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Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Saved Lives

In the fall of 1943 German soldiers began rounding up Jews in Italy and deporting them by the thousands to concentration camps. Simultaneously a mysterious and deadly disease called “Syndrome K” swept through the city of Rome causing dozens of patients to be admitted to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital. The details of the disease are sketchy, but the symptoms include persistent coughing, paralysis, and death. The disease was said to be highly contagious.

But “Syndrome K” was different. There was no mention of it in medical textbooks, and outside of the hospital staff, nobody had heard of it before. It sounded similar to tuberculosis, a terribly frightening disease at that time. When the German soldiers went to raid the hospital, the doctors explained the disease to the soldiers and what lay behind the closed doors. None of them dared to go in. And that’s how at least a hundred Jews who were taking refuge at the hospital escaped death. “Syndrome K” was a made-up disease.

The disease was created by Giovanni Borromeo, the hospital’s head physician, to save Jews and anti-fascists who sought refuge there. Borromeo began providing Jews a safe haven in the hospital from 1938, the year Italy introduced antisemitic laws. In October 1943, the Nazis raided a Jewish ghetto in Rome. Many Jews fled to Fatebenefratelli, where Borromeo admitted them as “patients.” The refugees were diagnosed with a new fatal disease—“Syndrome K”—in order to identify them from the actual patients.

When the Nazis came to visit, patients were instructed to cough a lot whenever soldiers passed by their door. The ruse worked. “The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits,” said Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti during an interview with BBC in 2004, sixty years after the event.

How many lives “Syndrome K” actually saved is hard to tell, but accounts vary from two dozen to over a hundred. After the war, Borromeo was honored by the Italian government by awarding the Order of Merit and the Silver Medal of Valor. He died in 1961 at his own hospital. He was posthumously recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli government.

Possible Preaching Angles: Lying; Protection; Racism; Rescue – In the tradition of Rahab (Josh. 2:1-24) and the Egyptian midwives (Exodus 1:10-22) lives were protected from an attempt to murder God’s people. Concealing the truth by telling a lie to protect innocent lives appears to be accepted by God during persecution and extreme situations.

Source: Kaushik, “Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Saved Lives,” Amusing Planet (3-20-19)

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