Readers do not expect witnesses to historical tragedy to be supremely intelligent, producing gimlet-eyed conclusions about executioners and victims. Yet Ludwik Hirszfeld, a Polish Jewish microbiologist and serologist (expert in blood serum) who died in 1954, did just that in a book issued last August to no fanfare from University of Rochester Press.
“Ludwik Hirszfeld: The Story of One Life” was translated by Marta A. Balinska, and edited by Balinska with William Schneider. Hirszfeld’s memoir, dictated in the 1940s, is fascinating on many accounts; in the Warsaw ghetto, Hirszfeld heroically organized anti-epidemic measures and vaccination campaigns against typhus, as well as teaching clandestine medical classes. A major scientist who made discoveries about blood grouping with relation to disease, Hirszfeld recounts how the rise of European fascism affected the scientific world.
At the 1935 Blood Transfusion Congress in Rome, Hirszfeld sees Leone Lattes, an Italian Jewish colleague and pioneer in forensic serology, kowtow to Mussolini, who “gave the impression of a large, wily cat purring with pleasure. Evidently, this was as indispensable as was the burning of incense in honor of the ancient Caesars.” Hirszfeld quotes the noted Polish Jewish laryngologist Zygmunt Srebrny, who was taunted by a German soldier busy looting his home: “Haven’t you heard of the Roman soldier who killed Archimedes?” to which the elderly Srebrny replied:
Indeed, I have. However the name of Archimedes is known to you, to me, and to others, while no one knows the name of that Roman soldier.
Acting as a one-man vehicle of historical memory himself, Hirszfeld pours scorn on any scientist who collaborated with the Nazis, thereby becoming a “state mercenary… they have betrayed more than their homeland – they have betrayed the dream and hope of mankind.” But Hirszfeld trenchantly separates Warsaw ghetto heroes, such as Janusz Korczak (“I frequently visited [Korczak’s] orphanage, because I felt that was a higher world”) from privileged Jews who felt less compassion for their fellow sufferers, with a “lack of pity for the destitute…I was offended by the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia’s disdain for the Jewish masses.”
Not every page of this memoir is tragic; there are passages recalling prewar university dances where a colleague who asked how to dance the tango was instructed by Hirszfeld: “Just walk around and think of your first love.” The University of Rochester Press’s Studies in Medical History series, which also contains two outstanding works by Shifra Shvarts on Israeli health care, has just attained new heights.