Let Me Remind You…
Il Morbo Di K…or…Syndrome K
It’s 1943, the fourth year of WWII. Italy was not immune to the horrifying acts that Hitler was carrying out on Jews, and Mussolini, the Prime Minister of Italy, was helping by kidnapping Jews and putting them in Ghettos. Over 10,000 people were sent away with only 1000 eventually returning to their home.
In a small hospital called Fatebenefratelli, on the Tiber, three Doctors were trying to figure out what to call a disease that could only be assigned to the Jewish people. These Jewish people were coming from the ghettos with a highly contagious disease and put in a room with others that were the same. Eventually, Dr. Ossicini went chose the name Il Morbo Di K, or, “Sydrome K”; sometimes reversed: K syndrome. Named after one of the Nazi commanders, either Keppler or Kesselring.
The symptoms of this disease included fits of coughing, convulsions, eventually leading to paralysis and asphyxiation and death.
The thing about the disease was that it’s not actually real. It was entirely made up by the head physician at the hospital and his two Doctors assisting him. They named the disease as an F-you to the Nazi commander; they were going to try and save as many Jewish lives as they could.
It all started when a nearby ghetto was raided by nazi’s and the doctors took in the Jews and hid them in the walls of the hospital. Knowing this couldn’t last, eventually they came up with a plan to hide them in plain sight. One of the people in hiding was Sacerdoti’s own 10 year old cousin.
The head physician, Giovanni Borromeo, joined the hospital after being fired from a public hospital because of his religion. Fatebenefratelli was a 450 year old, private hospital and was not picky about one’s political stance and hired him with falsified papers. This allowed him to hire other anti-fascist doctors, Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti and together with Adriano Ossicini, they came up with their plan.
One room of the hospital would hold the “patients” behind doors. They were kept and treated the same, only not for illness.
Giovanni wasn’t dumb though, he knew the Nazis would come searching the hospital, they were already doing raids. And they would probably more than once because of how close they were located to the ghetto.
When this would happen, the doctors would lead them on the tour of the hospital, allowing them to check wherever they wanted—except the Syndrome K room. The patients were trained to cough wildly and moan and groan on cue. When they stopped the search outside the door, the doctors would remind the Nazi officers of the highly incurable and contagious disease and implore them to listen to the coughing fits before exclaiming how traumatic an inevitable death by paralysis and asphyxiation would be. They never entered the room. The staff and patients could breathe a breath of relief.
When the patients were brought in, they were put on patient papers under Syndrome K, indicating they weren’t sick at all, just Jewish. The patients were brought in many ways. One of the ways was through sneaky communication with the Partisans on the outside. The staff found a radio in the hospital that hadn’t been confiscated by the Nazi’s. They installed it and were able to use that to arrange for the Jews to be brought to them.
Eventually the Nazi’s caught on, but not before the Doctors did and were able to throw it in the Tiber river just outside their door.
The Doctors were able to save between 25-100 Jews during the war. Only 5 Polish-Jews were caught during a Nazi raid when they were hiding on one of the balconies, the rest were released in the liberation in 1945.
60 years later would be the first time anyone would find out about this ploy. Borromeo and Ossicini went on to do a few interviews in the early 2000’s. The hospital, Fatebenefratelli was given the recognition of “House of Life” by the Raoul Wallenberg foundation, who is an advocate for Holocaust survivors. The three doctors were also recognized by Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance center. An honor given to men and women who risked their own lives to save Jews during the holocaust.