Syndrome K: The cough that saved Jews during World War II

From 1941 to 1945, during the Nazi occupation, approximately two-thirds of the European Jewish population was murdered. About six million lives were lost in what has been called Hitler’s Holocaust. It was also during this desperate time that some people rose up to help save lives in whatever way they could, no matter the risk. This is 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 was that such a disease did not exist in any medical textbook. The disease was invented to prevent Jews from being sent to concentration camps.

Nazi in Italy

Benito Mussolini in 1930. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although German antisemitism focused heavily on Jewish Poland, Italy was also a victim, with an estimated 8,000–9,000 Italian Jews dead during the Holocaust. Prior to this, Italy’s Fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini passed several 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 led by Mussolini, began arresting and deporting Italian Jews for send to concentration camps in the center and east. Europe. By March 1945, it was estimated that around 10,000 Jews had been sent to these camps, of whom only around 1,000 had survived and returned home once the war was over.

Horror and violence unfold

It was on October 16, 1943 that Nazi forces began attacking a Jewish ghetto in Rome. Directly opposite was the 450-year-old former Fatebenefratelli Hospital, nestled along the Tiber. From the balcony, Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti and Professor Giovanni Borromeo watch with their own eyes the horror and violence unfold. Borromeo had previously been invited to join the Fascist party, but declined, despite Sacerdoti at the time being a 28-year-old Jewish doctor who had lost his previous job due to his religion.

From left to right: doctors Boromeo, Ossicini and Sacerdoti.
From left to right: doctors Borromeo, Ossicini and Sacerdoti. (Photo by esanum.com)

When the raid began that day, some of the Jews fled and sought refuge in their hospital, which they accepted. The original plan was simply to allow them to stay and hide, but they knew that the Nazis would soon begin to suspect that Jews were hiding there due to their proximity to the ghettos. They had to find something that would keep them away for as long as possible, if not for good.

Il Morbo di K

In coordination with Dr. Adriano Ossicini, the two invented a disease that was not listed in a doctor’s chart or in a medical textbook. They called the disease Syndrome K. “Il Morbo di K” was a very contagious, disfiguring and deadly disease that those who suffered from it had to be isolated so that the disease did not spread.

As Ossicini explained in a 2016 interview with an Italian newspaper called La Stampa,

Syndrome K was put on the patient’s papers to indicate that the sick person was not sick at all, but Jewish. We created these papers for the Jews as if they were ordinary patients, and at that time we had to say what disease they were suffering from? It was Syndrome K, meaning “I admit a Jew”.

This helped them distinguish whether the patient was genuinely sick or healthy and was only admitted to be safe 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 mankind – 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 police chief and was the man behind the Ardeatine massacre which killed 335 Italian civilians.

So when the Nazis came to search the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, the doctors put on a show and warned them about these highly contagious Syndrome K diseases, the Jewish “patients” being told to cough and hack at the passage of the Germans. And it worked. As Dr Sacerdoti said in a BBC interview, “the Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they ran away like rabbits.”

Borromeo also installed an illegal radio transmitter and receiver in the basement of the hospital so they could communicate with local supporters. After the Germans left, the doctors moved the Jews to different safe houses in the city.

In May 1944, the Nazis raided the hospital but were only able to catch five Jews who were hiding on a balcony. Luckily they survived as Rome was liberated shortly after a month later.

The exact number of Jews who were saved by the brilliant Syndrome K was unknown. However, reports were of around 25 to 100 Jews and political refugees, including Dr. Sacerdoti’s 10-year-old cousin.

Rome, Fatebenefratelli Hospital. (Dguendel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of the war, Professor Borromeo received honors from the Italian government. He died in 1961 at the age of 62 and was posthumously named Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust some 40 years later. In 2016, Fatebenefratelli Hospital received the House of Life Award from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation to remember and honor acts of heroism during the dark times of the Holocaust.

“The lesson from my experience was that we must act not out of self-interest, but out of principle.”

— Dr. Adriano Ossicini

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