The Fake Typhus Epidemic
In May 1944, close to 25,000 Jews from Nagyvárad in Hungary (now Oradea in Romania) were forced into one of the two ghettos built in the city. Dr Miksa Kupfer, a Jewish doctor, was made responsible for public health issues inside the ghetto. He came up with the brilliant idea to create a fake typhus epidemic hoping that the authorities would panic and stop the deportations.
The Hungarian Head of Pathology in the Municipal Hospital, Dr Konrád Beöthy, offered to confirm, falsely, that blood samples from ghetto “patients” contained active typhus (those in the ghetto who had caught typhus on forced labour in the Ukraine already had similar, but inactive, antibodies). Presented with this “evidence” the alarmed ghetto authorities set up an “isolation hospital” in a remote corner of the ghetto and 7 patients, their families and hospital “staff” were transferred there.
Marta Steiner (aged 15) her younger brother and parents were a day away from deportation when Marta’s father, László Steiner managed to see the ghetto Deputy Commander who was a frequent customer of László’s bakery. László had previously helped him with some personal issues. He was also one of those with typhus immunity and it was agreed that he could become cook for the hospital and was transferred there with his immediate family.
However, the mass deportations in cattle trucks to Auschwitz were not prevented. It took two weeks to empty the ghetto leaving those in the isolation hospital under the more relaxed responsibility of the local police. One of the remaining Hungarian gendarmes was Gyula Ladi and, at great personal risk, he offered help to the inmates for purely humanitarian reasons.
After three weeks Dr Kupfer was alerted by Gyula Ladi that everyone would shortly be deported and a range of escape plans were devised with help from Gyula and local people. Marta and her brother were smuggled out at night to a school dormitory with the help of Gheorghe Mangra, the Romanian administrative head of a Greek-Catholic school. Although subsequently separated from their parents, the children had close encounters with the SS and Hungarian border guards, before eventually slipping through the woods into the relative safety of Romania.
This story was reported by Asociatia Tikvah from Oradea, Romania based on testimony from Marta Elian. The full story of Marta and her experiences will be published on the Tikvah website in the next few months. Marta, a doctor, now lives in St John’s Wood, London where she practices neurology. Her brother is a Professor Emeritus in Israel and a winner of the Israel Prize in General Literature.