In the darkest days of Nazi-occupied Italy, cases of a mysterious and deadly illness, known as “Syndrome K,” were documented in a Rome hospital across the street from the city’s Jewish ghetto.
Unbeknownst to the Nazis, it was completely made up. The disease was an ingenious trick created by a team of doctors designed to save the lives of dozens of Jewish people.
By the Autumn of 1943, Italy was in the thick of the storm. Mussolini's Fascist regime had fallen, leaving the new Italian government to declare war on its former partner, Nazi Germany, and team up with the Allies. However, the north of the country and its capital remained gripped by Nazi occupation under the name of the Italian Social Republic.
Anti-Semitism had been bubbling throughout the country since Mussolini took power in the 1920s, but things really turned sour after the Germany occupation in 1943. At this time, the Nazis controlled much of mainland Europe and the horrors of the Holocaust were in full swing. On October 16, 1943, the Nazis started their raids on Rome’s Jewish community and began to deport hundreds of people to Auschwitz.
Faced with desperation, handfuls of families sought refuge in the Fatebenefratelli hospital across the street from the ghetto on Tiber Island, Rome. But what could a bunch of doctors do if the Nazis came knocking?
Professor Giovanni Borromeo, Dr Vittorio Sacerdoti, and a number of the hospital's medical staff struck up a plan. They started admitting people into the hospital, even if they weren’t sick, and wrote on their records they were suffering from a ficticious condition known as “il morbo di K” and “sindrome K” – Italian for “Syndrome K.” The “K” was a subtle middle finger to Herbert Kappler, the Nazi police chief in Rome who led the Jewish roundups, and Albert Kesselring, the Generalfeldmarschall tasked with defending Italy against the Allied forces – both of whom were convicted of war crimes after the war.
Not only could “K syndrome” be used as a code by staff at the hospital to recognize who was not ill and instead seeking refuge, but it also scared the hell out of the Nazis as the “K” evoked memories of Koch’s Disease, another term for tuberculous. The German officers were said not to even dare open the doors of the ward.
"We would write on their medical forms that the patient was suffering from K Syndrome," Dr Sacerdoti told BBC News in a rare interview back in 2004.
"The day the Nazis 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.' The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits."
There have been a few retellings of this story, each with varying details that have been muddled over the decades. However, the story of "Syndrome K" has been pieced together from a number of testimonies from people there at the time. Adriano Ossicini, an anti-fascist partisan who became Italy’s Minister of Health in the 1990s, spoke about it in a testimony remembering the "Raid of the Ghetto of Rome" on October 16, 1943. Dr Sacerdoti also testified to the story for the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute. One of the most authoritative sources is the account of Professor Giovanni Borromeo by Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, which also speaks of numerous families and individuals who were saved thanks to the Fatebenefratelli hospital and “Disease K”.
It’s unclear how many people owe their lives to "Syndrome K" – most estimates vary from dozens to hundreds – nevertheless, the role of the Fatebenefratelli hospital and the ingenuity of its doctors has since been recognized for its brave efforts against the horrors of Nazism.
In the courtyard in front of the hospital, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has since placed a plaque that reads: “This place was a beacon of light in the darkness of the Holocaust. It is our moral duty to remember these great heroes for new generations to recognize and appreciate them.”