Arthur Allen is a jour­nal­ist and non-fic­tion writer based in Wash­ing­ton DC. A for­mer for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, he writes about med­i­cine, sci­ence and oth­er top­ics for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post, Slate, Sci­ence, and Land­scape Archi­tec­ture. His most recent book is The Fan­tas­tic Lab­o­ra­to­ry of Dr. Wei­gl: How Two Brave Sci­en­tists Bat­tled Typhus and Sab­o­taged the Nazis. He is blog­ging here today for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

It was a freez­ing after­noon out­side War­saw in March 2012, and I was sit­ting in a cramped hut lis­ten­ing to the tin­ny sounds of an inter­view, con­duct­ed in Pol­ish 33 years ear­li­er and replayed on an ancient reel-to-reel recorder. It was an inter­view with a louse dissector.

My friend Izabela Wag­n­er trans­lat­ed while Ryszard Woj­cik, who had con­duct­ed the inter­view as a young man in the prime of life, occa­sion­al­ly smiled at me and spoke a few heart­felt, unin­tel­li­gi­ble phras­es in French. We were wear­ing sweaters and our breath was freez­ing on the win­dows. We were drink­ing vod­ka and feel­ing fine, if a bit tense.

It can be chal­leng­ing to research a book that is set in a coun­try whose lan­guage you don’t under­stand among peo­ple who spoke anoth­er lan­guage you are just learn­ing. Most of my book The Fan­tas­tic Lab­o­ra­to­ry of Dr. Wei­gl is set in the city that is now Ukrain­ian Lviv, although it was called Lwow, or Lem­berg, and was a large­ly Pol­ish and Jew­ish city, in the peri­od the book covers. 

For this book I need­ed to scour lit­er­a­ture in French, Ger­man, and Pol­ish for sources. Hebrew and Ukrain­ian would have been nice as well, but were less essen­tial. An Israeli friend helped me with a cou­ple of Hebrew trans­la­tions, while a Ukrain­ian librar­i­an direct­ed me through some Ukrain­ian sources.

The main prob­lem was, while I can read French and Ger­man com­fort­ably, my Pol­ish is still pret­ty ten­ta­tive. It would have tak­en me for­ev­er to go through the reams of rel­e­vant mate­ri­als. I need­ed some­one to help me find and trans­late those sources.

Until recent­ly I was a free­lance jour­nal­ist, and not a wealthy one. At the start of my research, I hired a very good trans­la­tor in Wash­ing­ton DC to put a 1200-word arti­cle into Eng­lish for me. She charged $600. At that rate, I fig­ured I would need about $50,000 to locate and trans­late every­thing for the book. That wasn’t going to hap­pen. So I made a deal.

Actu­al­ly I didn’t make a deal. I fell into a rela­tion­ship, one that has turned out to be so much more inter­est­ing and enrich­ing than sim­ply hir­ing some­one to do the translation.

At the start of my research I found a 1980 arti­cle about the sci­en­tist Rudolf Wei­gl by a Pol­ish jour­nal­ist named Ryszard Woj­cik in a rather obscure jour­nal called Odra. It took me for­ev­er to track down Mr. Woj­cik; I final­ly got an email address, but no one respond­ed to a mes­sage I sent in Eng­lish, Ger­man and pid­gin Polish.

In 2011 I attend­ed a Ukrain­ian-Pol­ish sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence out­side Wro­claw at the invi­ta­tion of Wraclaw Szy­bal­s­ki, a famous genet­ic researcher who is an old friend of peo­ple like James Wat­son and Fran­cis Crick — the dou­ble helix guys. More impor­tant­ly to my pur­pos­es, Szy­bal­s­ki is a native of Lviv — it will always be Lwow for him — and when World War II began, he and the rest of his fam­i­ly all went to work for Wei­gl, in a lab­o­ra­to­ry where typhus vac­cine was pro­duced for the Ger­man Army from the guts of lice that fed on the blood of thou­sands of Pol­ish intel­lec­tu­als and edu­ca­tors. (For more details, buy my book!)

Szy­bal­s­ki, who is 93 today, had per­haps done more than any­one to keep alive the mem­o­ry of Wei­gl, who was one of his ear­li­est teach­ers, his hero, a Right­eous Among Nations (Yad Vashem, 2003) and a beloved hero of Pol­ish Lwow. 

We were on a bus tour­ing Wro­claw one day when Szy­bal­s­ki intro­duced me to Izabela Wag­n­er, a Pol­ish soci­ol­o­gist. She was at the con­fer­ence inter­view­ing expa­tri­ate Pol­ish sci­en­tists about the dif­fer­ences between inter­na­tion­al” and Pol­ish” ways of doing science.

Izabela and I spoke a lit­tle in French and a lot in Eng­lish, and it turned out that she was very inter­est­ed in Rudolf Wei­gl and Lud­wik Fleck, the two sub­jects of my book. I told her that there was a man named Ryszard Woj­cik some­where in Poland who seemed to know a lot about Wei­gl, and per­haps she could help me find him. 

It turned out that Izabela and Ryszard lived about half a mile from each oth­er, on the south­ern out­skirts of War­saw. Izabela found him eas­i­ly, they became good friends, and Ryszard revealed that he had many, many reels of old audio­taped inter­views of men and women who had worked for Weigl. 

He’d done the inter­views in the 1970s, most­ly, and he still want­ed to write a book about Wei­gl, but didn’t have the mon­ey. A famil­iar story.


Rudolf Wei­gl in His Lab­o­ra­to­ry [source]

Infor­mal­ly, a three-way bar­gain was struck. For my part, I worked to per­suade Szy­bal­s­ki, who ran a small foun­da­tion that gave grants for research on Pol­ish cul­ture, to pro­vide Ryszard a small stipend to help him fin­ish his book. He’d already writ­ten about 20 oth­er mono­graphs, every­thing from Holo­caust sto­ries to how-to guides for mem­o­ra­bil­ia fanat­ics who like to take their met­al detec­tors out and col­lect WWII-era matériel in Pol­ish fields and forests.

In exchange for this, Ryszard would give the tapes to Izabela, who would trans­late them into Eng­lish for me and use them for her own research as well. And I would help Izabela get one of her books pub­lished by an aca­d­e­m­ic press in the Unit­ed States by tight­en­ing up the Eng­lish a bit.

Imme­di­ate­ly, Izabela and I began to help each oth­er when­ev­er we could. She found doc­u­ments on Fleck, Wei­gl, and relat­ed char­ac­ters in the archives of the Pol­ish secret police. She helped me trans­late arti­cles. And with a lit­tle effort, I man­aged to get her man­u­script into shape well enough that Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press accept­ed it for pub­li­ca­tion next year.

That left Ryszard and the tapes. Some nego­ti­a­tions would be involved.

In March of 2012 I made a mad­cap race through Euro­pean archives. I stopped in Brus­sels (where the per­son­al papers of SS Haupt­sturm­fuehrer Erwin Ding-Schuler of the Buchen­wald typhus sta­tion had been dis­cov­ered lying under a thick cov­er of dust behind some book shelves a year ear­li­er ), in Munich (Peter Eyer, whose father Her­mann was the Ger­man Wehrmacht’s typhus chief, gen­er­ous­ly shared many doc­u­ments with me), in Paris (Pas­teur archives), Freiburg, Lud­wigs­burg and Berlin (Bun­de­sarchives), and in Mar­burg (IG Farben….). 

Mid­way through the trip I spent a week in War­saw, where Izabela and her French hus­band Philippe host­ed me at their house on the city’s out­skirts, which they shared with their won­der­ful daugh­ter Ania, some guinea pigs, a cou­ple of friend­ly dogs and two hors­es (actu­al­ly, the hors­es were next door in a barn).


Arthur Allen

On a cold snowy morn­ing we drove over to see Ryszard. He came out­side as we pulled into his dri­ve­way — a stout, beam­ing, white-beard­ed man of 74 who walked with a limp from recent hip replace­ment surgery. Then he led us into the crowd­ed, tum­ble­down hob­bit hole of a house that he shared with his wife Alicja. 

Every inch of space was filled with stuff — old WWII tank shells and sabers and pieces of fight­er wings, piles of video­cas­settes and audio­cas­settes and cds and papers, the walls cov­ered with home-made shelves stacked with fold­ers and papers and more cas­settes and cds. And it was cold, too, warmed only by a cou­ple of space heaters here and there. 

We sat down, opened a bot­tle of vod­ka, and Ryszard start­ed to tell me the sto­ry of his life. He told it most­ly in Pol­ish, with Izabela trans­lat­ing, but occa­sion­al­ly in French, a lit­tle of which he had picked up some­where long ago and none too author­i­ta­tive­ly. It didn’t real­ly mat­ter. The sto­ries took vivid shape any­way, and I will nev­er for­get them.

He’d been born to a peas­ant fam­i­ly near out­side Lublin, in cen­tral Poland, and one of his ear­li­est mem­o­ries was the black ash of the cre­mat­ed Jews of Maj­danek, which fell on the thatch roof of their house like mealy snow for sea­sons at a time. 

He remem­bered that when the war end­ed, his moth­er had tak­en him to see what was left of the camp, and there were thou­sands of but­ter­flies flit­ting about the trench­es filled with ash­es and bones. Ryszard was 7 then, and asked his moth­er why there were so many but­ter­flies, and she said they were the souls of mur­dered Jews.

A short time lat­er, the new Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment of Poland chose Ryszard to study in Moscow — he was bright, opti­mistic, and the right demo­graph­ic, since his back­ground was humble. 

In Moscow he learned Russ­ian, stud­ied jour­nal­ism, and mar­ried a Jew­ish woman from a big fam­i­ly of musi­cal gyp­sies. When he brought her home the neigh­bors shunned him. He moved to War­saw, became a big­time tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist and made a series of documentaries.

Some­times he got along with the cen­sors, some­times he didn’t. He tried to pro­duce a big sto­ry that asked why the coun­try had nev­er giv­en prop­er recog­ni­tion to Rudolf Wei­gl, a tow­er­ing sci­en­tist whose lab­o­ra­to­ry in wartime Lwow had pro­tect­ed thou­sands of Poles from Nazi oppression. 

That was in 1980, a thaw time, but the sto­ry was too moral­ly com­plex for the author­i­ties. Weigl’s lab had made a vac­cine for the Nazis. Sure, some of it was sab­o­taged, and some of it was smug­gled into the Ghet­tos. But tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, Wei­gl was a col­lab­o­ra­tor, his edi­tors said. The pro­gram nev­er aired.

He made oth­er films about Jew­ish sur­vivors. Before he went to Moscow, Ryszard had nev­er met a liv­ing Jew in his life. But he want­ed to know: What hap­pened to all the butterflies?

The Com­mu­nist régime fell, and Ryszard lost his job. He’s in poor health now, and the health sys­tem of Poland is a sham­bles. He had to bribe a doc­tor thou­sands of dol­lars to get his hip replaced, and tens of thou­sands to get his sis­ter-in-law a surgery she needed.

He and Alic­ja fed me big plates of creamed her­ring and we drank and drank, which made us mer­ry and even a lit­tle warmer, which was good because the space heater couldn’t real­ly fill the room.

Final­ly, we got up, and embraced. I could have the tapes, Ryszard said. He was over­joyed to meet some­one else who cared about the life of Rudolf Wei­gl. And he was hap­py to have a lit­tle mon­ey to fin­ish his own book. 

He’d decid­ed to call it, Pact with the Dev­il: the Capri­cious Star of Rudolf Weigl.”

It hasn’t been pub­lished yet, but I hope that it sells many copies. 

Read more about Arthur Allen here.

Relat­ed Content:

Arthur Allen is a jour­nal­ist and non-fic­tion writer based in Wash­ing­ton DC. A for­mer for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, he writes about med­i­cine, sci­ence and oth­er top­ics for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post, Slate, Sci­ence, and Land­scape Archi­tec­ture.