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The Holocaust: Roman Hospital Saves Jews by Inventing Disease

While more than one-thousand Roman Jews were deported to death camps – and only a handful survived – at least 45 Jews were saved by contracting an infectious disease. Actually, the “K syndrome” was not a real disease; it was a fictitious illness dreamt up by Dr. Adriano Ossicini at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital. Ossicini’s idea was brilliant, but it would not have worked if anyone from the hospital staff had betrayed him.

The ruse coincided with the Nazi occupation of Rome between September 1943 and June 1944. The mysterious disease was named for the German officer in charge of Rome, Albert Kesselring.

When Nazis raided the area on Oct. 16, 1943, a handful of Jews fled to the 450-year-old Catholic hospital, located on Tiber island, just across from the Jewish ghetto.

Initially, the idea was to allow Jews to stay in the hospital, but when the Nazis began to suspect Jews might be hiding there, Ossicini spread the word that the disease was deadly and highly contagious. This allowed him to move the Jews to a special isolation ward that was off-limits to German soldiers.

Vittorio Sacerdoti, a Jewish doctor working at the hospital under a false name, told the BBC that K Syndrome saved his 10-year old cousin, Luciana Sacerdoti when the Nazis raided the hospital at the beginning of May 1944. “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.’” Dr. Sacerdoti added, “The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits.”

Another doctor involved in the deception was surgeon Giovani Borromeo, who was later recognized by Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Person.”

In 2016, the hospital was recognized by the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation as one of the “Houses of Life” that sheltered victims of Nazi persecution.

Sources: Anna Momigliano, Haaretz, (June 23, 2016);
Caitlin Hu, “An Italian doctor explains “Syndrome K,” the fake disease he invented to save Jews from the Nazis,” Quartz, (July 8, 2016);
“Italian doctor who fooled Nazis,” BBC, (December 3, 2004);
“Borromeo Giovanni,” The Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem.