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.
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 materiel 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).
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 regime 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.
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