During WWII, an old hospital in Rome run by friars fooled the Third Reich and saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish individuals. They did it by inventing a fake disease called K Syndrome. What is K Syndrome, exactly? Though it sounded like Koch syndrome, or tuberculosis, K Syndrome was completely made up. The head physician at the hospital, Giovanni Borromeo, hid hundreds of Jewish people in his hospital wards by diagnosing them with K Syndrome.
In 1943 and 1944, the SS stormed Rome's Jewish ghetto, deporting thousands to concentration camps. When the camps were liberated, less than a hundred survived. Thanks to the quick thinking of Dr. Borromeo and his assistants, however, a lucky few got to pull one over the German soldiers and escape persecution.
During the war, Hitler's regime raided the hospital looking for individuals of Jewish heritage, and the hospital staff warned them about the deadly, contagious K Syndrome. The fake syndrome protected hundreds during the Third Reich's occupation. Horrifying photos of concentration camps show the fate that could have been for the men, women, and children struck with this lifesaving plague.
Hitler's Regime Deported 2,000 Jewish People From Rome, And Only 100 Lived
When the Third Reich swept into Rome in September 1943, they immediately began targeting the city's Jewish population. Hundreds went into hiding, and some even hid in Catholic churches. But on October 18, 1943, the deportations began. In a single day, over 1,000 Jewish individuals got deported, and an additional thousand would be sent to extermination camps in the coming weeks.
Of the 2,091 Jewish people departed from Rome, only 102 survived.
The Hospital Started Hiding Jewish People During The First Round Of Deportations
On October 16, 1943, the SS rounded up over 1,000 Jewish individuals in Rome. Once the deportations began, the Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome began welcoming the Jewish population. The hospital's head physician, Giovanni Borromeo, was a lifelong anti-fascist. He also hired Jewish doctors, including Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti, who was instrumental in inventing K Syndrome.
In shock at the deportations, the hospital welcomed Jewish people, who hid in a special ward. And the hospital soon became a center of resistance.
The Hospital Staff Was Privy To The 'Syndrome K' Code
The case files for multiple patients at the hospital read "Syndrome K." But the disease was fake, a ploy to keep the SS from deporting Jewish people to the concentration camps. Adriano Ossicini, who helped hide Jewish individuals in the hospital, explained:
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 SS Suspected The Hospital Was Hiding Jewish Individuals
The Fatebenefratelli Hospital was close to Rome's Jewish ghetto. From its location on Tiber Island, the friars at the hospital could practically see the ghetto. This proximity made the Third Reich suspicious that the hospital was hiding Jewish people.
When the SS finally visited the hospital in late October 1943, Giovanni Borromeo had a plan.
Borromeo Lied To The SS Members Who Inspected The Hospital
The SS came to inspect the hospital in October 1943. The Jewish people were hidden away in multiple wards, the doors marked with the name of the fake disease, K Syndrome. Giovanni Borromeo stayed calm during the visit. He gave the SS a tour of the hospital while describing the horrors of K Syndrome. It was contagious, Borromeo said, and lethal.
Plus, K Syndrome caused terrible disfigurations. After explaining the symptoms of K Syndrome, Borromeo invited the SS to enter the wards to search for people of Jewish heritage. They declined.
The Doctors Warned Jewish Patients To Act Sick When The Germans Visited
Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti worked at the hospital under a fake name. He was in an especially risky position, as he was Jewish. Sacerdoti played a central role in hiding Jewish individuals at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, including his cousin Luciana Sacerdoti, who was only 10 years old at the time. She remembered warnings from the medical staff when the SS inspected the hospital:
The day [Hitler's regime] came to the hospital, someone came to our room and said: "You have to cough, you have to cough a lot because they are afraid of the coughing, they don't want to catch an awful disease and they won't enter."