From 1941 to 1945, during the Nazi occupation, around two-thirds of the European Jewish population was murdered. About six million lives were lost in what was known as Hitler’s Holocaust. It was also during that desperate time that some people rose to help save lives in ways that they could, regardless of how risky it was. That was what Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti, Professor Giovanni Borromeo, and Dr. Adriano Ossicini did. They orchestrated a lie and convinced the Nazis of a highly-contagious and disfiguring disease called Syndrome K. The plot twist was that such disease didn’t exist in any medical textbook. The disease was made up to save the Jews from being sent to the concentration camps.
Nazi In Italy
Although the focus of German’s antisemitism fell heavily on Jewish Poland, Italy fell victim to it too, with around 8000 to 9000 Italian Jews who died during the Holocaust. Before that, the Italian fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini passed multiple laws in 1938 that restricted the rights of their country’s Jewish population. In September 1943, the country collapsed and was taken over by Nazi German forces, so the now-puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic, still headed by Mussolini, began arresting and deporting Italian Jews to be sent to the concentration camps in central and Eastern Europe. By March of 1945, it was estimated that around 10,000 Jews had been sent to these camps, with only a thousand of them surviving and returning home when the war was over.
Horror and Violence Unfolding
It was on October 16, 1943, that the Nazi forces started raiding a Jewish ghetto in Rome. Just across that was the ancient 450-year-old Fatebenefratelli Hospital, tucked along the Tiber River. From the balcony, Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti and Professor Giovanni Borromeo watch with their own eyes as the horror and violence unfold. Borromeo was previously asked to join the Fascist party, but he refused, while Sacerdoti, at that time, was a 28-year-old Jewish doctor who lost his previous job due to his religion.
When the raid started that day, some of the Jews fled and sought refuge in their hospital, which they accepted. The original plan was to just allow them to stay and hide, but they knew the Nazis would soon begin to suspect that Jews were hiding there due to their proximity to the ghettos. They had to come up with something that would repel them as long as possible, if not for good.
Il Morbo di K
In coordination with Dr. Adriano Ossicini, the two made up a disease that was not all found in any physician’s chart or medical textbook. They called the disease Syndrome K. “Il Morbo di K” was a highly contagious, disfiguring, and deadly disease that those who suffered from it should be isolated so the disease would not spread.
As Ossicini explained in a 2016 interview with an Italian newspaper named La Stampa,
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 that moment when we had to say what disease they suffered? It was Syndrome K, meaning ‘I am admitting a Jew.’
That helped them distinguish whether the patient was genuinely sick or was healthy and only being admitted to be sheltered from the Nazis and their concentration camps. The name of the disease was Ossicini’s idea of naming the supposedly deadly disease after two truly deadly men who were the real disease of humanity— Albert Kesselring and Herbert Kappler. Kesselring was a German commander in charge of the Nazis deployed in Rome. Herbert Kappler was the city’s SS chief of police and was the man behind the Ardeatine Massacre that killed 335 Italian civilians.
And so when the Nazis came to search Fatebenefratelli Hospital, the doctors put their show on and warned them about those highly contagious illnesses of Syndrome K, with the Jew “patients” told beforehand to cough and hack as the Germans pass by. And it worked. As Dr. Sacerdoti said in an interview with BBC, “the Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits.”
Borromeo also installed an illegal radio transmitter and receiver in the hospital basement so they could communicate with local partisans. Once the Germans were away, the doctors would move the Jews to different safe houses around the city.
In May 1944, the Nazis raided the hospital but were only able to catch five Jews who were hiding on a balcony. Fortunately, they survived as Rome was shortly liberated a month later.
The exact number of Jews that were saved by the brilliant Syndrome K was unknown. Although, the reports were around 25 to 100 Jews and political refugees, including Dr. Sacerdoti’s 10-year-old cousin.
When the war ended, Professor Borromeo was given honors by the Italian government. He died in 1961 at the age of 62 and was posthumously awarded as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust victims some 40 years later. In 2016, the Fatebenefratelli Hospital received the House of Life by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation award to remember and honor the acts of heroism during the dark times of the Holocaust.
“The lesson of my experience was that we have to act not for the sake of self-interest, but for principles.”
— Dr. Adriano Ossicini