Syndrome K: A Fake Disease That Saved Jews From The Nazis

Hospital in the Tiber RiverRome sits astride the beautiful Tiber River, a magnificent heart of the ancient history of Italy. Many casual tourists to Rome do not know that there is actually one island in the river. And that island is at the center of an amazing story from history. It was at Fatebenefratelli Hospital  (“The Hospital of the Do-Good Brothers”)  that a group of brave Italian doctors, led by physician and anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini,  saved the lives of 45 Roman Jews by inventing a fake disease, “Syndrome K.”

German occupation of Italy. "Syndrome K" Thwarted Part Of Their Evil PlanThe German occupation of Rome was brutal. In 1943, Nazi officials in Italy, directed by General “Smiling Albert” Kesserling, began the barbaric deportation of 10,000 Italians Jews to the concentration camps. Most would die there.  Only a handful of Roman Jews would live past the end of the war. And the story of how some of them survived is a testament to the power of humanity. As “Smiling Albert” Kesserling, oversaw massacres of civilians in Italy,  the brave doctors on the little island in the Tiber chose to save lives.

Syndrome K

Fatebenefratelli Hospital had an ancient history, evolving through many changes in purpose and affiliation. It had been a hospice, a refuge for plague victims, and a general purpose hospital throughout its long life. In October 1943 it became a righteous place to be respected forever.  As vicious Nazis raided the Jewish ghetto, some of the inhabitants escaped to the tiny island hospital. Dr. Ossicini and the staff bravely decided to save the refugees from the unspeakable fate befalling other Roman Jews.

 While they could be offered temporary shelter, Dr. Ossicin (pictured at 96) knew it was just a matter The Man Who Discovered  "Syndrome K" - Dr. Ossicini lived to 96of time before “Smiling Albert”  Keserling and his inhumane orders would reach them. The good doctor then created a fascinating diversion. He “diagnosed” the Jewish refugees with “Syndrome K.”

What Is Syndrome K?

 if you’ve never heard of “Syndrome K”, it’s because it doesn’t exist! It was a brilliant figment of Dr. Ossicini’s imagination. He told the Nazis that “Syndrome K”  was highly infectious, easily transmitted, and completely deadly. Any contact with an infected person would bring a long, slow, painful, and inevitable death.  Symptoms included convulsions, dementia, paralysis, and loss of control of bodily functions  Whenever a Nazi would come close enough to question the medical staff, the Jewish “patients” were instructed to cough and shake. The terrified Nazis under the command of General “Smiling Albert” Kesserling never knew that the “K” in “Syndrome K” stood for Kesserling!

Tiber Island - Home Of "Syndrome K"The Nazis who crossed the bridge to tiny Tiber Island to search Fatebenefratelli Hospital became utterly terrified of coming into contact with Syndrome K! As a result, they left the “patients” alone – and thus the Jews on Tiber Island were saved from the Holocaust!

The brave staff of the hospital, led by surgeon Dr. Giovani Borromeo, Father Maurizio Bia and Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti, (who was Jewish and working under an assumed name)  protected the Jews. Astonishingly, all of the refugees ultimately survived the Nazi occupation.  Every single member of the hospital staff cooperated completely in this brilliant, audacious scheme. If even one had talked, the plan would not have completely fooled the Nazis! The exact number of Jews who were saved is unclear. Best estimates are about 45 lives were protected. But had it been just one, the Catholic hospital and the Italian doctors should always be honored for placing humanity above orders.

18 thoughts on “Syndrome K: A Fake Disease That Saved Jews From The Nazis

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I continue to be amazed at the goodness in people when they are faced with the ultimate in evil.

    • Betty,

      Thank you for your comment. I remember a line Aaron Sorkin wrote: “America’s darkest days are often followed by by its finest hours.” The brave Italian doctors of the story found the light amidst the darkness of man’s cruelty. I believe they represent who we should all aspire to be.


  2. Thank you for sharing this inspirational story. Surely these brave doctors answered a higher calling, which is something that we should all have the courage to do.

  3. Gloria,

    Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” These doctors faced the ultimate challenge of their integrity and here we are, over 75 years later, still honoring their memory!


  4. Dear Barry:

    I too never heard of these wonderful people, who in time, helped others in spite of what could have been their fate. Never forget, there are good people in this world, of many colors and sizes. Think of people as good, and hopefully we will be fortunate to associate with them only.

    • Joanne,

      Thanks for your comments! It is a great challenge – when times are at their worst, we need to be at our best! These Italian doctors rose to a magnificent level of humanity!


  5. Thank you! This was very interesting to read! I’m glad you are doing this. I’ve heard you speak several times at MCC and find you very informative.

    • Debbie,

      I am so glad you enjoyed the article! Please share it with your friends or on your Facebook Page, if you have one. And thanks for your nice comments about my MCC presentations! The folks at that college are just great. I hope we will be able to meet again soon. Stay healthy!


  6. Hi Barry,
    This a wonderful and uplifting story that most of us have never heard. What a wonderful historian you are and because I have seen you many times, I’m always in awe for your accomplishments.
    Thank you
    Carol Thors

  7. Thank you for providing interesting glimpses into history. This may have been a short chapter in the overall devastation of Europe, it is no less a great revelation of the humanity that can exist and be valued and protected in the darkest places.

    • Hi, Bernice!

      Thanks for your observation. Obviously, had there been more people with the moral courage and personal integrity as these Italian doctors, the devastation of the Holocaust might have been less. But we are uplifted by seeing the examples of people who acted with the deepest instincts of humanity at heart.

      I hope you will share the article either via email or on your FaceBook page if you have one!


  8. Hello Barry,
    A tremendous way to stay in touch. I was not aware of such endeavor by people, who instead of submitting to evil and becoming scared , they found creativity and ingenuity , because of compassion in their hearts, to give hope to Jews who were subject to targeted extermination.
    I hope any one of us individually or in groups , when we/they face such situation , can find hope through , loving and kind people around us.
    COVID-19 is getting to be scary, because of all the information and unknowns, that surrounds us. Be well.

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