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.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

15 Intriguing Facts About Walt Disney

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Artist, producer, entrepreneur, and all-around game-changer Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901. More than a century later, it’s easy to forget that Disney was a real person, not just a caricature or company figurehead. In honor of the man, not the corporation, here are 15 facts about his life.

1. Walt Disney played Peter Pan in a school play.

The story Peter Pan surely held a special place in Walt Disney’s heart: not only was it a hit movie for him in 1953, it also took him back to his childhood. After seeing Peter Pan on stage, young Walt was given the opportunity to play the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in a school performance. Walt later recalled that his brother Roy was in charge of the rope used to hoist him over the stage to simulate flying; it was just one of their many creative collaborations.

2. Walt Disney was a high school dropout.


Getty Images

Walt was just 16 when he left school to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, wanting to do his part in World War I. But because he was just shy of the minimum age requirement of 17, he forged a different date on his birth certificate. Disney didn’t see much action, however. He was sent to France in late 1918, not long after the armistice was signed that ended the fighting. He still helped where he could, driving Red Cross officials and performing other tasks, before he was discharged in 1919.

3. Walt Disney almost sold vacuum cleaners for a living.

In 1923, Walt joined his older brother Roy in L.A. to pursue a career in animation. Roy had been selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door to make ends meet and encouraged Walt do the same. Walt considered it, but before he could get sucked in by a Kirbyesque scheme, he got a call from a company in New York that wanted him to make shorts for them.

4. Mickey Mouse wasn’t Walt Disney's first big creation.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1927, Universal asked Walt and his chief animator Ub Iwerks to create a cartoon character for them; the result was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was a huge hit, complete with robust merchandising. With this success under his belt, in 1928, Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract with producer Charles Mintz. Mintz, however, countered with a different deal: He wanted to cut the budget. And to add salt to the wound, Mintz had been working backdoor deals to hire Disney’s animators out from under him. In the end, Universal ended up with the rights to Oswald, and Disney left New York feeling as if he had lost almost everything. But it all worked out in the end—on the train ride back to California, Disney sketched a character that would eclipse Oswald in popularity: Mickey Mouse.

The company regained control of the obscure character in 2006, almost eight decades after losing him. The rights were part of a trade between Disney and NBC/Universal: They agreed to let Disney have Oswald back, and Disney, the owner of ABC and ESPN, agreed to let NBC use sportscaster Al Michaels for Sunday Night Football.

5. Walt Disney didn’t draw Mickey Mouse.

He did at first, but it didn't last long—after 1928, Walt was no longer animating, focusing instead on story development and direction. He relied on Iwerks and other superior artists to do the drawing dirty work. He never drew Mickey in any of his theatrical releases, and in fact, probably only really drew Mickey when autograph seekers requested it.

6. But Walt Disney did voice Mickey Mouse.

From 1928 to 1947, Walt was the man behind the mouse—literally. Even after the voice work was officially turned over to Jimmy MacDonald in 1947, Walt continued to do Mickey’s voice for shorts on The Mickey Mouse Club.

7. Walt Disney drove his daughters to school every day.

Despite the fact that he had drivers, a live-in housekeeper, and a number of other staff members at his disposal, Disney took great pleasure in driving his two daughters to school every day. He also spoiled them unabashedly, which historian Steve Watts believed was a reaction to Walt’s own stern upbringing.

8. Walt Disney had a secret apartment at Disneyland.

It’s still there, in fact, above the fire station. Walt’s private apartment isn’t typically open to the public, but VIPs are occasionally offered tours. The furnishings remain virtually unchanged from when Walt used to spend time there, including a lamp in the window visible from outside. It’s always kept on to signify that Walt is always in the park.

9. Walt Disney's favorite song was “Feed the Birds.”

There have been a lot of toe-tapping hits in Disney movies over the years, but Walt’s personal favorite was a ballad: “Feed the Birds,” the song about the pigeon lady in Mary Poppins. According to songwriter Richard Sherman, Walt often stopped by the Sherman brothers’ office at Disney on Friday afternoons and requested a personal performance of “Feed the Birds.” "He loved that song, and knew it was the heartbeat of the whole movie,” Sherman said.

10. Walt Disney found golf anything but relaxing.

Though many people play golf to relax, Disney couldn't deal with it. After giving up polo at his doctor's behest, Walt took up golf, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in nine holes before work. He found the game so frustrating that he quit and took up a more chill sport—lawn bowling.

11. Walt Disney felt responsible for his mother’s death.

Cartoonist and film producer Walt Disney (1901 - 1966) arriving in the foyer of a London hotel
Harry Shepherd, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Once he became successful, Walt bought his parents a rather extravagant present: a new house. And when his parents needed something fixed, tweaked, or repaired, he sent his own repairmen from the studio over to take care of it. Such was the case when they discovered a problem with their furnace in 1938. Tragically, his team didn’t take care of the issue properly, and Flora Call Disney died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 70. His father, Elias, also fell very ill from the gas leak, but survived. Walt’s daughter, Sharon, said that even years later, Walt found the subject nearly impossible to talk about.

12. Walt Disney's housekeeper was a very wealthy woman.

Thelma Howard was the Disney family’s live-in housekeeper and cook for three decades. She was hired in 1951 and quickly became part of the family, even making sure the fridge was well-stocked with hot dogs—Walt liked to eat them cold as a snack when he got home from work. As part of her annual Christmas gift, the Disneys gave her stock in the company. She never did anything with her shares, and by the time she died in 1994, the woman was a multimillionaire because of them. She left nearly $4.5 million to poor and disabled children, and roughly the same amount to her disabled son.

13. Walt Disney was obsessed with trains.

Walt always had an interest in trains, even building an elaborate model in his office, which he enjoyed running for his guests. In 1948, his hobby grew to new heights when he constructed a 1/8 scale model in his backyard, with track spanning half a mile. He deemed it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad.

14. One of Walt Disney's last written communications was rather mysterious—and involved Kurt Russell.

22nd November 1946: American animator and producer Walt (Walter Elias) Disney (1901 - 1966) walking through St Stephens Green, Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland.
Keystone/Getty Images

Shortly before his death, Disney wrote “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper. It was later found on his desk, and, according to Disney historian Dave Smith, the notes were among Disney's last few written words. At the time of Disney’s death, Russell was a largely unknown child actor working for the studio. No one has any idea what Disney was referring to with his note—not even Kurt Russell.

15. Walt Disney is not cryogenically frozen.

Bob Nelson, the former president of the Cryonics Society of California, makes a good point: if Disney was the first cryogenically frozen man, it would have been a pretty big deal for cryonics, and they would have publicized the heck out of the Mickey Mouse-cicle. No, Walt was cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. His gravesite is in a public area for people who want to see it for themselves.

The chilly rumor may have been started by Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men” animators, who had a wicked sense of humor.

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