H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

These doctors were very brave creating a fake contagion to save Jews from The Holocaust.

A fake contagion saved people from the Holocaust – not once, but twice.        

In the fall of 1943, Allied forces landed in Italy. The country capitulated shortly thereafter but German troops immediately took over much of the country, continuing the fight. At around the same time, a new contagion reared its head at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital that stood on a small island in the Tiber River in downtown Rome. Named “Syndrome K” or “K Syndrome” by the local doctors, it caused convulsions, bodily deformation, dementia, paralysis and an inevitable death by asphyxiation. It was extremely contagious. It was also completely fictional, invented by hospital workers as a ploy to save Jews from Nazi persecution.

Giovanni Borromeo, the director of the hospital

The idea of a fake disease was concocted by three doctors: Giovanni Borromeo, the director of the hospital; Vittorio Sacerdoti, a young physician, and Adriano Ossicini, a psychiatrist. The two younger doctors had good reason to fear the German occupation force themselves. Sacerdoti was a Jew whose uncle was Borromeo’s old mentor. He had been given refuge on the island and the chance to work under a false name after Italy’s anti-Semitic laws deprived him of his job. Ossicini was an anti-fascist and a member of the Catholic Resistance Movement who only managed to avoid imprisonment thanks to his Vatican connections. They enjoyed a measure of protection as the hospital was built in the Middle Ages and was still owned by the Order of St. John, also known as the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, making it an extraterritorial zone where Italian laws did not apply.

Vittorio Sacerdoti

The hospital overlooked Rome’s Jewish ghetto and the doctors could see the persecution of its inhabitants whenever they looked out the window. “K Syndrome” was invented to allow Jews to take refuge in the hospital under the guise of treatment. To the Germans, the name evoked Koch’s Disease, another name for tuberculosis, and the description was enough to keep them away from the K Syndrome wards during their raids of the hospital. The doctors themselves associated the name with Albert Kesselring, the German commander in charge of occupied Italy, and Herbert Kappler, head of German security and police services in Rome, who was later responsible for the Ardeatine massacre.

Adriano Ossicini

The exact number of Jews saved by Syndrome K is unknown but is probably between two dozen and a hundred. One of them was 10-year-old Luciana Sacerdoti, Vittorio’s own cousin. She remembered a German raid with these words: “The day the Nazis came to the hospital, someone came to our room and said: ‘You have to cough, you have to cough a lot because they are afraid of the coughing, they don’t want to catch an awful disease and they won’t enter.’”

The Fatebenefratelli Hospital today

This wasn’t the only time an epidemic was faked to protect the victims of the Nazism. Two Polish doctors, Eugene Lazowsky and Stanisław Matulewicz created a false typhus epidemic to protect the inhabitants in the area of their practice. Their ruse began when a Polish man visited Lazowsky, who himself previously escaped a German POW camp by climbing over the wall and riding away on a horse cart. The man explained that he had been rounded up to work in a Nazi labor camp but was given a two-week leave to visit his family. However, as his time was up, he found himself unable to return to forced labor. If he ran away, his family would have been sent to a concentration camp. Seeing no other way out, he was contemplating suicide.

Matulewicz (left) and Lazowsky (right)

Matulewicz had earlier discovered that people injected with a vaccine made of dead typhus bacteria showed up positive on tests without actually contracting the disease. The doctors gave the man such an injection, then took a blood sample and sent it to a German lab. There it was detected as a positive and the man given a permanent reprieve from forced labor.

Lazowsky loved animals

The doctors started using the ruse on a large scale, habitually giving “protein stimulation therapy” shots to local Poles whose minor illnesses exhibited symptoms similar to typhus, such as a fever, a cough, a rash or aches. The patients weren’t told of the true nature of their shots but they reliably showed up typhus-positive on German lab tests. Eventually the entire area, comprising around twelve villages, was declared an epidemic area by the authorities and the Nazis started avoiding the area as much as they could. This came too late to save the local Jews, who were already rounded up by then, but it brought a measure of safety for local Poles, as well as any Jews who had fled there from elsewhere

Polish boy looking through the door of a building quarantined for typhus

There was, however, one big problem with the “typhus epidemic:” nobody was dying of the deadly disease. This was noticed by the German authorities and a team of doctors was sent to investigate. Lazowsky gathered the weakest, sickest-looking locals, gave them vaccine shots and left them in a dirty room. While the senior German doctors were plied with a full table of Polish food and vodka, their younger, less experienced subordinates were sent to inspect the patients. Scared of the sickly group and the unhygienic circumstances, they quickly took blood samples, which were guaranteed to be false positives, and left without conducting a serious examination. Altogether some 8,000 people in the area were given a reprieve from Nazi excesses, thanks to deadly bacteria that weren’t even there.

Matulewicz with his wife