The Catholic Doctor Who Invented an Epidemic To Save Jews in WWII

In the fall of 1943, Nazis began arresting the Jews of Rome, many of whom were sent off to concentration camps including Auschwitz where they were never heard from again. While there are many beautiful stories of the people of Rome hiding Jews, this one jumped out at me. About two dozen Jews fled from the Nazis and found themselves at the door of a hospital called Fatebenefratelli which stood on a tiny island in the Tiber in Rome.

In panic and with little hope, they found themselves ushered in quietly and quickly diagnosed with a strange new disease called "Syndrome K," a version of Koch disease. They were placed into "quarantine" and put behind closed doors.

Of course, there is no such thing as Syndrome K. Ironically, it was called Syndrome K as shorthand for General Albert Kesselring who was the local commander of the German army which was hunting Jewish people throughout the area. Obviously, it wasn't long before the Nazis came to search the hospital for Jews but as they approached the hallway where the hidden remained behind closed doors, the doctors instructed those in hiding to cough as loud as possible and that way the Nazis wouldn't approach for fear of contagion.

It worked. The Nazis wanted no part of that hallway and walked away quickly.

One of the doctors responsible for this deceit was Catholic surgeon Giovani Borromeo.

Borromeo's father had been a doctor and Giovanni sought to follow suit. He studied medicine at the University of Rome until he was drafted to serve in World War I where he earned a bronze medal. He later received his medical degree. According to his son, Giovanni was not permitted to rise high in the ranks in the medical field because of his refusal to join the Fascist Party. So he worked at the Hospital Faebenefratelli, where he rose to become the director.

When one looks upon such things in hindsight, it seems like God was putting Giovanni exactly where He needed him.

There are many things to consider about this amazing act. Giovanni Borromeo was married and had three children. All were young in age at the time of the Nazis attempting to round up Jews. In fact, his youngest was born that very year. It's likely that Giovanni clearly understood the consequences of protecting Jews from the Nazis. Kesselring had actually issued an order promising indemnity to soldiers who "exceed our normal restraint" in stamping out resistance. Borromeo had every reason in the world not to resist. He had every reason in the world to close the doors of the hospital to the Jews. But he said "Yes." He showed love to those in need of protection, even at the risk of his own life, never mind his career.

Another amazing thing is that it would've just taken one person on staff to tell the Nazis but nobody did.

This hadn't been the first time Borromeo was complicit in protecting Jews. In fact, one of the the young doctors on staff at the hospital named Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti was a Jew working under a false name. Sacerdoti was the nephew of one of Borromeo's teachers at medical school. Sacerdoti described Dr. Borromeo simply as a "very Catholic man."  When this story came to light years later, it was he who suggested that it had been Borromeo's idea to call the disease "Syndrome K."

The hospital was later given the title 'House of Life' by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, for its efforts to save dozens of Jews during the Nazi persecution in Rome. Borromeo died at the Fatebenefratelli hospital in August 1961.

After the war, he was awarded a silver Medal of Civil Valor and, four decades after his death, was recognized “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem.