The fake disease that scared the nazis: Syndrome K

Syndrome K

There have been some pretty horrible news stories that detail parents fabricating illnesses for sympathy or attention, which is known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, and this syndrome leads to their children getting unnecessary and harmful procedures.

So when we talk about fake diseases, you may have an immediate negative association.

Or you may be a pro at calling in fake-sick to work. A few well placed sniffles and a couple Oscar worthy coughs and you have the day free.

Syndrome K

But it turns out ‘fake news’ can be a good thing.

In 1943 in Nazi occupied Italy, thousands of Jews were being killed or sent to concentration camps. Dissent of these events was squashed quickly and ruthlessly by the Nazi party. Many people smuggled children or hid in plain sight by hiding their Jewish roots.

A group of heroic doctors looked upon these atrocities and helped in the one way their professions allowed them to: ‘diagnosing’ Jews with a fake, highly contagious and disfiguring disease.

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In October 1943, when Nazis raided a Jewish Ghetto, a group of doctors hid at least 20 Jews in the walls of the nearby 450-year-old Catholic Hospital, which is nestled on a tiny island in the middle of Rome’s Tiber River.

The hospital was a known haven for people persecuted for their race or religion. Vittorio Sacerdoti, one of the doctors involved in the rescue, was a Jew who had been fired from previous posts because of his religion. He was allowed to work at the hospital under fake papers.

Two of the doctors, our previously mentioned Vittorio Sacerdoti and a surgeon named Giovanni Borromeo, came up with the idea to diagnose the individuals they hid with a fictitious disease. And thus began ‘Syndrome K’. goes into detail about how they handled these cases of Syndrome K as they came into the hospital:

The name Syndrome K came from Dr. Adriano Ossicini, an anti-Fascist physician working at the hospital who knew they needed a way for the staff to differentiate which people were actually patients and which were Jews in hiding. Inventing a fake disease cut out all the confusion—when a doctor came in with a “Syndrome K” patient, everyone working there knew which steps to take. “Syndrome K was put on patient papers to indicate that the sick person wasn’t sick at all, but Jewish,” Ossicini told Italian newspaper La Stampa in 2016. “We created those papers for Jewish people as if they were ordinary patients, and in the moment when we had to say what disease they suffered? It was Syndrome K, meaning ‘I am admitting a Jew,’ as if he or she were ill, but they were all healthy … The idea to call it Syndrome K, like Kesselring or Kappler, was mine.”

Albert Kesserling was the Nazi commander overseeing Rome’s occupation. SS chief Herbert Kappler was the city police chief. Kappler was the force behind the Ardeatine massacre, a mass killing of Italian Jews in 1944. It was fitting to name a horrible disease after them.

Quartz quotes Sacerdoti’s interview with the BBC in 2004:

The fake illness was vividly imagined: Rooms holding “Syndrome K” sufferers were designated as dangerously infectious—dissuading Nazi inspectors from entering—and Jewish children were instructed to cough, in imitation of tuberculosis, when soldiers passed through the hospital.

“The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits,” Vittorio Sacerdoti, a Jewish doctor working at the hospital under a false name, told the BBC in 2004.

The ruse was close to Sacerdoti’s heart. He used the fake syndrome to save his little cousin, Luciana Sacredoti, just 10 years old at the time. The doctors coached the children to cough violently – the sounds of which scared the Nazi soldiers enough that they did not even inspect the people or the rooms they were held in. They were much too afraid of infection.

Syndrome K

The number of Jews saved is debated, but it is commonly accepted that dozens of lives were spared due to the quick thinking of doctors Sacerdoti, Borromeo, and Ossicini. Dr. Andriano Ossicini continued onto politics later in life and has sadly recently passed at age 99. One could assume there were nurses in on this as well. They all deserve our respect.




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