Jewish Journal


by Norman Lavin, M.D, PhD., UCLA Medical School

April 24, 2011 | 1:07 pm

What do these names have in common? Simply stated, Modigliani and Kafka died from tuberculosis, and Hitler (Who else?) delivered a medical discourse on Jews and tuberculosis.

What is Tuberculosis?
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which often affects the lungs, but may involve any organ and may infect anyone at any age. Tuberculosis is spread from person to person, usually through the air when someone with active disease coughs and sprays the bacteria. Left untreated, TB can kill approximately one-half of patients within five years and produce significant morbidity in others. Inadequate therapy for TB can also lead to drug-resistant strains of M. tuberculosis that are more difficult to treat.

In the United States, TB is much less common than it used to be. Of approximately 13,000 new cases of active disease each year, over half occur in persons born outside of the country; it is very common in the developing world. It is estimated that as much as one-third of the world’s population is infected with M. tuberculosis, and worldwide about 1.6 million people die of this disease every year. TB and HIV are closely associated; people with HIV are much more likely to develop active disease if they are infected with the bacteria that cause TB.

Jewish Immunity (or Not) –
From a book on Anti-Semitism
Many “physicians” in the late 1800s and early 1900s, particularly in Germany and other
European countries, characterized the Jewish individual as physically vulnerable to developing tuberculosis and “is the reason for the spread of this disease throughout the world.” But there is a basic contradiction of many of these so called “experts”.

On the one hand, Jews have an immunity to certain diseases, including tuberculosis, though an affinity for others. On the other hand, the male Jewish body is depicted in terms of the habitus phthisicus (body type). But how can the Jew be both immune to and defined by tuberculosis? Here, the stereotype’s peculiar power to accommodate antithesis comes into play. At the turn of the century, Jews are both the arch-bankers and the arch-revolutionaries, both the false nobility of Paris and the wandering Eastern Jews of Warsaw. “All Jews to all groups who need to define outsiders.” Thus, their supposed immunity, whether racial or acquired, is a sign of their “nature,” as is the assumption that the Jew, because of his body form, is predisposed to tuberculosis.

The Tubercular Jew
Many public officials and physicians describe physical characteristics that they said made Jews more prone toward tuberculosis. This may have been a reflection of the fact that many very famous Jewish individuals did contract tuberculosis, such as Modigliani and Kafka. But, in fact, the Jews were more immune to tuberculosis than most any other group, and were more immune to many other infectious diseases. According to statistical data concerning the occurrence of tuberculosis in Jews and non-Jews in various countries, the mortality from tuberculosis in Jews is lower, and the course of the disease is slower and more favorable. Hereditary predisposition may contribute to immunity or susceptibility. Tuberculosis exhibits the character of an acute epidemic with a preponderantly rapid and grave course in the case of ethnic groups which come in contact with it for the first time.

During the course of generations, however, the sickness takes on more and more of the character of a chronic, insidious, ethnic epidemic. Those who are predisposed are killed off by the disease with an increased incidence, in large part before the end of their reproductive age. For that reason, the number of those who are resistant increases more and more in the population. It is called, selective resistance. The Jews are now the group which has been exposed longest to the conditions of urban life. For that reason, they have been subjected longest to the selection process just described. The result is similar to a “genuine racial characteristic” (Racial Biology of the Jews, by Barron Otmar von Verschuer, M.D.).

Racial Tuberculosis
The following is a speech delivered by Adolf Hitler in Salzburg on August 7, 1920:

“This is not a problem you can turn a blind eye to – one to be solved by many
concessions. For us, it is a problem of whether our nation can ever recover its health,
whether the Jewish spirit can ever really be eradicated. Don’t be misled into thinking you can fight a disease without killing the carrier, without destroying the bacillus. Don’t
think you can fight racial tuberculosis without taking care to rid the nation of the carrier
of that racial tuberculosis. This Jewish contamination will not subside. This poisoning
of the nation will not end until the carrier himself, the Jew, has been banished from our

In Hitler’s diatribe against the Jews, he described the Jews as “carriers of tuberculosis”, and, therefore, “they should be eliminated”. Since, in fact, they were not carriers and not seeds of tuberculosis dissemination, he used the term “Racial Tuberculosis” to justify the extermination of the Jewish people.

Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian artist who worked mainly in France. Primarily a figurative artist, he became known for paintings and sculptures in a modern style characterized by mask-like faces and elongation of form. He died in Paris, at age 35 of tubercular meningitis, exacerbated by poverty, overwork, and addiction to alcohol and narcotics.

Modigliani was born in 1884 in Livorno, Italy to a Sephardic Jewish line of intellectual aristocrats, tracing their lineage to Spinoza. It was said that Modigliani was immersed in alcoholism and drug addiction, but he consciously used intoxicants as a cover to hide a “great secret”—that being tuberculosis. In remission since childhood, it returned when he was an adult accompanied by symptoms like spasmodic coughing, stretches of lassitude, and bouts of erratic behavior. He was terrified of the social ostracism that would result if he were known to have the highly contagious disease, which is similar to having AIDS today. He deliberately fostered a reputation as an alcoholic and addict to prevent detection. This allowed him to freely drink the wine that soothed his coughing and use the drugs that gave him energy to work. Modigliani died on January 24, 1920. There was an enormous funeral, attended by many from the artistic communities in Montmartre and Montparnasse.


Franz Kafka was born to middle class German-speaking Jewish parents in Prague, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Contemporary critics and academics regard Kafka as one of the best writers of the 20th century. The term “Kafkaesque” has become part of the English vernacular. During World War II, Kafka’s three younger sisters were sent to their deaths at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

“The Metamorphosis” – by Franz Kafka
The most obvious parallel between Kafka and Gregor Samsa, (the main character), is the fact that they die early deaths alone. The name of the book “die Verwandlung,” translated as the conversion or change, is an indication of a life changing moment in time. Gregor’s life is completely altered by the fact that he becomes a vermin. Becoming an insect, Gregor crosses over an imaginary line to a point where there is no turning back, much like that of any person with a chronic illness. Kafka was afflicted with various illnesses throughout his life that contributed to his health conscious vegetarian diet. He suffered from insomnia, recurring coughs, night sweats, and similar difficulties, all of which are symptoms of tuberculosis. He spent much of his time during these bouts in a sanitarium with only the company of his journals. With his illness and isolation, Kafka felt like vermin, unwanted, reviled. Kafka demonstrates this in his unpublished “Letter to His Father,” where he refers to himself as “Ungeziefer,” that is translated specifically as vermin.

Unlike most Jews, these two giants succumbed to tuberculosis. But, I’m sorry (not) Mr. Hitler – there is no racial tuberculosis – certainly not in the Jewish people. In spite of or because of this disease, Franz Kafka and Amedeo Modigliani became exemplary scholars and artists who contributed immensely to our civilization.

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Norman Lavin, M.D.,PhD.
Clinical Professor of Endocrinology
Director of Endocrinology Education
UCLA Medical School

Director of the Metabolic, Diabetes, and Weight Control...

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