Hitler's rise to power and the occurrence of World War II remain among some of the most horrific events in history. During the Holocaust, more than six million Jews were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Ultimately, an estimated 45-60 million people were killed during World War II.
But even given the dangers of dissenting from Hitler's rein, some people still stood up for what they felt was right and helped to hide Jews from the Nazis. Anne Frank's story is one of the most famous of these instances. However, there were countless other brave souls who helped to hide Jews in homes, attics, barns, and other spaces.
World War II was full of unsung heroes, one of whom was Italian doctor Vittorio Sacerdoti. Dr. Sacerdoti was just 28 years old when he risked his life to protect Jews. A resident of the Jewish ghetto himself, Dr. Sacerdoti was quickly involved in a dangerous plan to conceal Jews from the Nazis.
Dr. Sacerdoti worked at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, a 450-year-old hospital which is located on the Tiber River in Rome. On October 16, 1943, Nazis raided the area. Jews fled to the hospital, and Dr. Sacerdoti took part in a unique strategy to help keep them safe.
As Jews arrived at Fatebenefratelli Hospital, they were given charts marked "Syndrome K." The diagnosis of "Syndrome K" sounded intimidating to anyone unfamiliar with the "disease." But hospital workers knew the true meaning of the diagnosis.
Syndrome K, as an actual disease, simply didn't exist. It was actually a code name invented by anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini. The code name was used to identify the fact that patients were Jews and were in hiding.
But doctors knew that Syndrome K could help keep the Nazis away. Rooms where Syndrome K sufferers lived were designated as being highly infectious. Children were even taught to cough when Nazis were present to help drive home the "seriousness" of the disease.
Thanks to Syndrome K, Jews were able to take refuge in the hospital in plain sight. No one knows just how many Jews were saved in this single hospital, but estimates range between dozens to hundreds. And their survival is in no small part due to the bravery of the hospital's doctors and nurses.
“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.”
Many people would lack the courage to do what the doctors in Italy did. But Adriano Ossicini felt strongly about the actions he took. “The lesson of my experience was thatwe have to act not for the sake of self-interest, but for principles. Anything else is a shame.”
Italy is home to a thriving Jewish community which is one of the oldest in Europe. There are countless stories of Italians who risked their lives to save others from the Nazis. Syndrome K is just one of those stories of bravery, selflessness, and the desire to stand up for what's right.