Syndrome K…The Brilliant Fake Disease Invented To Save Italian Jews From The Nazis
Bravery is not the absence of fear. It’s the acceptance that fear must be set aside and replaced by something that is so much more important.
Imagine that you are a doctor, in the midst of pursuing a career you’ve planned and studied for over many years, and then war breaks out. Not exactly something you planned for, nor something you can even escape.
It’s World War II
You are an Italian doctor and as such, at the forefront of some sickening realities as you go about your daily work in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, an ancient building tucked safely away on a tiny island that sits amidst Rome’s Tiber River, and fortuitously, (as it later turned out), close to a Jewish Ghetto.
German troops are occupying your country, seeking out, and rounding up Italian Jews, so many of them, and transporting them to concentration camps, where most of them will meet their death.
As such you might assume, that the troops would have their eyes on the hospital with all its conveniences. Yet despite knowing this some of the Jews, brave enough to take the risk, managed to escape their ghetto and flee to the hospital seeking asylum.
But now, what do you do?
Asylum is one thing: protection another. It has to be effective.
You lie in bed at night, scratching your head, tossing and turning, wondering how you can effect the best outcome, and then it hits you.
You might not be able to save every Jew in Italy, but what if you could save the few you have tucked away?
Your excitement grows as you fabricate in your head, this phenomenon, a strange, highly-contagious disease, an illness that leaves the patient with incredible disfigurements, an illness no soldier would want to be exposed to.
Bursting with excitement, you pose the idea to your colleagues, anti-fascist doctors who intellectually were already on board.
‘A group of Italian physicians came up with a plan to courageously thwart this act of genocide for at least some of these victims. They concocted a fake disease that was reputedly so dangerous it would scare off the Nazis from interacting with these “contagious” patients during hospital checks. Incredibly, the physicians were able to admit patients with K syndrome through (to) the end of Nazi occupation.’
An absolutely fake disease, simple in its scope, and the inspiration of Dr. Vittorio Sacerdoti. It tricked the Nazis, and saved 45 Roman Jews.
Simple it might have been, but a very brave form of trickery for the then 28 year-old doctor. Sacerdoti admitted the Jews, and diagnosed them with Syndrome K, the disease being recorded on their medical admission forms.
Syndrome K patients were hidden away in rooms designated as dangerously infectious. Children were instructed on how to vehemently cough, as if they had a contagious disease such as tuberculosis. This was the way they would be saved.
And it worked!
The Nazi inspectors were invited to check all wards, but they declined, deterred from entering by the sound of the coughing and gagging.
The name, however, was also something of a tongue-in-cheek joke that could so easily have backfired. The fictitious disease ‘K’ after either Albert Kesselring or Herbert Kappler. Kesselring was the Nazi Commander-in-Chief South, and ordered Kappler, who was Nazi police chief of Rome, to undertake the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, where 335 people (soldiers and civilians) were killed. Both Kesselring and Kappler were tried for war crimes and convicted after its end.’
That the Nazi officials in Rome never became aware that Syndrome K did not, in fact exist, is a triumph of both bravery and stupidity. A happy victory where a falsehood of disinformation, fear and abject ignorance, worked as a force for good.
This is a story of incredible bravery, backed up by humor and cunning, something we can marvel at, and yet, we can never know when we too will be called upon to be unimaginably brave.
What is bravery after all?
- Is it doing what is right when the risks are large and threatening?
- Is it a group of hospital doctors hiding Jews, from Nazis, knowing the odds if they are caught?
- Is it the German-born volunteer fire-fighter who, during the horrendous bush fires in NSW recently, drove his truck up a precipitous mountain pathway where trees were crashing all around, to rescue a woman with burns to 60 per cent of her body?
The truth is that bravery is YOU. It’s ME. It’s US.
Whenever we are challenged to do what is right when the risks are decidedly against us, and we are afraid, but we do it anyway, that is genuine bravery.
‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.’
There will be times in your life when the only person who knows you are afraid, is you yourself, a time when determination will spur you on and in the process , disarm uncertainty.
Fear is a natural feeling that heightens our awareness and serves to warn and protect us. Fear keeps us safe.
Brave people know and understand fear, but instead of acting negatively to their unwelcome companion, they tighten their control on impending decisions, and triumph.
Brave people understand the whys of their fear, such as past experiences, and this allows them to rationalize things and continue on.
It follows that, taking action despite your fears, and taking those first strategic steps towards what you want to achieve, will ultimately be a huge measure of your success.
All those years ago, Vittorio Sacerdoti and his medical team could so easily have ended up in the Nazi concentration camps. Still they had people relying on them, so they remained stalwart.
They harnessed their anxieties, tightened their plans, and through that, saved the lives of others.