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Syndrome K: the fake WW2 disease that saved Jews from the Nazis.

Dr. Giovanni Borromeo and Rome's Fatebenefratelli Hospital where he sheltered Jews after the German occupation of Italy using a very cunning medical ruse

During 1941 and 1945, Hitler’s Nazi Germany murdered around six million Jews, about two-thirds of the European Jewish population, in what would become known as The Holocaust. 

Although this was a time where tales of hope and salvation were few and far between, there are stories of individual people and groups who demonstrated extraordinary bravery to save lives. They were a glimmer of light during a dark time that resulted in few happy endings.

27 January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and to mark this year’s commemoration, we remember one such story of hope and bravery. We remember the lesser-known story of Syndrome K, the fictitious disease invented by Italian doctors that fooled the Nazi’s and saved lives. 

Although the persecution of Jews in Italy has been somewhat overshadowed by the decimation of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe during WW2, between 8-9,000 Italian Jews died during the Holocaust.

Under the Italian Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in 1938, the country’s Jewish population had multiple laws passed against them restricting their rights. However, it wasn’t until late 1943, after the Fascist regime had collapsed and Nazi German forces had occupied the country that Italian Jews faced deportation to the concentration camps.

In September 1943, the now puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic, headed once again by Mussolini, began arresting and systematically deporting Italian Jews to the concentration camps of central and Eastern Europe. By March 1945, estimates suggest some 10,000 Jews had been rounded up and sent to the camps, with all but 1,000 returning home after the war had ended.

On October 16, 1943, Nazi soldiers began a raid on a Jewish ghetto in Rome. A stone’s throw away from the ghetto was the ancient 450-year-old Fatebenefratelli Hospital, located on a tiny 270-metre long island in the middle of Rome’s Tiber River. 

Under the direction of Professor Giovanni Borromeo, a man who’d previously refused to join the Fascist party, the Catholic hospital had already become known as a safe haven for Jews, allowing doctors like Vittorio Sacerdoti, a 28-year-old Jewish man who had lost his previous job due to his religion, to work under false papers in the hospital. Borromeo had also installed an illegal radio transmitter and receiver in the hospital basement, which was used to communicate with local partisans. 

On the day of the 16th, the hospital opened its doors to all Jews seeking shelter from the Nazi raid. Borromeo knew the hospital was sure to be searched and so he, Sacerdoti and another physician called Adriano Ossicini, came up with an ingenious plan. They decided that any Jew who came to the hospital seeking refuge would be admitted as a new patient and declared to be suffering from a highly contagious and deadly disease known as ‘Il Morbo di K’, aka Syndrome K or ‘K’ Syndrome.

Of course, this disease was not to be found in any medical textbook, as it was entirely fictitious. Ossicini had come up with its name, aptly naming the deadly disease after two very deadly men - Albert Kesserling, the German commander in charge of the Nazi troops in Rome, and the city’s SS chief of police Herbert Kappler, a man who in March 1944 would be responsible for the Ardeatine Massacre, a reprisal killing of 335 Italian civilians.

Doctors could now tell the difference between real patients and those seeking shelter. To aid in the ruse, rooms were also set up and said to contain sufferers of the infectious disease. All patients had to play their part as well and were advised to cough violently if a Nazi soldier came close.

When the Nazi’s came to search the hospital, they were warned about the highly contagious neurological illness, known as Syndrome K, whose symptoms included convulsions and paralysis and could lead to disfiguration and ultimately death. The plan worked and the soldiers dared not enter the building.

Dr Sacerdoti told the BBC in 2004, ‘The Nazi’s thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits.’

The doctors would then move the Jewish hideaways to various safe houses around the city. With the approval of Borromeo and of Father Maurizio, the prior of the Fatebenefratelli, Sacerdoti also had patients brought from the Jewish hospital in the ghetto to be better cared for at Fatebenefratelli, a courageous act that no doubt saved countless more lives. 

In May 1944, the Nazi’s did finally raid the hospital, but the ruse was so carefully executed that only five Polish Jews were caught hiding on a balcony. They would survive the war as Rome was liberated just one month later.

Although exact numbers vary from account to account, estimates suggest the doctors at Fatebenefratelli Hospital with their Syndrome K cover story saved the lives of somewhere between 25-100 Jews and political refugees, including the 10-year-old cousin of Dr. Sacerdoti. 

After the war the Italian government bestowed many honours upon Professor Borromeo. In 1961, at the age of 62, he passed away in his own hospital. Some forty years later, those who had been sheltered by him alerted Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. As such, Yad Vashem posthumously recognised Borromeo as Righteous Among the Nations, an honour used to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. 

Just over 10 years later in 2016, the Fatebenefratelli Hospital would also receive an honour, being declared as a House of Life by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, an American organisation dedicated to remembering and honouring acts of heroism during the Holocaust.

To mark the occasion Ossicini, then aged 96, gave an interview to Italian newspaper La Stampa. ‘The lesson of my experience was that we have to act not for the sake of self-interest, but for principles,” he said. ‘Anything else is a shame.’

All those doctors who played a part in the Syndrome K deception knew they were risking their own lives; one slip up could have cost them all dearly. Yet their extraordinary actions were a beacon of hope and salvation for their fellow citizens who were facing persecution from the Nazis.