Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Fooled the Nazis and Saved Lives

As thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy were being sent to concentration camps in the fall of 1943, a group of dissident doctors figured out a way to save dozens of lives: Fabricate a disease so contagious and so deadly that Nazi soldiers would be too scared to even be in the same room as anyone infected by it.

Though their actions wouldn't be revealed until 60 years later, the ruse began on October 16, 1943, when Nazis raided a Jewish ghetto near Rome's Tiber River. As Jews were being rounded up, the doctors hid a number of runaways inside the walls of the nearby Fatebenefratelli Hospital. It was then that the doctors, including Vittorio Sacerdoti and a surgeon named Giovanni Borromeo, came up with a plan to diagnose the refugees with a fictitious disease. They called it Syndrome K.

To pull it off just right, the Nazis had to believe these patients had a lethal disease that could infect anyone who came into contact with them. In the cramped quarters of deportation trains, one sick passenger could infect everyone on board—soldiers included.

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.”

The "Kesselring" Ossicini was referring to was Albert Kesselring, the Nazi commander who, among other things, was in charge of Hitler's Italian occupation; meanwhile, Herbert Kappler was the SS chief responsible for a mass reprisal killing in 1944. Naming a deadly contagion after two ruthless Nazi commanders must have felt fitting for Ossicini and the other doctors at the hospital.

Syndrome K wasn't just a pet name to distinguish actual patients from Jews in hiding; the doctors had to find ways to make the disease seem real when Nazi troops combed the hospital for people to round up. To do so, the doctors would have special rooms filled with "victims" of Syndrome K (also called "K" Syndrome), which they warned the soldiers was a highly contagious, disfiguring, and deadly disease.

The Nazi troops, scared of contracting the mysterious ailment, wouldn't even bother to inspect the people in the rooms when they raided the hospital. There were also children to worry about, so the doctors coached them on how to cough violently enough to ward off any inspections that a curious soldier may want to conduct.

"[The] Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits," Dr. Sacerdoti told the BBC in 2004. Syndrome K hit close to home for Sacerdoti, who used the disease to save his 10-year-old cousin, Luciana Sacerdoti.

When, more than a half-century later, the doctors' fabrication was finally revealed, they became recognized for their life-saving actions. Borromeo was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, a World Holocaust Remembrance Center. He was also integral in orchestrating the transfer of many Jewish patients from hospitals in the ghettos to Fatebenefratelli in order to get them better treatment in a safer environment before the raids began.

The hospital itself was even recognized as a "House of Life" by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Holocaust saviors. In the years leading up to the raids, the hospital had become known as a haven for persecuted Jews. The hospital administration at the time, including Borromeo, allowed doctors like Sacerdoti—a Jew who had been fired from previous jobs because of his religion—to work under false documents.

The actual number of people saved by the doctors at Fatebenefratelli was probably around a couple dozen. No matter the final tally, though, the quick thinking and ingenuity of doctors like Sacerdoti, Borromeo, and Ossicini were a glimmer of hope during a time when happy endings were in short supply.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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The Unkindest Cut: A History of the Bowl Cut

Jim Carrey, one hideous bowl cut, and Jeff Daniels star in Dumb and Dumber (1994).
Jim Carrey, one hideous bowl cut, and Jeff Daniels star in Dumb and Dumber (1994).
Warner Home Video

Moses Horwitz dreaded going to school. It was 1903, and the 6-year-old Brooklynite found himself at the mercy of cruel children who would tease him ruthlessly. Their taunting was directed at his hair, long and finger-curled by his mother before class. It was a style deemed more appropriate for girls of the era, and the boys made sure Moses knew it. Even the girls thought it strange. He was heckled before, during, and after school.

This went on for years. One day, at age 11, Moses decided to do something about it.

Over at a friend’s house, he impulsively grabbed a pair of scissors, closed his eyes, and began trimming his hair in a blind circle. When he opened them, his friends were laughing. Moses had crafted a bowl cut—a straight line around his entire head. It was not exactly flattering, but it reduced the number of bloody noses he had to endure.

The cut would eventually prove useful for Moses, who later took on the stage name Moe Howard and formed The Three Stooges comedy team—all while maintaining that trademark hairstyle.

Moe Howard (L) was famous for his bowl cut.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The origins of the bowl cut extend far beyond Moe Howard. The style was common among European men in the 12th through 15th centuries as well as Russian serfs in the 18th century. The appeal was simple: It was a style that could be achieved with no skill, no brushing, and at virtually no cost. It also straddled the line between the longer styles that went in and out of vogue in the Middle Ages and the shorter cuts favored by soldiers and religious leaders. Men of greater means often accessorized the cut with elaborate hats.

While the style persisted, it’s not clear when it adopted the names bowl cut or soup bowl cut, or whether anyone actually used a bowl as a guide. But by the time the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s and '30s, an economical way of trimming hair at home became a popular choice for households trying to conserve funds. Sitting a child in a chair and snipping in a circle was something virtually anyone could do.

The bowl cut, it seemed, prospered wherever haircuts were prohibitively expensive. In 1951, Vancouver residents balked at barbers raising the price for a cut to 85 cents by buying trimmers and electric clippers to shape bowl cuts at home.

The bowl cut experienced another surge in the 1960s, though this time it owed more to fashion than the economy. When the original members of the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Stu Sutcliffe—went on tour in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960, they befriended a group of art students including Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer. Kirchherr and Sutcliffe fell in love. When she agreed to give Sutcliffe a haircut, she emulated the bowl style popular among art students at the time. Harrison requested the same thing. Later, when Lennon and McCartney visited Vollmer in Paris, they got similar cuts.

By the time the Beatles arrived stateside in 1964, the group—now minus Sutcliffe and Best, but having added Ringo Starr—was sporting what TIME magazine dubbed the “mushroom” haircut. The band’s fanatical followers emulated the style.

The Beatles got their look while touring in Hamburg, Germany.Keystone/Getty Images

Though the group's hairstyles would later mirror the long hair of the late 1960s and 1970s, the bowl cut had at least earned some level of respectability. It was a common feature of child stars in the 1970s, including Adam Rich of Eight is Enough fame, and later got a featured spot when actor Jake Lloyd grabbed the look while playing young Anakin Skywalker in 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But adults adopting the style was often shorthand for imbecility or mental disturbances. Jim Carrey sported a bowl cut in 1994’s Dumb and Dumber. So did Javier Bardem, as philosophical hitman Anton Chigurh, in 2007’s No Country for Old Men.

More recently, the bowl cut has taken on some sinister connotations. The style has been used in memes advocating far-right and white supremacist beliefs after Dylann Roof was seen with the cut following his 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League added the bowl cut to its list of hate symbols. It's a rather ignoble fate for what was once simply a silly haircut, one which may never again have the respectability and dignity afforded to it by Moe Howard.