Syndrome K: The Fake Disease that Saved Italian Jews from the Nazi Regime

Just before the start of World War II, 26-year-old Jewish Italian doctor, Vittorio Sacerdoti, found himself starting his new job at the Ospedale San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli (the Fatebenefratelli hospital) [1] in Rome under a false name, where he would later diagnose a number of patients with a mysteriously fatal and highly contagious disease known as (Il) Morbo di K, or “Syndrome K.”

Ospedale San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli
Ospedale San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli

Located on Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island), the Catholic hospital – with origins dating back to before 1000 CE [2] and still in operation today – was modernized in 1934 under the direction of Dr. Giovanni Borromeo.

Just a few years later, the Prime Minister of Italy, Benito Mussolini, began implementing a series of anti-Semitic laws in Italy in 1938. This, combined with the later occupation of Rome by German Nazis, would lead to a sudden outbreak of Syndrome K at the Fatebenefratelli hospital during the Second World War in 1943.

Said to have been named after German officer Albert Kesselring and/or SS [3] Chief Herbert Kappler by one of the hospital’s providers and anti-fascist activist, Adriano Ossicini, K was a neurological illness “that began with convulsions and dementia and led to paralysis and death from asphyxia.” [4]

This ailment, which terrified the Nazi soldiers occupying the city, reportedly saved anywhere from 20 to over 100 [5, 6, 7] Jews who were destined for the Auschwitz concentration camp. But how was this possible during an epidemic of such a lethal sickness?

Dr. Giovanni Borromeo
Dr. Giovanni Borromeo

It was fake.

On October 16, 1943, Nazi soldiers raided the Jewish grotto [8] nearby the hospital in Rome [9]. Ossicini recalled hearing the “heartbreaking cry of a mother…who yelled at her little son: ‘Run away, my beautiful child, run!'” [10] Already known as a safe haven for Jews, Borromeo, Ossicini, and Sacerdoti opened the hospital to their fellow Italians and concocted a scheme to prevent the Nazis from taking them away.

[11]

According to Ossicini,

“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.” [12]

Sacerdoti, who had managed to save his own 10-year-old cousin, Luciana Sacerdoti, that day, said that the Nazis fled “like rabbits” upon hearing about the disease, “[thinking] it was cancer or tuberculosis.” [6]

Unfortunately, the Nazis did manage to raid the hospital some seven months later in May 1944, “but the ruse was so carefully executed that only five Polish Jews were caught hiding on a balcony.” [7] Luckily, they survived execution with the liberation of Rome a month later.

Luciana Tedesco and Gabriele Sonnino, two of the Jews rescued by the staff of the Fatebenefratelli hospital
Luciana Tedesco and Gabriele Sonnino, two of the Jews rescued by the staff of the Fatebenefratelli hospital. Photographed by Franco Ilardo.

Following the end of World War II, Sacerdoti set out to locate his family, who had taken refuge outside of Ancona. He continued to practice medicine and lived to be 90 years old, passing away on August 3, 2005. [13, 14]

Borromeo was awarded a silver medal of civil valor and also continued to work as a physician following the war until his death in 1961. For his actions in saving Jews during the Holocaust, he was posthumously recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” [15] in 2004. [16]

Ossicini, who died in 2019 at the age of 98, went on to join the Italian Senate, even serving as its Vice President before going on to become Minister for Family and Social Solidarity of the Dini Cabinet.

On June 21, 2016, the Fatebenefratelli hospital was officially designated a “House of Life” by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. [17] When asked about the experience during the ceremony, one of the survivors, Gabriele Sonnino, said “there were kids my age. We didn’t do anything all day, we didn’t know why we were there. Then, it seemed like punishment to us little ones; today, it’s life.” [18]

Anna

Notes and References:

[1] “Fatabenefratelli” (“fate” + “bene” + “fratelli”) translates to “do good, brothers.”

[2] “Storia dell’ospedale,” Fatebenefratelli Isola Tiberina Ospedale San Giovanni Calibita: Ordine Ospedaliero San Giovanni di Dio, accessed February 16, 2022.

[3] “The SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squads) was originally established as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit. It would later become both the elite guard of the Nazi Reich and Hitler’s executive force prepared to carry out all security-related duties, without regard for legal restraint.” Holocaust Encyclopedia, “The SS,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed February 16, 2022.

[4] Philip Willan, “Doctors saved Jews by dreaming up an imaginary disease,” The Times, June 23, 2016.

[5] Claire Barrett, “Syndrome K – The ‘Disease’ that Saved Lives During WWII,” HistoryNet, July 6, 2021.

[6] “Italian doctor who fooled Nazis,” BBC News, last updated December 3, 2004.

[7] “Syndrome K: The Fake WW2 Disease that Saved Jews from the Nazis,” History, accessed February 16, 2022.

[8] This raid, or rastrellamento, resulted in the capture of 1,259 people (363 men, 689 women, and 207 children), of which 1,023 were identified as Jews and deported to Auschwitz.

[9] This ghetto was the oldest living Jewish community in Western Civilization.

[10] Adriano Ossicini, “Testimonianza,” 16 Ottobre 1943, accessed February 21, 2022.

[11] Roberto Rossellini, Rome Open City, 1945, black and white photograph. The Criterion Collection.

[12] Ariela Plates, Interview with Adriano Ossicini, in “Morbo K, quella malattia inventata per salvare gli ebrei dalle persecuzioni nazifasciste a Roma,” La Stampa, June 21, 2016.

[13] Pier Luigi Guiducci, “La testimonianza del medico ebreo dottor Sacerdoti (1915-2005) sulle vicende del 1943-1944 a Roma: Una Resistenza civile nei mesi dell’occupazione nazista di Roma,” Storico.org, September 2019.

[14] Before his death, Sacerdoti was able to give an account of what he remembered – Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti and Elizabeth Levy-Picard, Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti oral history (interview code: 41839), 15 May 1998 / conducted by USC Shoah Foundation. Los Angeles, CA: USC Shoah Foundation, 1998.

[15] “Righteous Among the Nations” is an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust for altruistic reasons.

[16] Yad Vashem, “Borromeo Giovanni,” The Righteous Among the Nations Database, accessed February 21, 2022.

[17] Jesus Colina, “The incredible story of the false ‘K disease’ who saved Jews from the Nazis,” The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, June 22, 2016.

[18] Margherita De Bac, “Shoah, una targa al Fatebenefratelli Ebrei salvati con finti ricoveri,” Corriere della Sera, June 21, 2016.

Want to read more about the experience of Italian Jews during World War II? Check out “Italian Jews Who Survived the Shoah: A Critical Analysis Using Elements of Thought

** Check out “Eternal” for a good historical fiction novel based on this time in Rome.

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