The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II

Larry Holzwarth - December 7, 2019

Fascist Italy passed laws which segregated the Italian Jews in ways similar to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. Jews were removed from positions of civil service and from the halls of education throughout Mussolini’s Italy. Gradually, additional laws were enacted which seized Jewish property and business assets, imposed limitations on travel, and essentially confined Jews within their communities and homes in Italian cities. In Rome and other cities, Jewish ghettoes emerged. Prodded by Hitler, Mussolini ordered his secret police to keep records of the whereabouts of Jewish intelligentsia in Italy. The Italian public, for the most part, was sympathetic with the Jews.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Under Mussolini, the Italians initially resisted German racial policies to persecute the Jews. Wikimedia

Antisemitism, though it certainly existed in Italy, was never displayed with the rabid fervor which embraced its ally under the Nazis. Consequently, though laws existed to persecute the Jews, in practice they were indifferently enforced, even after World War II began. Once the war began and the Jews of Europe were deported to the east, Italian officials resisted. Italy and Sicily were relatively safe havens for Jews until the Allied invasion of Sicily. In September, 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies, Germany occupied the country not under the control of the Allies, and the Nazis brought the Holocaust to Italian Jews. Here is how some were saved from the Nazis.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Tiber Island on the right, with the Tiber in the forefront. Wikipedia/joadl

1. The hospital on the island in the Tiber River

Tiber Island is situated in a bend of the Tiber River, in the center of the ancient city of Rome. In the tenth century, the Basilica of Saint Bartholomew was built on the island, and nearby a hospice was created to provide sanctuary for the sick and poor of Rome. Begging on the streets of the city of Rome was at the time illegal, and beggars were dispatched to the island, where they were sheltered by the church. In the 16th century members of the Brothers of St. John of God arrived on Tiber Island, establishing a facility to provide health care for the poor and infirm. The hospital became known as Fatebenefratelli (do well, brothers).

The Hospital on the island remained throughout the complicated history of Italy and Rome, growing in the services offered to patients, and in physical size. Flooding of the Tiber was not uncommon, and to protect the hospital from the river overflowing it high walls were erected surrounding the main building. Bridges from the island on which it stood connected it to both sides of the river. The island became, for citizens of Rome, a symbol of healing. In ancient times a temple to the Greek god of healing, Aesculapius, stood on the island. At the beginning of the 20th century, the hospital near the site of the temple was operated by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John, as it had been for centuries.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
An Italian newspaper calls the people to arms following the German invasion of France in 1940. Wikimedia

2. The hospital was modernized following the First World War

Until the First World War, the hospital on Tiber Island operated as a hospice rather than a modern medical care facility. In the early 1920s, its leaders began a plan to modernize the facility. The Brothers of St. John at the time owned the island, having purchased it from the Kingdom in the early 1890s. Such a practice was common for the brotherhood, they had by then established several hospitals throughout Europe. Their ownership of the island upon which stood the hospital made it an enclave within the City of Rome. The hospital had in its employ Jewish staff members, many of whom lived in a largely Jewish community on the opposite bank of the Tiber.

In 1934, the hospital welcomed a new director, Dr. Giovanni Borromeo, the son of a prominent Roman physician. By that time the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini was well established, though laws restricting the Jews had yet to be enacted. Borromeo was a Catholic, trained in medicine at the University of Rome, and was a veteran of World War I. In Fascist Italy, party membership was required to move up in the ranks in the professional field, and Borromeo chose to work at the Catholic hospital on Tiber Island rather than more prestigious positions, such as at his alma mater, rather than become a member of the Fascist Party.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Mussolini – on the right with Hitler – was pressured by the Nazis to impose anti-Jewish laws in Italy before the war. Bundesarchiv

3. Italian fascism initially opposed antisemitism and resisted Nazi antisemitism

Mussolini many times in the 1920s and early 1930s denied there was a problem with antisemitism in Italy, and considered German racial superiority theories to be “nonsense, stupid and idiotic”. Yet over time, due to political issues and other complications, Il Duce began to adopt policies which on paper resembled those of the Nazis. By 1938, Mussolini adopted antisemitic laws which proved to be unpopular with the Italian people generally, as well as among party officials. Mussolini admitted to senior party officials that he personally did not agree with the antisemitic stance of the party.

When Mussolini heard a complaint from a Fascist party member regarding the sufferings of Jewish colleagues he replied, “I agree with you completely…I am carrying out my policy entirely for political reasons”. One of the political leaders Mussolini sought to pacify was Roberto Farinacci, a powerful Fascist party leader who was anticlerical, antisemitic, and thoroughly pro-Nazi. Farinacci first pushed and then enforced the antisemitic laws enacted by Mussolini in 1938, known as the Racial Laws. The first of those laws restricted the civil rights of Jews in Italy, banned books by Jewish authors, and banned them from many jobs and positions in schools and hospitals.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Privately Mussolini held a low opinion of Hitler, but needed him politically. Wikimedia

4. The racial laws shocked the Italian people, who frequently subverted them

Italy’s Jewish population was relatively small, and unlike in Germany and other Northern European countries, was for the most part fully assimilated, as it had been for centuries. The first of the antisemitic laws was enacted by Mussolini just weeks before the agreement between Germany and Italy was formalized as the Pact of Steel. Nazi influence on Fascist policies was obvious to the Italian people, and resentment against the Germans and the Italian Fascists was prevalent throughout Italy, in both the larger cities and in the rural areas. The laws which were passed to appease Hitler cost the Fascists support in their own country.

On Tiber Island, several Jewish staff members were retained in their posts, through the falsification of the necessary documents. The falsification of records was known by Dr. Borromeo as well as by the hospital’s prior, Father Maurizio Bialek. The hospital provided a safe haven in such a manner for Vittorio Sacerdoti. Dr. Sacerdoti was Jewish and the nephew of one of the doctors from whom Borromeo had received his medical training. As Italy’s involvement in the Second World War began, the Tiber Island hospital became a haven for other Jews, Italian concentration camps and Jewish ghettoes in the cities were established, though their populations were not subject to deportation.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Hitler and Mussolini reviewing German troops, likely before the war. Wikimedia

5. While Italy fought the Jews therein were safe from deportation, for the most part

Italian Jews were not subject to deportation to the Nazi concentration camps, as were those of the nations of Europe which the Germans overran. Stateless Jews, of which there were many, were not protected by the Italians, though in many cases sympathetic officials turned a blind eye to their statelessness. In France, the Vichy government was supportive of the Nazis in rounding up French Jews, but their Italian ally was not. The situation remained static as North Africa, then Sicily, fell to the Allies. In 1943, the Allies landed in Italy and the situation rapidly deteriorated for the Italian government.

In late July the Grand Council of Fascism – Italy’s de facto ruling council – stripped Mussolini of most of his dictatorial powers and placed control of Italy’s military in the hands of the King. Mussolini was deposed by the King on July 26, and placed in custody. In September, with the Allies on the Italian mainland fighting both Germans and Italians, Italy agreed to an armistice. By then the German military presence in Italy had more than tripled. Italian partisan units fought German troops, and each other. Following Italy’s surrender, the national infrastructure in German-occupied areas came under German control.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Albert Kesselring commanded German forces in Italy during the occupation of Rome after Italy’s surrender. Wikimedia

6. The Nazis and Italian collaborators began deportation of Italian Jews in 1943

After the Germans seized control of most of Northern Italy, its troops battled the Americans and British at the front, Italian partisans in the rear areas, and established control of the civilian population. Troops of the Italian army were offered the choice of service with the Germans or imprisonment by them. Regarding the Italian Racial Laws, Teutonic efficiency replaced Italian indifference. Many of the Italian camps were simply abandoned by their guards, allowing the inmates to escape before German troops arrived. The Nazis began a campaign throughout Italy which resembled those of the rest of the European continent.

In the ancient Italian city of Assisi, Roman Catholic clerics established a network of safe havens in the monasteries and convents, including areas which were by papal direction closed to the public. They also provided falsified travel documents and identity papers. More than two dozen havens sheltered Jews from the Nazis before the region was liberated by the Allies in June, 1944. The Assisi network was credited with saving over 300 Jews from deportation to the death camps. In Rome, the Jewish ghetto, which could be seen from Fatebenefratelli Hospital, was swept by the Nazis. Some Jews fled to Tiber Island, where they sought shelter from the Nazi SS.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Vittorio Sacerdoti claimed to have worked extensively with Italian partisans during the war. Wikimedia

7. Vittorio Sacerdoti was still working at the Tiber Island hospital

Sources conflict over the events of October, 1943 at Tiber Island. According to one, Vittorio Sacerdoti was still on the staff of the hospital, which being extraterritorial was not subject to Italian Racial Laws. Another had the doctor as a student at the hospital. Another had him working at the hospital under a false name, supported with falsified identity documents and credentials. Sacerdoti later claimed that beginning in September 1943 he was part of a group of physicians at the hospital which clandestinely supported the partisan Italians resisting the Germans in and around Rome. The support continued until he left the hospital following the Allied liberation of Rome.

According to Sacerdoti, the island hospital became populated with partisans, fugitives, deserters from the Italian army, and others seeking to avoid the German administration, all supported by the doctors and priests of Fatebenefratelli. Dr. Borromeo, with the knowledge of Father Bialek, operated a radio transmitter/receiver in a hidden room in the hospital’s basement, with which he maintained contact with the Italian Resistance and the Vatican. In Rome and the areas around the city, German troops, SS guards, fascist paramilitary groups, and Nazi collaborators all operated beginning with the German occupation in September.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Herbert Kappler following his arrest in Italy in May, 1945. Wikimedia

8. The German military commander in Rome hesitated to deport the city’s Jews

The Germans occupied the city of Rome following its abandonment by the King and government in early September, 1943. At the time, approximately 8,000 Italian Jews were in the city. The German military commander, Reiner Stahel, hesitated to take any action regarding the Roman Jews, wary of the reaction of the Vatican. Stahel decided to wait until he received covering orders from higher authority. Most of the Jews in Rome went into hiding, though a large number gathered in the Jewish Ghetto, opposite the Tiber from Fatebenefratelli. Meanwhile, SS and German Order Police were stationed in Rome, under the command of Herbert Kappler.

On September 26, 1943, Kappler demanded a ransom of over 100 pounds of gold be delivered to him by noon on September 28. Failure to deliver the amount on time would be penalized by 200 Jewish men being deported. The ransom was paid, and the Jewish community was lulled into the belief that the German occupation was focused on looting as much as possible before the approaching Allies liberated the city. Following the ransom payment, Kappler was ordered by Theodor Dannecker to seal off and then clear the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. The Germans scheduled the raid to take place on October 16, 1943.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Allied advances in Italy led the Germans to expedite the transport of Italian Jews. Wikimedia

9. The Nazis cleared the Jewish Ghetto in Rome

When the Germans moved to clear the Jewish Ghetto, they did not use Italian police or troops. The Italians had come to be considered unreliable by the SS. German Order Police and SS troops surrounded the Jewish community, which was believed to hold up to 2,000 Jewish men, women, and children. The SS then entered the ghetto, seizing and incarcerating its residents as a preliminary step toward deportation. Approximately 350 German police and SS troops entered the ghetto that day, searching from house to house and building to building, rounding up the Jewish residents and refugees. Despite their efforts, some escaped the manhunt.

Some escaped the densely populated area by crawling across the rooftops, jumping from building to building and eluding the SS below. Others secreted themselves in hidden rooms and attics, waiting for darkness to shroud them as they attempted to escape. Several were successful, but 1,259 persons were not. Of those rounded up by the Germans, 207 were children, 689 were women, and the remainder were men of varying age. Within two days they were packed into railway cars and on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Following the war, 16 survivors returned to Rome. The rest died in the German camps, most of them upon arrival at Auschwitz.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Allied troops landed at Salerno in 1943, one of three invasion sites. Wikimedia

10. Dr. Adriano Ossicini witnessed the German raid on the Jewish Ghetto

Dr. Adriano Ossicini was an ardent antifascist who believed it was the duty of Christians of all religions to oppose fascism and by extension Nazism and the Germans. He was by profession a psychiatrist with loose ties to Fatebenefratelli, where he offered his services as a volunteer. Ossicini maintained close ties with the Vatican, which used its influence with Mussolini’s government to have the doctor released following each of his several arrests prior to the German occupation of Rome. Dr. Ossicini was one of the many Italian intellectuals who used the hospital on the Tiber as a sanctuary, and was likely one of the cabal described by Dr. Sacerdoti as supporting the resistance.

As were near all the people of Rome, Ossicini was surprised at the raid on the Jewish Ghetto, the progress of which could be observed from the hospital. He later reported that he could hear the wailing of women as they were taken into German custody, as well as the shouts of the SS guards and German police. Ossicini watched the proceedings before being called to assist other members of the hospital’s staff. Several of the people who had escaped from the ghetto had fled to the island on the Tiber, and were at the gates of the hospital. The Italian doctors, with the support of the hospital’s Catholic Prior, determined to shield as many as they could from SS retaliation.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Dr. Giovanni Borromeo created the fake disease known as K Syndrome. Wikimedia

11. The doctors created a fearsome disease for refugees at the hospital

According to Ossicini, the doctors decided to shield the refugees by labeling them as patients, stricken with a disease calculated to create revulsion in the minds of their pursuers. The disease needed to be one of easily faked symptoms. It needed to be highly contagious, in order to strike fear in the men who would be required to guard the patients if they were taken. At the time, Rome was in a near epidemic of tuberculosis, and the symptoms they selected resembled the latter stages of that dreaded disease. Some of the refugees who arrived at the hospital had been previously treated there and their records were quickly found and modified accordingly.

Those who were not previous patients needed new records created immediately, with the appropriate diagnosis and treatment noted. The Jewish “patients” were isolated in a wing of the hospital, as would be the case with contagious diseases, and their records were open to inspection by the Germans. Drs’. Borromeo, Sacerdoti, Ossicini, and several others participated in the subterfuge, though who initially proposed the idea is disputed among the sources who were present at the time. They carefully avoided labeling the illness tuberculosis, though they instructed their patients on how to mimic the symptoms of that disease. When SS personnel inspected the medical records, they learned the patients were being treated for a new, highly contagious and potentially fatal respiratory disease.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Doctors continued to diagnose refugees with K Syndrome as the Allies threatened the German occupation of Rome. Wikimedia

12. The Italians labeled the new disorder as Syndrome K

About two dozen refugees arrived at the hospital during the raid on the Jewish Ghetto in October, 1943. Over the course of the German occupation of Rome, many more managed to evade capture and seek refuge in the hospital on Tiber Island. During the German occupation, which lasted roughly 9 months, another 1,000 or so Italian Jews were identified to the Germans by collaborators, captured, and sent via the railway cars to the death camps. Partisan warfare continued to plague the city and its environs. The existence of the puppet government in the north, established by Hitler and headed by Mussolini, meant that Italy was torn by civil warfare, as well as the war between the Germans and the Allies.

The Jews (and other refugees, including Italian deserters) who arrived at Fatebenefratelli were diagnosed as suffering from the somewhat mysterious K Syndrome. The illness itself presented symptoms which were inconsistent and for the most part failed to respond to treatment. Visiting SS and German Order Police were allowed to inspect the records and the wards in which the patients were treated. The refugees were taught to cough and wheeze heavily when Germans were present in the building. The Germans preferred to avoid the ward where those diagnosed as suffering from what the Italians labeled K Syndrome were treated. The fear of contracting the disease outweighed orders from Berlin to deport all of the Italian Jews.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Patients assigned K Syndrome were kept in wards designed to frighten away German inspectors. Wikimedia

13. The source of the name K Syndrome remains disputed

The mysterious illness contracted by so many during the German occupation of Rome was called K Syndrome for reasons unknown. It was essentially a codeword used by the hospital to identify the patient whose record was so labeled as a refugee from the Germans, rather than someone who was ill. The designation K could have been a reference to Herbert Kappler, or to the German General Albert Kesselring, who commanded the German military forces confronting the Allies in the Italian campaign at the time. Ossicini believed that Sacerdoti created the code word. Sacerdoti recalled that it appeared with a nod and a wink during the review of an early patient’s record.

Much later, at the age of 96, Ossicini claimed that he had coined the term for the syndrome. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, Ossicini stated, “Syndrome K was put on patient papers to indicate that the sick person wasn’t sick at all, but Jewish…The idea to call it Syndrome K, like Kesselring or Kappler, was mine”. The statement was in conflict with the remembrances of other participants, including those of Dr. Sacerdoti. German inspections of the hospital continued through the end of the occupation of Rome, and several refugees were removed and deported, but the K Syndrome subterfuge saved dozens.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Fatebenefratelli on Tiber Island, where an unknown number of refugees were saved. Wikipedia

14. K Syndrome was designed to resemble tuberculosis, as was its name

The respiratory disease tuberculosis is also known as Koch’s Syndrome, and it is likely the symptoms described by the doctors, as well as the name K Syndrome, were selected with tuberculosis in mind. As noted, tuberculosis was rampant in Rome during the German occupation, and its symptoms were easy to mimic. It was also easily presented as highly contagious, a desirable effect for the Italians to keep the refugees away from the Germans. When the Nazis first searched the hospital, Dr. Borromeo provided a vivid description of the syndrome, including its evident incurability, before inviting them to inspect the wards where K Syndrome patients were treated. The Germans declined the invitation.

Although Drs. Sacerdoti and Ossicini decades later claimed the development of the scheme had been spontaneous, Pietro Borromeo disputed that position, and wrote that his father, Giovanni Borromeo, had planned the subterfuge, with the aid of Father Bialek. The latter also coordinated the events within Fatebenefratelli with contacts in the Vatican. Borromeo kept partisans outside of the hospital abreast of developments. The Germans eventually located the whereabouts of the radio kept in the hospital, but Borromeo received word of the coming raid to seize it, and disposed of it in the Tiber. The Germans never found the radio, nor did they learn that the dreaded disease known as K Syndrome simply did not exist.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Bomb damage sustained at the Vatican during the bombing of Rome. Orbis Catholicus Secundus

15. Rome was bombed heavily by the Allies while occupied by the Germans

From the autumn of 1943 through the spring of 1944, the doctors and priests in the hospital on the Tiber continued to admit refugees, labeled them with the false diagnosis of a fictional illness, and provided them with shelter from the Germans. They did so at significant risk to their own lives, in an atmosphere of the continuous danger of discovery. Throughout the period of the German occupation, Rome was subject to Allied bombing, including the many properties outside of the Vatican’s Walls which were nonetheless owned by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the American President exchanged several notes in which the former pleaded with Roosevelt to discontinue the air raids.

The Vatican itself was bombed twice during the air campaigns, once accidentally by the British, and in another instance a raid was attributed to the Germans. The hospital on the Tiber, clearly identified as such, was not a target of the bombing raids. The final air raid over Rome, conducted by the United States Army Air Force, caused the death of over 100 civilians within the city. The bombing of Rome was yet another backdrop of the subterfuge which took place in the city to protect civilians and the city’s Jewish population. The final bombing raid took place in March, 1944.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Preventing the deportation of Italians was a high-risk proposition for the hospital staff. Holocaust Museum

16. The entire hospital staff needed to be convinced of the dangers of K Syndrome

For the plan devised by Borromeo and Bialek, with the help of Ossicini and Sacerdoti, to remain a secret the rest of the staff of the hospital, both clerical and laic, had to be either in on the scheme or convinced of the dangers of the fake disease. Though most of the credit for the success of the plan was later claimed by Sacerdoti and Ossicini, the fact remains that many more contributed, either wittingly or unwittingly, to maintain the deception and increase its believability among the Germans and Italian collaborationists. In the city, collaborators denounced Jewish neighbors and acquaintances throughout the occupation. None were denounced within the hospital.

Nor did anyone notify the German authorities that the hospital was sheltering Jews and others wanted by the Nazis. The security with which the operation was carried out for many turbulent months, at a time when Italy was both occupied by the Germans and torn by factionalism, attests to the success of the doctors’ endeavors. It is unlikely that everyone within the hospital, from Father Bialek to the lowest ranking orderly, was supportive of the effort to shelter the refugees. It was necessary that most of the hospital staff were taken in by the deception as well.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
A dead German soldier lies covered in the street following a partisan bombing in Rome. Wikimedia

17. The Ardeatine Massacre in 1944

In March 1944 a German column was attacked by partisans on the Via Rasella in Rome. Sixteen partisans attacked the Germans with a homemade bomb, comprised of TNT and iron pipes. The explosion killed 28 Germans instantly. Several more died of their injuries later. The partisans also opened fire on the Germans in the confusion following the explosion before dispersing into the gathering crowd. The dead Germans were troops of an SS Police Regiment. Though ethnic Germans from the Tyrol, most of the members of the regiment had seen service with the Italian regiments on the Russian Front earlier in the war, and had opted for service with the SS in Italy.

Reprisals by the Germans were swift and deadly. It was decided that 10 Italian prisoners would be executed for each of the SS killed in the attack. Kesselring received the order directly from Hitler, and Kappler – head of the SS in Rome – provided the number of prisoners required, with many of them already under the death sentence. In a rural area outside of the city, 335 Italian prisoners were executed by SS troops, in groups of five, in the Ardeatine Caves, near no longer used stone quarries. The Ardeatine Massacre was an example of the fate awaiting the staff of the hospital on the Tiber should their deception be discovered. Rumors of the massacre were rife in the city for the rest of the occupation.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
A Catholic boarding school class in which at least one Jewish boy was hidden. US Holocaust Museum

18. The number of Jews sheltered by the K Syndrome ruse is disputed

Exactly how many Jews and other refugees from the Nazis were saved by the doctors and priests of Fatebenefratelli is disputed. Some have put the number in the “hundreds” while others have placed it in the dozens. Borromeo estimated about 65, Ossicini gave several numbers over the years, as did Sacerdoti. The truth is that the space available for the ruse in the hospital was limited. It is known that some were sheltered for a time and then fled using false documents, prepared for them while they were in the treatment wards. Sacerdoti was himself possessed of false documents, which did not identify him as Jewish, though he was.

Throughout Italy, the convents, monasteries, churches, and offices and sanctuaries of the Vatican were opened to Jewish refugees, and priests of the Church provided false documents and identification papers. By the time the Germans moved on the Jewish Ghetto in Rome nearly 500 were sheltered inside the Vatican Walls. Pope Pius XII also provided gold to Jewish leaders as part of the ransom demanded by Kappler prior to the crackdown. Approximately 2,000 of Rome’s Jews were deported to the camps during the time of German occupation of the city, the rest managed to evade the Germans and survived. Exactly how many could attribute their survival to K Syndrome is unknown.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
The K Syndrome ruse continued through the German occupation of Rome. Wikimedia

19. The K Syndrome ruse is not well documented

Most of what is known about the deception launched within Fatebenefratelli comes from three sources. Vittoria Sacerdoti, Adriano Ossicini, and Pietro Borromeo, the son of Giovanni Borromeo all gave conflicting accounts of the story. The conflicts are over the dates involved, who gave birth to the scheme, who named K Syndrome and the meaning of the name, and other details. The numbers of refugees aided are also conflicting, as was the description of the ruse aiding other refugees besides Jews. Sacerdoti’s statements changed to conflict with his earlier accounts as he aged. So did Ossicini’s.

In an early account, Sacerdoti related that the ruse began on October 16, 1943, when 27 Jewish patients of his presented themselves at the hospital, seeking his help. He claimed that he developed the diagnosis of the false illness on the spot, admitted them as patients, and they remained in the hospital for only a few days. He speculated that some of them were likely denounced and deported later in the occupation. Ten years later he changed his story to reflect the accounts from Ossicini, claiming that it was he who had witnessed the raid on the ghetto on the morning of October 16 and devised the plan to admit those evading the Germans as patients before they arrived at the hospital.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Adriano Ossicini changed several aspects of the K Syndrome story in the years following the war. Wikimedia

20. Ossicini was himself a fugitive at the hospital, according to his account

Ossicini disputed Sacerdoti’s assertion K Syndrome was limited to helping Jews, and claimed that several notable political figures in Rome were sheltered at the hospital, registered under false names, and kept from the prying eyes of German inspectors by residence in the K Syndrome wards. He was himself protected with false identity documents, since according to his account, he was listed under the German records as a subversive. He also claimed to have, via the radio hidden by Borromeo and Father Bialek, remained in communication with both partisans and the Allied command in Italy. Though he was known to the Germans, he ventured out of the hospital many times, into the Roman streets.

On one such event, he was caught in a dragnet by the SS and taken with several others to a command post, where the prisoners were lined up for an identity check. Ossicini wrote that he was aware that his false papers wouldn’t stand up in the face of the German records, and rather than waiting his turn to approach the table at which the identity papers were to be examined he simply ran. He claimed that his abrupt departure “was so spontaneous that no one noticed it at the time”. The Italian claimed that he returned to the hospital unhindered by German police or SS. Ossicini claimed that he had no choice but to run, since there was at the time a price on his head.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Patients were trained to appear sickly by Dr. Borromeo. Wikimedia

21. Dr. Borromeo trained the patients to appear sick at all times

When Dr. Borromeo explained the strange new illness which resembled tuberculosis and was virulently contagious to the Germans, he described its debilitating effect, and the appearance of the patients. Through the Germans declined at first an opportunity to inspect the wards, German soldiers and police could visit the hospital at any time. It was therefore vital that the patients presented themselves in the manner described to the Germans. The patients were instructed by Borromeo and the other doctors and priests in the hospital on their behavior. They were to appear as fatigued, listless, and possessed of a deep, wracking cough, while within the hospital.

According to Borromeo’s account, the patients remained in the hospital long enough to create false identities for them, after which they were transferred to safe havens, many of them operated under the direction of the Vatican. The movement of the patients was facilitated by Father Bialek and Borromeo, who then corrected the hospital records to indicate the patient had been released. Having been both admitted and released under an assumed identity, the trail for Nazi inspectors was left cold. In May, 1944, less than a month before the Germans abandoned Rome, the hospital was raided by the Germans.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
The German occupation of Rome ended in the spring of 1944. Bundesarchiv

22. The Germans raided the hospital in 1944

By the spring of 1944, it was increasingly clear that Rome was to fall to the Allies, and the Germans prepared to withdraw to defensive positions north of the city. In May, responding to increasing pressure from Berlin about the relative scarcity of Italian Jews being transported, the SS raided Fatebenefratelli. The raid was a failure. Forewarned by connections within Rome, Father Bialek and Borromeo successfully hid all of the Italian Jews then under their care. Five Polish Jewish refugees were discovered in the hospital, and were seized by the Germans for deportation. None of the hospital staff were charged with sheltering them.

Several of the families who were saved by the efforts of Giovanni Borromeo and the staff working under his direction told of his efforts in the days following the war. Borromeo, unlike Ossicini and Sacerdoti, did not write of his efforts, nor discuss them much beyond his own family. Both of the doctors whom he both sheltered and enrolled in the plan to rescue as many refugees as possible later claimed the credit for creating the plan, and he did not dispute their claims. The families which he had rescued did, and Borromeo was honored by the Italian government following the war. He died in 1961, at Fatebenefratelli.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Fighting continued in Italy until the end of the war in Europe. Wikimedia

23. The K Syndrome plan was part of widespread resistance to the Germans in Italy

Since the entire plan regarding K Syndrome was revealed, it has been presented as a plot developed for the aid of the Jewish refugees in Rome. It was never limited to the Jews. Borromeo used his ploy to shelter virtually anyone who showed up at his door, supported by the underground efforts of the Vatican and the networks established under the Church. Borromeo also, through the hidden radio until it had to be destroyed, remained in contact with his personal friend Roberto Lordi, a general in the Italian Air Force who joined the resistance in the fall of 1943. Lordi was arrested and tortured by the Nazis in January, 1944.

Lordi may have been the means by which the Germans learned of the radio hidden in the hospital, or he may not have been. How much the former general knew of the K Syndrome ruse is unknown, and it is likely that he knew nothing, since it wasn’t revealed to the Germans following his arrest. After submitting to torture by the Germans for a month, he was one of the prisoners executed in the Ardeatine Massacre.

The Fake Disease Created to Save Italian Jews in World War II
Italy’s fascist government was lost control of the country when the Germans occupied it. Wikimedia

24. The K Syndrome story is shrouded in mystery

Over the years many of the participants in the events which occurred in Fatebenefratelli told their stories of their experiences. Over time, they became distorted as memories faded or merged together. Some reported having stayed at the hospital as young children, with their families, for periods ranging from a few days to several weeks. Some described the experience as being one of feeling safe in the hands of the doctors, others that there was never freedom from the nagging fear of being found by the Nazis. Some participants exaggerated their roles, others such as Father Bialek and Giovanni Borromeo downplayed theirs.

The fake diagnosis of a debilitating illness known as K Syndrome may have saved hundreds, or it may have saved just a few. Which is correct is immaterial in some ways. That it saved any is what is truly important. It was just one example of resistance to the Nazis by a handful of persons, intent on providing the relief that they could to those facing the horror of the Final Solution. Overall, approximately 8,000 Italian Jews were killed during the event known as the Holocaust, the majority of them at Auschwitz, to which about 10,000 were deported. Over 40,000 Italian Jews survived, many of them through efforts such as those demonstrated at Fatebenefratelli.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hospital History: Historical Notes on the Tiber Island”. Fatebenefratelli Hospital. Online. (Italian)

“Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship 1915-1945”. R. J. Bosworth. 2006

“Jews in Italy Under Fascist and Nazi Rule”. Joshua D. Zimmerman. 2005

“The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust”. Martin Gilbert. 2002

“The Holocaust: Roman Hospital Saves Jews by Inventing Disease”. Article, Jewish Virtual Library. Online

“1943: The Nazis Deport the Jews From Rome”. This date in Jewish History, Haaretz. October 18, 2012

“An Italian doctor explains ‘Syndrome K’, a fake disease he invented to save Jews from the Nazis”. Caitlin Hu, Quartz. July 8, 2016

“The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews From the Nazis”. Gordon Thomas. 2012

“The Catholic Doctor Who Invented an Epidemic to Save Jews in WWII”. Matthew Archbold, National Catholic Register. September 4, 2016

“The ‘deadly’ syndrome that saved lives in WWII”. Naveed Selah, MDLinx. Online

“Resisting the Holocaust: Upstanders, Partisans, and Survivors”. Paul Robert Bartrop. 2016

“The quiet heroes of wartime Italy”. Gillian Tett, Financial Times. October 17, 2014

“Fatebenefratelli, the ‘K disease’, and the lives saved in ‘43”. Paolo Proietti, February 25, 2019. Online