Syndrome K: The Fictious Disease That Fooled the Nazis and Saved Lives

“Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits,”

In the fall of 1943, as thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy were being deported to concentration camps, a group of dissident doctors devised a plan to save Jew lives: Fabricate a disease so contagious and deadly that Nazi soldiers would be afraid to even be in the same room with anyone infected.

The ruse began on October 16, 1943, when Nazis stormed a Jewish ghetto near Rome’s Tiber River, however their actions would not be disclosed for another 60 years. Doctors sheltered a number of runaways inside the walls of the neighbouring Fatebenefratelli Hospital as Jews were being picked up. The doctors devised a scheme to diagnose the refugees with a fictitious disease, which included Vittorio Sacerdoti and Giovanni Borromeo, a surgeon. Syndrome K was the name given to it.

The Nazis had to believe these individuals had a terrible disease that could infect everybody who came into contact with them in order to pull it off perfectly. One sick passenger might infect everyone on board, including troops, in the confined cabins of deportation trains.

Dr. Adriano Ossicini, an anti-Fascist physician at the hospital, came up with the moniker Syndrome-K after realising that the staff needed a way to distinguish between patients and Jews in hiding. Creating a fictitious disease removed all of the uncertainty—when a doctor arrived with a “Syndrome K” patient, everyone on staff knew what to do.

“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 idea to call it Syndrome K, like Kesselring or Kappler, was mine.”

Ossicini told Italian newspaper La Stampa in 2016

Albert Kesselring, the Nazi leader in charge of Hitler’s Italian occupation, was the “Kesselring” Ossicini was referring to; Herbert Kappler, on the other hand, was the SS head responsible for a mass reprisal killing in 1944. For Ossicini and the other doctors at the hospital, naming a lethal virus after two cruel Nazi commanders must have felt appropriate.

When Nazi troops combed the hospital seeking victims to round up, the physicians had to come up with ways to make Syndrome K seem real. To do so, the doctors would set up separate rooms with “victims” of Syndrome K (also known as “K” Syndrome), which they informed the soldiers was a highly contagious, debilitating, and fatal disease.

When the Nazi troops seized the hospital, they didn’t bother to investigate the people in the rooms for fear of getting the mystery disease. There were also youngsters to consider, so the physicians taught them how to cough violently enough to deter any interested soldiers from conducting inspections.

When the doctors’ deception was finally exposed more than a half-century later, they were hailed for their life-saving efforts. Yad Vashem, a World Holocaust Remembrance Center, named Borromeo “Righteous Among the Nations.” He also played a key role in the transfer of numerous Jewish patients from ghetto hospitals to Fatebenefratelli, allowing them to get better care in a safer atmosphere before the raids began.

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which fights on behalf of Holocaust survivors, designated the hospital as a “House of Life.” The institution had gained a reputation as a safe haven for persecuted Jews in the years leading up to the attacks. Doctors like Sacerdoti—a Jew who had been sacked from previous professions because of his religion—were allowed to work under fraudulent documents by the hospital leadership at the time, including Borromeo.

The number of patients saved by the doctors at Fatebenefratelli was most likely in the dozens. Regardless of the final count, the rapid thinking and resourcefulness of doctors like Sacerdoti, Borromeo, and Ossicini provided a ray of hope in a time when happy endings were scarce.