Syndrome K – How a Fictitious Disease Saved Real Lives

Stand for Israel  |  September 1, 2021

Fatebenefratelli Hospital, where Syndrome K saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust
(Photo: wikicommons/Dguendel)

As the Nazis raided and liquidated the ghetto of Rome – where thousands of Italian Jews were held until they could be sent to their deaths – one area remained untouched. The Nazis knew that Fatebenefratelli Hospital housed Jewish patients – Jews they meant to murder – but the Germans were afraid to enter. Because inside the hospital, the coughing, convulsing patients suffered from the mysterious and deadly “Syndrome K.”

A Lifesaving Disease

The thing is, Syndrome K did not take any lives. Rather, it saved lives. For Syndrome K was not a real ailment at all.

When Italy introduced anti-Semitic laws – similar to what Germany had already adopted – in 1938, a Jewish doctor named Vittorio Sacerdoti found work at Fatebenefratelli Hospital, which allowed him to use false identification papers. This saved Dr. Sacerdoti’s life, but life for Italy’s Jews turned even more ominous five years later, when in 1943 the Nazis took over the country.

A Lifesaving Doctor

A Christian doctor at the hospital, Giovanni Borromeo, joined Dr. Sacerdoti in bringing Jewish patients to the hospital in order to shelter them from the murderous Germans. But in order to keep the Jews safe, Dr. Borromeo invented an affliction – Il Morbo di K, or Syndrome K.

The K in its name standing for Albert Kesselring or Herbert Kappler, two of the Nazis in charge of liquidating Italian Jews, the disease was said to be contagious and fatal, its symptoms: convulsions, dementia, paralysis, and ultimately death by asphyxiation.

The Nazis, intent on rounding up and killing the local Jewish population, were too afraid of contracting Syndrome K to search the hospital. This ruse, kept up by a Christian doctor and a Jewish doctor, saved more than 100 Jewish lives. In 1961, Dr. Borromeo passed away of old age in Fatebenefratelli Hospital, the same hospital where he once proved himself a friend of God’s children thanks to Syndrome K, an act for which Yad Vashem named him Righteous Among the Nations.

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