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Vaccine protests, yellow stars, and an inoculation of historical reality
The perennial chorus of the conspiracy theorist is this: Did you know? Did you know? DID YOU KNOW? Wake up! Did you know the covid-19 vaccine has a microchip in it? Did you know that it’s the Mark of the Beast, a conduit for 5G death rays, a bioweapon, an agent of population control? Wake up! The stance of the anti-vaxxer in particular, marinated in hyper-individualism and a rugged mythos of maverick bravery, is to hold themselves out as lions and not sheep, courageous dissenters to a genocide no one else can see. And they take it very literally.
All across the country—from Anchorage, Alaska to Kansas City to the Bronx—protesters against Covid-19 vaccine mandate policies have chosen to don one of the more grotesque symbols of modern history: the yellow star, used to identify Jews during the Holocaust, marking them out for extermination. In their loaded pastiche, anti-vaxxers commonly use Hebrew-style lettering to spell out messages like “NO VAX;” cut home-made star-shaped patches out of cloth; and pin them to themselves and their families for social-media consumption and to wear at protests and school board meetings. The appropriation first caught on among anti-vaxxers in 2015, when Dr. Robert Sears, a popular California pediatrician and vocal proponent of the anti-vaccine movement, declared that opponents of a state bill revoking non-medical exemptions to school vaccine policies would soon be forced to wear yellow stars. In the context of a worldwide pandemic, the analogy has gone global, appearing in legions of anti-vaccine memes as well as crossing the line into real life.
I need not tell you that this comparison is offensive—it is obviously and staggeringly offensive to anyone with half a brain, let alone anyone, like me, still living in the epigenetic shadow of a genocide that killed more than a third of the entire global Jewish population. This isn’t even the first time the yellow star has been implemented by the American right—it’s been adopted by gun owners, right-wing pundits suspended from Twitter, et cetera, although the covid-19 vaccine fracas is certainly the most widespread and wholesale embrace of this particular brand of specious and self-imposed victimhood.
I’ve been trying to parse out why, precisely, this analogy is so compelling to the legions of anti-vaxxers who feel compelled to wear it proudly on their bodies: is it simply a flair for the dramatic? A fault in an education system that, seeking to emphasize American heroics in World War II and in general, fails to look inward towards the myriad examples of systemic oppression within this country, instead forcing those with a paucity of imagination to cast their gazes many decades back in time and across an ocean? Is the donning of yellow stars during lockdown protests the result of a victim complex nurtured tenderly in the bosom of Christian, conservative America? Certainly the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and vocal anti-Nazi dissident hung by the Reich in 1945, has an outsize imprint on evangelical education. Or is it, in a primarily white-led movement, a compulsive need to seek historical exemplars, thin on the ground, in which the oppressed are perceived, currently, to be white? It’s not just cheap, though; it’s, as one commenter on the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer noted, a dilution, if perhaps unintentional, of a symbol of genocide. It is the crudest way of slapping an interlocutor in the face with a fountain of bad facts—did you know?—and through sheer outrage conveying the message: Wake up!
As you may be able to tell, I’ve been winding up for a rant on this one for a long time—not just because of the aforementioned epigenetic-trauma shadow hanging over my life, or because my mother never had any relatives growing up because Hitler’s goons fucking killed them all, or because my grandfather had night terrors for the rest of his life, and spent long decades mourning for his lost brothers. Of course there is no comparison between an extremely fucking safe and effective vaccine that I have gladly received not once but three times in the past year along with tens of millions of my fellow citizens and we are fine and, well, all that—all that blood, the mass graves outside my grandmother’s town, the wholesale destruction of a fractious and vibrant culture, etc. etc. I’m used to, not to put too fine a point on it, Gentile nonsense about the Holocaust, fetishization and minimization at once, the way the ways Holocaust deniers at once erase the existence of history and long for it to recur. But I am, despite myself, angry. Yes, it’s the puffery, the self-righteousness of antivaxxers who are straining empathy across the nation to the point where even health-care workers find their reserves sapped. Yes, I am angry because my mother had a sister and she died in those cold woods. But it’s also the specific perversity of this comparison—the comparison of efforts to stop a disease with a genocide in which disease played such a crucial and central role.
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Did you know Anne Frank died of typhus? Maybe she’s the one Holocaust victim whose name you know. She died of epidemic typhus in Bergen-Belsen along with her sister Margot, and around 17,000 others at that camp. Typhus is a louse-borne fever, called, among other things, “war fever,” because it thrives only in conditions of extreme privation—where basic hygiene is impossible, lice are endemic, treatment unavailable or denied. It causes delirium, agony, a characteristic spotted rash, vomiting and fevers of up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit; it kills 40-60% of those who are infected and untreated, more if those victims are weakened or malnourished. Of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of them died of epidemic typhus in ghettos and concentration and labor camps—a condition that has now nearly been eradicated: the Holocaust saw the last mass outbreaks of typhus in Europe. Nowadays typhus is easily treated through antibiotics, but the most common treatment, the antibiotic doxycycline, wasn’t invented until 1967, and even penicillin, the first mass antibiotic, was restricted to military use until 1945. Too late. Too late, certainly, for a deliberate campaign of biological warfare that saw a disease, preventable even then, seeded among the populations to be annihilated. This was strategic, and deliberate, and designed to be confined to camps and ghettos; preventing the spread of typhus outside the Jewish community was the nominal pretext, in occupied Poland, for any Jew found outside a ghetto to be summarily shot.
The German medical establishment was complicit in the Holocaust, full stop. It’s not possible to deny this; the sociomedical idea of Geomedizin—that cultural environment and race are the primary determinants of health—was brought to the fore in the 1930s by the eager Nazi collaborator Dr. Heinz Zeiss, and used as a pseudoscientific pretext for Nazi ideas of “racial hygiene.” In Nazi propaganda, the Jew and the louse were synonymous: each viewed as incubators of disease, parasites on the body politic. In practice, the Nazis deliberately engineered the conflation, setting up a cruel tautology: they created conditions in which Jews—overcrowded, starved, and fed on by lice—became diseased, and used this as proof that Jews were filthy vectors of disease. Germans were experts on delousing, having done much on this front to eliminate epidemic typhus in their own troops during the First World War. It was, in fact, the systemic and common presence of delousing tactics in German culture that enabled their cruelest deception at the camps: the false showers full of a deadly gas, Zyklon-B, which was developed to combat lice in the first place. Thus the presence of lice among the prisoners—the epidemic typhus that ravaged captive populations in their cattle-cars and on their death marches and in their cramped and filthy barracks—was not incidental. The withholding of preventative treatment was an act of war. It was deliberate, disease an aide-de-camp to the forces of death, alongside exposure, and overwork, and the chambers.
But did you know there were those who tried to fight typhus among the Jews? Who risked their lives to do so, specifically developing and smuggling a vaccine to those captive populations, who hid the fever-ridden in attics and under beds so they wouldn’t be shot by the Gestapo? There’s a 2014 book called The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl which tells the true story of Rudolf Weigl, the Polish-German zoologist who created a viable typhus vaccine, in a fantastic Rube-Goldberg-esque process that involved injecting virus into the anuses of millions of lice. In his lab, he sheltered Polish mathematicians and resistance members and a few Jews, employing them to feed lice with their blood, de-gut the insects and isolate the bacterium, in the fantastically beautiful and endlessly war-torn city of Lviv. Dr. Weigl inoculated members of the Polish resistance to the Nazis. Moreover, and at great risk, he smuggled tens of thousands of doses of his typhus vaccine into the Warsaw Ghetto; he did not believe that the ghettoized were human filth, did not believe that their privation ought to condemn them to death by disease. Did you know?
Did you know there were others who, having been captured and enslaved, were tasked with developing a typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht, the Nazi troops on the Eastern Front, and who sabotaged its development deliberately, at perpetual risk to their lives, and who made a true vaccine in secret and only gave it to concentration-camp inmates? They were led by a former assistant of Weigl’s, a Jewish biologist and philosopher named Ludwik Fleck, in Block 50 of the Buchenwald concentration camp, beside Nazi doctors who performed barbaric and useless human experiments, whose sole goal was pain and from which no learning has ever been extracted—castrating homosexuals, injecting cyanide into prisoners’ hearts, shooting them with poison-laced bullets. Fleck and his compatriots slow-walked their work, attempting to grow the tetchy and difficult-to-cultivate typhus bacterium, rickettsia prowazekii, in the lungs of rabbits. Fleck had enough knowledge to create a true vaccine, which he did, even as captive human subjects shrieked and prisoners died en masse outside the barrack walls.
But the men and women of the Block 50 typhus laboratory used the real vaccine only to inoculate fellow prisoners—comrades, and those at most risk—and when the SS demanded samples for quality control. The hundreds of liters of rabbit-lung vaccine they generated otherwise was intentionally made useless, although they ate the typhus-infected rabbits, their lungs removed and bodies boiled to sterility, to survive. Did you know they chose, at daily and hourly risk to their lives, not to enable mass extermination, and to save, instead, whatever “unworthy” lives they could? Did you know they realized the vaccine was viewed as a defensive weapon by the Nazi brass, and they withheld it, choosing instead to wield it on behalf of the defenseless? Did you know that secret history, the story of the yellow-starred people who inoculated themselves because they deserved to live? Who saved whoever they could? Who refused to be used as weapons to prolong the war that had killed their friends and families?
Did you know that’s why I’m angry at the people who adopt their false badges of craft-store felt, their mendacious victimhood, why I am so angry at people who adopt the mantle of persecution when asked to save their own lives, and those of their neighbors? Because there are people for whom victimhood was never a fantasy, who chose bravely, who died in death marches, who died knowing vaccines work, and from whom they are withheld, and to whom they are given, matters. Did you know my mother had a sister, and she died in the cold woods? Wake up.