It was a dreadful time in Rome that October of 1943. Not only had Nazi troops taken over the city in September, but now Il Morbo di K had appeared. It was a rare, highly contagious neurological illness that produced convulsions, paralysis, and rapid death. There was just one hitch…Il Morbo di K didn’t exist! It was a total sham!
The story goes like this – Giovanni Borremeo happened to be the director of Fatebenefratelli, a 450-year-old Catholic hospital located on an island in the Tiber River and one of the finest institutions in Rome. He could see out of the hospital’s windows the atrocities in the Jewish ghetto directly across the river.
When the Nazis began to deport Jews on October 16, he decided to accept all Jews seeking shelter. So he and Father Maurizio, the hospital prior, and two young doctors, Sacerdoti and Ossicini, invented Syndrome K, which was a secret code diagnosis for “perfectly healthy Jews”. Their inside joke was that the Nazi commander in Rome was Feldmarschall Kesselring, and they named the disease for him. They created special contagion wards and directed the “patients” to cough violently when German patrols arrived. The Nazis were terrified of the lethal disease and refused to enter the special wards.
When all was said and done, only five Jews were captured in the hospital and all survived to liberation. About 100 others amazingly survived both the Nazis and their dreadful illness! Giovanni Borremeo was posthumously named Righteous Among the Nations in 2004, and the Fatebenefratelli Hospital was recognized by the lovely name – House of Life.
Heroism appears in many guises, and sometimes it’s just plain clever…
The Little Book of Heroes: 1939-1945 by Mary E. Burkett is now for sale on Amazon.