The ‘deadly’ syndrome that saved lives in WWII

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published April 1, 2019

Key Takeaways

In the annals of medicine, “K syndrome” is probably the only deadly “illness” that actually saved people’s lives.

In the fall of 1943, the German army marched in and occupied Rome, Italy. Soon after, the Nazis began sending large numbers of Italian Jews to concentration camps. But a group of Italian physicians came up with a plan to courageously thwart this act of genocide for at least some of these victims. They concocted a fake disease that was reputedly so dangerous it would scare off the Nazis from interacting with these “contagious” patients during hospital checks. Incredibly, the physicians were able to admit patients with K syndrome through the end of Nazi occupation.

What was K syndrome?

The name K syndrome was proposed by Dr. Adriano Ossicini, who was an anti-Fascist doctor working at Fatebenefratelli Hospital on Tiber Island in Rome. This hospital was located close to a Jewish ghetto, where Jewish refugees with the “disease” were admitted for treatment in a plan devised by Dr. Ossicini and other sympathetic physicians.

The “K” in K syndrome was a subtle dig at the Nazis and referred to Albert Kesselring, the Nazi commander who headed Hitler’s Italian occupation. The “K” also referred to Herbert Kappler, the SS chief who led a huge reprisal killing in 1944.

In reality, when patients were admitted with a diagnosis of K syndrome, this served as code for otherwise healthy refugees, mostly Jews but also other persecuted groups such as anti-Fascists. Of course, the invading Nazis were not privy to this code and had to believe that these patients were truly sick not to interfere.

Nevertheless, the Nazis were suspicious about the residents of Fatebenefratelli Hospital because of its proximity to the Jewish ghetto.

When the Nazis finally raided the facility, the physicians warned them about the syndrome—saying that the disease was highly contagious, disfiguring, and deadly. (The physicians also told the “patients” to cough loudly while the soldiers walked through the hospital.) If these patients were sent away on trains to concentration camps, they would quickly infect other passengers and soldiers, the doctors explained.

The Nazis demurred from inspecting the patients with K syndrome for fear of becoming infected. Reportedly, the Nazis were frightened of the disease and thought it was some form of cancer or tuberculosis. The physicians’ warnings seemed to do the trick and saved the refugees in the hospital from capture.

Dr. Giovanni Borromeo

Although not responsible for the name, the mastermind behind K syndrome was Dr. Giovanni Borromeo. Dr. Borromeo hated Fascists. He had previously been offered the stewardship of two other hospitals but turned down those offers because, in order to accept, he would be required to join the Fascist party.

At Fatebenefratelli Hospital, Dr. Borromeo didn’t have to become a Fascist because the center was run by Catholic friars and, per an agreement between the Catholic Church and the Fascist regime, it was viewed as a private hospital, separate from state regulations. Nobody at these hospitals needed to join a political party.


With the freedom to hire anyone he wanted, Dr. Borromeo sought physicians who had been discriminated against by the regime for different reasons. One physician he hired was a Jewish doctor named Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti, who saved his young cousin from death with a diagnosis of K syndrome.

Staff at Fatebenefratelli Hospital resisted the Nazis in other ways, too. Dr. Borromeo and the friars at the hospital installed a radio station to communicate with other like-minded compatriots. They furthered the cause from within the hospital. But when Dr. Borromeo and allies figured out that the Nazis were on to their position, they jettisoned their equipment in the Tiber River.

Interestingly, the role of the Church in Mussolini’s Italy was mixed. Church officials sometimes chose to ignore acts of tyranny and at other times supported acts of the resistance.

Dr. Borromeo died in 1961. In 2004, he was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official organization for memorializing the Holocaust, as “Righteous Among the Nations.” This honor is bequeathed to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

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