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Fooling the Nazis: How a Roman hospital invented ‘K Disease’ to save dozens of Jewish lives

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Prestigious doctor cooked up the "illness" and named it after SS and Luftwaffe leaders

The name was terrible, but the “K Disease” was not a lethal virus. It was actually the clever invention of Professor Giovanni Borromeo and a religious of the Hospital of the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, to save the lives of dozens of Jews persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.

When the SS entered the Fatebenefratelli hospital located on the Tiber Island in Rome, medical personnel and religious explained to the Germans that behind the doors of two special wards, there were patients suffering from this terrible K Disease, some of whom were terminally ill. The officers did not dare to enter the wards.

Had they done so, they would have met with Jewish families, men in one room, women and children in another.

In recognition of this singular feat of creativity and courage, on Tuesday the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation bestowed upon the hospital — one of the oldest and most renowned facilities in the Eternal City — the prestigious recognition of “House of Life.”

More to read: Nun Who Hid Jews from the Nazis to Be Proclaimed a Saint

A plaque was hung in the hospital courtyard during a ceremony in the presence of the highest representatives of the Jewish community of Rome, in particular its president, Ruth Dureghello; the vice president of the hospital, Brother Giampiero Luzzatto; the president of the Shoah Foundation Museum of Rome, Mario Venezia; as well as religious and hospital executives.

Emotion clouded the eyes of many of those present when Luciana Tedesco spoke. She was a 10-year-old child during the German occupation. The hospital saved her life and the lives of her entire family .

“I don’t think there were any patients in this hospital,” Tedesco, now 83, said with a smile on her face. “All the people I saw were healthy. We were refugees who found a home here.”

During the ceremony, the Polish religious Maurizio Bialek was remembered. He was then the head of the community of the Order of St. John of God, who set up a clandestine radio station in the basement of the hospital, in continuous contact with the partisans of Rome and the region.

The religious gave their “patients” false documents and alternative shelters in monasteries of the Italian capital.

Professor Borromeo, a highly prestigious doctor at the time, had a good sense of humor, and baptized his made-up illness with the letter “K” because it was the initial of the last names of a Nazi officer in Rome, Herbert Kappler, and the infamous General Albert Kesselring.

Gabriele Sonnino is another survivor who attended the ceremony. He entered the hospital on October 16, 1943, at the age of four.

“There were kids my age,” he told Aleteia. “We could not do anything all day, and did not know why we were locked up there. We felt it was a punishment. Today we know it was salvation.”

With tears in his eyes Sonnino recalled Brother Maurizio Bialek: “He was my second father. I owe him my life.”

More to read: How the Commandant of Auschwitz Found God’s Mercy

The plaque that from now on will be seen by thousands who daily cross the courtyard of the hospital states: “This place was a beacon of light in the darkness of the Holocaust. It is our moral duty to remember these great heroes for new generations to recognize and appreciate them.”

[This article is based on a translation courtesy of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation]

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