. Ludwik Fleck captured the mood later in an unpublished essay that was found among his papers. "Die, die you beast, symbol of the German empire," he wrote. "Goethe? For us, Goethe doesn't exist. Himmler killed him."

The gift of Goethe, Germany's best-loved poet, the flower of a thinking, creative, generous world of art and science, came close to bitter extinction in Nazi Germany. It survived, among other places, in the mind of Ludwik Fleck, the Buchenwald laboratory slave, who had elaborated a marvelous and prescient philosophy of science in the happier days of his life. Science, he wrote, was a culturally conditioned, collective activity bound by traditions that were not precisely logical and were generally invisible to those who carried them out. Scientific disciplines, such as the ones he belonged to, operated by the same arcane rules as a tribe in the Amazon or a group of government clerks. The members of each thought collective saw and believed what they had been trained to see and believe. Pure thought and logic were illusions—perception was an activity bound by culture and history.

The ideas and thinkers of the past were not wrong, Fleck wrote, but they had built their ideas upon "shapes and meanings that we no longer see." This was not to say there was no progress, nor that one could not distinguish good science from bad. The idea of an "Aryan" or a "class-conscious" form of science, Fleck wrote in 1939 — with Hitler and Stalin, champion corrupters of science, preparing to pounce on his homeland — "would be laughable if they weren't so dangerous." But Nazi medicine was a thought collective with peculiar fixed ideas. Fleck, as a sociologist of science, penetrated its weak points and put his insights to good use.

Arriving at Block 50 in Buchenwald in late 1943, he joined a group of prisoners who were trying to grow typhus germs in the lungs of living, immune-compromised rabbits. This was a task of great importance, for if they could cultivate the germs, the cultures would be used to make a vaccine, which would be immensely valuable to the German military. As long as the lab was contributing to the immunological defense of its soldiers, the Nazi regime would presumably keep the lab open and refrain from murdering its staff. The boss, the SS Dr. Erwin Ding, would be happy, too, because producing a vaccine would secure his position, keeping him far away from battle duty at the eastern front. And after the war, he hoped, the vaccine would win him a university professorship.

But there were problems with producing a sophisticated vaccine within the thoroughly corrupted confines of a concentration camp. Rickettsia, the intracellular bacteria that cause typhus, had bedeviled biologists for decades. Indeed, their somewhat mysterious existence — for no one knew just what they were — is one of the keys to understanding how Fleck developed his questioning, skeptical view of science. These germs were extremely difficult to grow artificially, though they thrived in lice and sick people. The prisoners in Block 50 knew nothing about how to prepare rickettsial cultures of the type one used to make vaccine. Yet everyone was desperate for success — Ding to further his career, the inmates in order to survive. Those in the thought collective of Block 50 — a biologist, a baker, a politician, and a physicist, among others — convinced themselves that they were making a vaccine, and put the fluid substance into vials that were sent off to Hamburg and Paris, where German scientists, men of renown, responded with words of praise. How was this possible? Like 1,000 monkeys with typewriters and time, a group of desperate amateurs had learned how to prepare a devilishly complicated vaccine in the space of a few months. Or had they? Fleck, who arrived when the group was well advanced in its labors, was the only one among them with the appropriate specialized knowledge. He was the only one who knew whether the vaccine they were making was real.

To most of the inmates of Buchenwald, in any case, the vaccine was not the most interesting thing about the rabbits that were used to grow it. On the night of the big raid, as the Goethe oak burned, the prisoners — French scientists from the Pasteur Institute, tough Polish resistance men, German Communists, Russian peasants, Dutch Jews, and Fleck — all joined in singing the "Marseillaise." Then they had a feast of rabbit stew.

Excerpted from The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen. Copyright 2014 by Arthur Allen. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.