How a Fake Disease Saved Lives During the Holocaust


In the beginning of World War II, Italy was partnered with the Axis Powers under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. Around halfway through the war, Italy decided to switch over to the Allied Powers. Of course, Germany was not very happy about this betrayal. For nine months of 1943, the Nazi party occupied Rome. Thousands of people were denied access to food, and many were tortured and killed. At one point, the Nazis even bombed the Vatican, which was supposed to be a neutral territory. Pope Pius XII just barely made it out alive, but refused to abandon Rome.

Not surprisingly, the Nazis ordered that all Jewish Italian people should be surrendered and sent to concentration camps. Many Italians resisted the oppression of the Nazis, but one of the most in-depth operations was kept a secret until fairly recently. This secret mission was not run by the military or by undercover spies in the government. It was a plan made up the employees of the Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome.


The Fatebenefratelli Hospital was originally built in 1585. The massive building looks more like a castle or a military fortress than a hospital. It sits on its own small island on the Tiber River, which made it a perfect place to seperate patients with infectious diseases from the general population. That exact location was actually home to a hospital as far back as the year 1000 CE. Before that, it housed the temple to the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius. In the 1940s, it was a Catholic hospital run by friars called the “Brothers of Mercy.”

The staff of the ancient Fatebenefratelli Hospital were proud of their heritage. Doctors swore an oath to protect human life, and they were not going to stop with helping the people who were already patients in the hospital. While Nazi soldiers patrolled the halls on a daily basis, the staff was secretly plotting a resistance. They came up with a plan to tamper with the records of Jewish patients by adding the diagnosis of “Syndrome K” to their charts, and move them into their own wing of the hospital.

You will never find Syndrome K on WebMD or a medical textbook, because it doesn’t actually exist. In fact, the code name “K” stood for Albert Kesselring. He was the Nazi commander in charge of the Roman occupation, and you could say that the Italians were not exactly his biggest fans.

Dr. Giovanni Borromeo was a surgeon who had worked at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital since 1934. He collaborated with the Catholic hospital’s head priest, Father Maurizio Bialek, to make the hospital one of the most reputable and state-of-the-art medical facilities in Italy.

In 1938, Italy was working with the Axis Powers, and they began to create anti-Semitic laws that would prevent Jews from finding work. Dr. Borromeo and Father Bialek were both anti-Fascist, and they could see the writing on the wall that these laws were just the beginning of a much darker future. They began hiring Jewish doctors to work for them, and helped to falsify their paperwork so that they would appear to be Catholic and avoid persecution.

One of these young Jewish doctors was a 28-year-old named Vittorio Sacerdoti. In 1943, when the Nazis took over Italy and began invading ghettos to bring Jews into concentration camps, Sacerdoti personally managed to save 45 people and shelter them in the hospital, including his 10-year-old cousin Luciana Sacerdoti and several other young children.

At the time, people had a very real fear of tuberculosis. This highly infectious disease caused people to have fevers and cough up blood as they died a slow and agonizing death. In the 1940s, Antibiotics had only just begun to treat the illness that had killed so many people in Italy for centuries. Foreign soldiers would have been understandably jumpy while they patrolled the hallways. After all, this hospital had a very long history of isolating people away from civilization to stop the spread of disease.

Dr. Sacerdoti instructed his Jewish “patients” to cough very loudly and act like someone with tuberculosis every time a German soldier walked by their ward. The trick worked, and soldiers steered clear of the quarantine for fear of catching this mysterious Syndrome K.  Years later, he described watching the Nazis “run like rabbits” as soon as they heard coughing.

A psychologist who worked at the hospital named Adriano Ossicini spoke about the Syndrome K resistance movement during an interview. According to Ossicini, the hospital also sheltered anti-Fascist political refugees. He said that in his opinion, the Nazis were a bit stupid, and they seemed uneducated about the world outside of Germany. He remembered hearing them whisper to one another about how serious this Syndrome K epidemic was in Italy, and that they refused to get anywhere near the side of the hospital that housed these patients.

It was because of this fear that they were never able to suspect that Jews and political refugees were being transported right under their noses.There was even a secret network of young hospital staff who would transport Jewish people from safe houses as far away as Poland in ambulances to their hospital, all under the guise that they were moving these sickly patients with “Syndrome K.” They always insisted that the high-tech hospital in Rome was their only shot at survival, and the Nazis always let them go.

At 83-years-old, a woman named Luciana Tedesco told her story of hiding as a Jewish refugee in the hospital when she was a young girl. She said that women and children slept in the beds of one large hospital ward, while the men stayed in another. Her entire entire extended family- including 10 children, were all saved.

Another survivor named Gabriele Sonnino was just 4-years-old at the time. What he remembered of the experience was that none of the young children were ever made to feel afraid. In fact, they actually felt quite bored to be stuck inside all the time, and they felt like they were being grounded. Father Bialek was  incredibly friendly and kind. He tried to entertain the children and make the families feel as comfortable as he possibly could.

Meanwhile, the hospital staff was doing so much more behind the scenes as part of the resistance. Father Bialek had built a secret radio room in the basement of the hospital. He would intercept Nazi communications during the day, and give them to Dr. Borromeo, who would pass them on to Italian Air Force General Roberto Lordi. Their efforts help to end the German occupation after only 9 months.

The German occupation ended in 1944, and the refugees at the hospital were able to go free. World War II officially ended in 1945, and the Allies celebrated their victory with Italy by their side. Despite the fact that the occupation was over, the staff of the hospital were still cautious. They swore to never reveal the secrets about Syndrome K, for fear that one day, the Nazis may rise to power again, and they would need to use hospital and the fake epidemic once more.

According to records, Giovanni Borromeo saved hundreds of Jews that were under his care. They say that he never turned anyone away, no matter how dangerous the situation may have been. He died at 62-years-old in his own hospital in 1961. He took the secret of Syndrome K to his grave.

Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti saved 45 of his fellow Jews, and he held onto the secret until 2004, when he gave his testimony to the BBC. He continued to practice medicine in Rome for the rest of his life, and lived just a few minutes away from the hospital.

While there is no record that shows exactly how many people were collectively saved by the hospital staff, we know that it is in the hundreds. All of these doctors kept the secret of Syndrome K for over 60 years. Today, they have been awarded for their humanitarian efforts with awards from several different Jewish societies. A plaque now hangs in the hospital courtyard to remember the bravery of the staff in 1943 who refused to go down without a fight.

(Recently, fans of TopTenz let us know on YouTube that they’d be in favor of the occasional non-list article, with a narrower focus, enabling us to take a deeper dive. This is the first of what will be a recurring feature, giving you just that.)

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  1. George Cunningham on

    Thank you for the new format. I look forward to seeing it on occasion – as I look forward to all TopTenz offerings!