In the fall of 1943, German soldiers in Italy began rounding up Italian Jews and deporting them—10,000 people were sent to concentration camps during the nearly two-year Nazi occupation. Most never returned. But in Rome, a group of doctors saved at least 20 Jews from a similar fate, by diagnosing them with Syndrome K, a deadly, disfiguring, and contagiosissima disease.
The disease did not exist in any medical textbook or physician’s chart. In fact, it didn’t exist at all. It was a codename invented by doctor and anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini, to help distinguish between real patients and healthy hideaways. (Political dissidents and a revolutionary underground radio station were also sheltered there from Italy’s Fascist regime.)
On June 21, Fatebenefratelli was honored as a “House of Life,” by the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a US organization dedicated to honoring heroic acts during the Holocaust. For the occasion, 96-year-old Ossicini granted an interview to Italian newspaper La Stampa (video in Italian) about the invention of the disease:
“Syndrome K was put on patient papers to indicate that the sick person wasn’t sick at all, but Jewish. 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 Kesserling or Kappler, was mine.”
Albert Kesserling was the German commander overseeing Rome’s occupation. SS chief Herbert Kappler had been installed as city police chief, and would later mastermind the Ardeatine massacre, a mass killing of Italian Jews and political prisoners in 1944.
Accounts of how many Italian Jews were saved by Fatebenefratelli Hospital vary from dozens to hundreds, but survivor testimonies gathered by Yad Vashem confirm that at least a few more lives were saved after Oct. 16. Several families with small children sheltered there through the winter, until German forces swept through the hospital again in May 1944. One attendant at the Wallenberg ceremony, 83-year-old Luciana Tedesco, was safely hidden in the hospital as a small child during the last raid.