Giovanni Borromeo, a physician working at Fatebenefratelli Hospital, Rome, discovered in 1943 a mysterious disease he labelled ‘K Syndrome’. Or maybe he devised it.
Proudly sited atop Rome’s Tiberian Island, the Fatebenefratelli Hospital has a long history behind it. Three thousand years ago, on that very spot was temple dedicated to Asclepios, the God of medicine in Ancient times. Some centuries later, it was converted into a sanctuary run by monks who welcomed beggars and vagabonds. During the Renaissance era, it became fabbriche della salute – a ‘health factory’: an hospital, in other terms.
That long-term commitment toward helping the poor would persist until way up in the 20th century, even in the darkest of times.
1943: the steady noise of military boots echoed through the streets of Rome. With Mussolini deposed, the capital city has been occupied by Nazi forces since September, meticulously combing local ghettos. ‘All Jews, whatever their nationality, age, gender or condition must be transferred to Germany where they will be liquidated’ Himmler hurried. The notorious architect of the Final Solution thought big: the following month, a large roundup set up by the Gestapo sent more than 1,000 people to Auschwitz. Out of them, only 16 would come back alive.
Witnessing that bloody turn of events from the windows of Fatebenefratelli Hospital, a doctor named Giovanni Borromeo, antifascist through and through, decided to make his move. Contrary to health instructions, German soldiers were still swarming, hunting for Jews who may have found shelter between the hospital walls. However, they did not dare to enter ‘K Service’, a medical area specifically designed for those who suffered the mysterious K Syndrome…
What kind of a disease is the K Syndrome? Nazis undoubtedly thought the K related to Koch’s disease, i.e. tuberculosis. Widespread, highly contagious and notoriously deadly, especially in 19th and 20th-century urban areas, tuberculosis was still responsible for the death of one person out of 8 by the end of WW1. So one should definitely be careful while dealing with it! The truth is, the K Syndrome did not exist. It was devised by Borromeo and his colleagues – Adriano Ossicini et Vittorio Sacerdoti, among others – in order to give shelter to the town’s Jewish population.
Soon enough, the K service welcomed more and more patients supposedly suffering ‘Il Morbo di K’. Jews were admitted, but also Poles along with numerous survivors of previous roundups. They were advised to play along, feigning coughing fits or spasms whenever a German inspector investigated the area. And it was more than enough to keep the invaders at bay…
Thumbing their noses at the occupiers, the Italian doctors had not only chosen the letter K because the Koch-related disease was to keep the Nazis away; also because what they thought plagued Italy in late-1943 started with Ks, too — namely Albert Kesselring, commander of the German forces in Rome, and Herbert Kappler, the SS officer setting up large-scale roundups… Fortunately, following nine months of occupation, both men were driven away by the Allies’ forward momentum, and the capital city was taken back.
After the Liberation, Borromeo became public health advisor in Rome. Sadly, the doctor passed away in 1961 at Fatebenefratelli, the hospital where he had spent so many days as undercover hero. The silence he did not dare to break is still lingering to this day, as many details of the story remain unknown: how many people were thus saved from Nazi roundups? Was Borromeo actually a member of Italian Resistance? When, precisely, did the K service enter the fray? Despite the ongoing mystery, the doctor’s deeds still echo the original purpose of Fatebenefratelli, literally translating as ‘You do well, brothers’. They did indeed.
- Francesco Buscemi, “K Syndrome, the Disease that Saved”, History Today, 5 mars 2019.
- Robert Katz, The Battle for Rome, Simon & Schuster, 2003.
- Jay Serafino, “Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Fooled the Nazis and Saved Lives”, Mental Floss, 29 mars 2017.