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Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Saved Lives

In the fall of 1943, as German soldiers began rounding up Jews in Italy and deporting them by the thousands to concentration camps, a mysterious and deadly disease called “Syndrome K” swept through the city of Rome causing dozens of patients to be admitted to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital located in the middle of the boat-shaped island on Tiber river. The details of the disease are sketchy, but the symptoms include persistent coughing, paralysis and death. The disease was said to be highly contagious.

The 16th-century Fatebenefratelli Hospital has a history of infectious diseases. In the 17th century, it was used to quarantine plague patients, and when there was a cholera outbreak in Rome in 1832, Fatebenefratelli—by virtue of its isolation—became a natural shelter for the infected.

Fatebenefratelli Hospital

Fatebenefratelli Hospital on the Tiber river Island, Rome. Photo credit: 4thebirds/Shutterstock.com

But “Syndrome K” was different. There was no mention of it in medical textbooks, and outside of the staff at Fatebenefratelli, nobody had heard of it before. It sounded similar to Koch Syndrome, which was tuberculosis, a terribly frightening disease at that time. When the German soldiers went to raid the Fatebenefratelli, the doctors explained the disease to the men and what lay behind the closed doors. None of them dared to go in. And that’s how at least a hundred Jews who were taking refugee at the hospital escaped death. “Syndrome K” was a made up disease.

The disease was created by Giovanni Borromeo, the hospital’s head physician, with the assistance of other doctors to save those Jews and anti-fascists who sought refuge there. Borromeo began providing Jews a safe haven in the hospital from 1938, the year Italy introduced antisemitic laws. One of the refugees was Vittorio Sacerdoti, a young Jewish doctor, for whom Borromeo prepared false papers and gave him a position in the hospital. Another psychiatrist, Adriano Ossicini, was an antifascist who had been imprisoned several times before he found work under Borromeo. Ossicini, along with many other doctors, ran a semi-clandestine resistance base at the Fatebenefratelli.

On October 1943, the Nazis raided a Jewish ghetto in Rome, and many Jews fled to Fatebenefratelli, where Borromeo admitted them as “patients”. The refugees were given a new fatal disease—Syndrome K—in order to identify them from the actual patients. The letter K was chosen after German officer Albert Kesselring, who led the troops in Rome. K was also the initial of the last name of a Nazi officer in Rome, Herbert Kappler.

Fatebenefratelli Hospital

Fatebenefratelli Hospital. Photo credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

"Syndrome K" was purported to be a neurological illness whose symptoms included convulsions, dementia, paralysis, and, ultimately, death from asphyxiation.  Just what it might be was left for interpretation. When the Nazis came to visit, patients were instructed to cough a lot whenever soldiers passed by their door.

The ruse worked. “The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits,” said Dr Vittorio Sacerdoti during an interview with BBC in 2004, sixty years after the event.

In 2016, the 96-year-old Ossicini spoke to the Italian newspaper La Stampa about the invention of the disease:

Syndrome K was put on patient papers to indicate that the sick person wasn’t sick at all, but Jewish. We created those papers for Jewish people as if they were ordinary patients, and in the moment when we had to say what disease they suffered? It was Syndrome K, meaning ‘I am admitting a Jew,’ as if he or she were ill, but they were all healthy.

The idea to call it Syndrome K, like Kesserling or Kappler, was mine.

How many lives Syndrome K actually saved is hard to tell, but accounts vary from two dozens to over a hundred.

After the war, Borromeo was honored by the Italian government by awarding the Order of Merit and the Silver Medal of Valor. He died in 1961 at his own hospital. He was posthumously recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli government.

The hospital itself was recognized as a "House of Life" by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Holocaust saviors.

Fatebenefratelli Hospital

Aerial view of Fatebenefratelli Hospital. Photo credit: Aerial-motion/Shutterstock.com

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