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Frank Bures: The 'deadly' disease that saved lives in WWII

Frank Bures: The 'deadly' disease that saved lives in WWII

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On April 1, I received an email from a medical “news” company that always carries ads with its news. This particular one was appropriate for the date. It was about the “deadly” syndrome that saved lives in World War II, named syndrome K. I had never heard of it.

It was a fake disease created in a 450-year-old Italian hospital located on an island in the Tiber River, which flows through the city of Rome. The gist of the story is that it was a disease label code given to Italian Jews fleeing the ancient ghetto across the river from the hospital. There were many heroic deceptions throughout Europe in which people attempted to hide, protect and help Jews escape the slaughter by the German Nazis. This one is supposed to be unique, and was only reported and made known widely in the last 15-20 years.

Between 1941-1945 Nazi Germany murdered around two thirds of the European Jewish population, a slaughter now known as the Holocaust (which we should never forget). Italian Jews were persecuted by Mussolini’s fascist government. The small, ancient Catholic hospital, named Fatabenefratelli, on the Tiber Island was owned by the Catholic Church, not Italy, and people there were mostly left alone.

In 1943 Mussolini’s government collapsed, and Nazi forces invaded and occupied the country for almost two years. In September of 1943, the puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic began to arrest and deport Jews to central and eastern European concentration camps. The hospital had already become known as a safe haven for Jews from the ghetto across the river and other persecuted people.

On Oct. 16, 1943, Nazi soldiers raided the ghetto across the river. Doctors in the hospital concocted a fake illness for the ghetto refugees, which they labeled syndrome K or Il Morbo di K. Professor Giovanni Borromeo was the mastermind. Dr. Adriano Ossicini came up with the name, which referred to Albert Kesserling, the Nazi commander heading Hitler’s occupation, and Herbert Kappler, the evil SS chief, who forced the Ardeatine massacre in March 1944, a reprisal killing of Italian citizens. Also involved was Dr. Vitorrio Sacerdoti, a Jew himself.

Rooms were set up for the “syndrome K sufferers” apart from real patients. Those folks in the K wards were instructed to cough loudly and violently if the soldiers appeared. When the Nazis finally raided the hospital, the doctors warned them about the syndrome, characterizing it as highly contagious, deadly and even disfiguring. It was described as a neurological disease that could to lead to convulsions, disfigurement and ultimately death. They said if these patients were sent away on trains to camps, they would quickly infect other passengers and the soldiers themselves with syndrome K.

Dr. Sacerdoti in a BBC interview in 2004 said the Nazis “thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits.” His young cousin was one saved from death with the diagnosis of syndrome K. Exact numbers of lives saved varies from account to account, but best guesses were between 25-100. The Nazis did finally invade the hospital in May 1944, but were only able to find five Polish Jews, who survived because Rome was liberated one month later.

After the war the Italian government bestowed many honors on Dr. Borromeo. He died in his own hospital in 1961. He was honored in 2004 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official organization for memorializing the Holocaust, as Righteous Among Nations, given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. All the doctors, nurses and Catholic friars who so brilliantly played parts in the deception also risked their lives, because one slip would have been deadly for them.

It seemed so appropriate to receive an article on April 1 about the history of this medical illness, fictitious though it was, that actually saved lives. It had to be one of the most ingenious April Fool’s jokes ever perpetrated. It was more believable than one of our sons, who regularly complained of devastating illnesses on several Monday mornings, which he felt would disqualify him from attending school. Of course, there was the one time, when he loudly proclaimed he had mono. He actually did have it.

Frank A. Bures is a semi-retired dermatologist in Winona.


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