If you’ve never heard of Syndrome K, you’re not alone, and you shouldn’t feel badly…since it’s 100% made up.
Why would someone make up a disease, you ask? Well, I’m sure there’s more than one possible reason, but, in the case of Syndrome K, it was done to save lives.
It all began October 6, 1943, when a group of rogue doctors hid a number of runaway Jews in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital during a Nazi raid. They knew they couldn’t simply pin their hopes on the people not being discovered – they needed a way to keep the Nazi’s from wanting to round them up at all.
And that’s how Syndrome K, named by Dr. Adriano Ossicini, was born. It wasn’t a disease at all, of course, but the “highly infectious” affliction listed on the paperwork of a number of “patients” – actually just Jews desperately hoping to avoid being deported to concentration camps. The “patients” were told to cough and pretend to be ill when Nazis came to search the wards, and, amazingly, it worked. The doctors themselves warned investigating Nazis that the illness was highly contagious and very deadly. According to Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti, another doctor working to hide the Jews, “[The] Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits” for fear of catching Syndrome K.
Dr. Ossicini, who turned 96 in 2016 and granted an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, had this to say about Syndrome K:
Syndrome K was put on patient papers to indicate that the sick person wasn’t sick at all, but Jewish. 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 admitted a Jew,’ as if he or she were ill, but they were all healthy. The idea to call it Syndrome K, like Kesserling or Kappler, was mine.
Kesserling, as in Albert Kesserling, the Nazi commander in charge of the Italian occupation, and Kappler, as in Herbert Kappler, the SS chief responsible for a mass killing in 1944.
There’s something fitting about naming a “deadly” disease after two ruthless Nazi killers.
The life-saving actions those Italian doctors took didn’t come to light for more than a half a century, but since the story has come out, the doctors and their hospital have been recognized for their bravery and ingenuity under pressure. The doctors saved around two dozen people with their quick thinking, including Dr. Sacerdoti’s own 10-year-old cousin.
It may not seem like a lot in comparison to the wholesale slaughter of the rest of the war, but to those 24 terrified people looking for a hand to grab onto, it was everything.
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