Initially Italy was an ally of Germany and the other axis powers. during World War 2.
By 1943, Italy’s military position had become untenable. Axis forces in North Africa were finally defeated in the Tunisia Campaign in early 1943. Italy suffered major setbacks on the Eastern Front as well. The Allied invasion of Sicily brought the war to the nation’s very doorstep. The Italian home front was also in bad shape as the Allied bombings were taking their toll. Factories all over Italy were brought to a virtual standstill because raw materials, such as coal and oil, were lacking. Additionally, there was a chronic shortage of food, and what food was available was being sold at nearly confiscatory prices. Mussolini’s once-ubiquitous propaganda machine lost its grip on the people; a large number of Italians turned to Vatican Radio or Radio London for more accurate news coverage.
In July 1943, Allied troops landed in Sicily. Mussolini was overthrown and imprisoned by his former colleagues in the Fascist government. The Italian king replaced Mussolini as prime minister with Marshal Pietro Badoglio.
On September 8, 1943, Badoglio announced Italy’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. The Germans, who had grown suspicious of Italian intentions, quickly occupied northern and central Italy.
The 450-year-old Fatebenefratelli Hospital which is situated on a tiny island in the middle of Rome’s Tiber River, just across from the Jewish Ghetto. When Nazis raided the area on Oct. 16, 1943, a handful of Jews fled to the Catholic hospital, where they were quickly given case files reading “Syndrome K.”
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.
The name Syndrome K not only alerted hospital staff that the “patients” were actually Jewish refugees in good health but also served as a jab to their oppressors, specifically, Albert Kesselring and Herbert Kappler. Kesselring was a Nazi defensive strategist and the commander responsible for the Italian occupation, while Kappler was an SS colonel.
Hidden away in a separate ward of the facility, those “infected” with Syndrome K were instructed to cough and act sick in front of Nazi soldiers as they investigated Fatebenefratelli. The patients were said to be highly contagious, deterring Nazi officials from coming anywhere near the quarters they were being kept in. Nazi officials became terrified of contracting the mysterious illness, steering clear at all costs.
Credited mainly to doctors Sacerdoti, Borromeo, and Ossicini, the operation was only made possible with the help of the entire staff, who played along with the plan, knowing exactly what to do when confronted with an incoming patient diagnosed with Syndrome K..
“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. Another doctor orchestrating the life-saving lie was surgeon Giovani Borromeo.
Initially, the hospital was used as a hospice on the premises of the San Giovanni Calibita Church. Later, it was expanded into a modern hospital by Dr. Giovanni Borromeo, who joined in 1934, with the help of Father Maurizio Bialek.
Besides Fr. Maurizio and Borromeo, other doctors on staff assisted the Jewish patients and helped to move them to safer hideouts outside the hospital. In May 1944, the hospital was raided and five Jews from Poland were detained. However, the ruse saved dozens of lives.
Fr. Maurizio and Borromeo also installed an illegal radio transmitter in the hospital basement and made contact with General Roberto Lordi of the Italian Royal Air Force. After World War II, Borromeo was lauded by Government of Italy for his work and was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. He died in the hospital on 24 August 1961.
If only one person in the Hospital, be it patient or staff, had reported it to the Nazis, then without a shadow of a doubt, all of them would have been killed.
The combined efforts of Sacerdoti, Borromeo, Ossicini, and the entire hospital staff were only revealed 60 years later, and Borromeo specifically was recognized by the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in October 2004, not only for his work with Syndrome K, but for transferring Jewish patients to the hospital from the ghetto long before the occupation of the Nazis.
The Fatebenefratelli Hospital was recognized as a shelter for victims of Nazi persecution, and was named a “House of Life” in June, 2016. The ceremony was attended by Ossicini, 96-years-old at the time, along with some of the very people that his heroic efforts had helped save six decades before.
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