Skip to main content
Move the World.

When Nazi soldiers raided Rome’s Fatebenefratelli Hospital in May of 1944, Dr. Giovanni Borromeo was able to stop them from taking the Jewish families hiding there without firing a single shot. He told the soldiers that the Jews in his care were sick with a highly contagious and deadly illness called K disease. As Borromeo explained the ailment, soldiers could hear the Jewish families coughing violently behind the closed doors of the ward.

The Nazis left the hospital without ever opening the doors of the K disease ward.

To understand why, it helps to remember that there were no antibiotics during World War II. Not for the Nazis, anyway. While penicillin had been discovered, America was the only country that had figured out how to produce it in mass quantities, and it didn’t make its way to Allied forces until shortly before the landing at Normandy in 1944. Which means that, had the Nazi soldiers at Fatebenefratelli Hospital been exposed to K disease, they knew there was nothing they could take to get rid of it.

borromeo
Dr. Giovanni Borromeo via Yad Vashem

That fear kept the Nazis from opening the ward’s doors, behind which they would’ve found dozens of Jewish men, women, and children--all of them perfectly healthy.

Because K disease wasn’t real.

Rather, it was a brilliant, life-saving scheme dreamed up by Borromeo and Father Maurizio, the Catholic priest who oversaw the hospital. After the Nazis occupied Rome in 1943 and began rounding up the city’s Jewish residents, the two men decided that every Jewish person who came to the hospital seeking refuge would be admitted for treatment of K disease, which was a subtle reference to Albert Kesselring, the Nazi field marshall who oversaw German operations in the Mediterranean. If Nazis asked about Jewish patients allegedly hiding in the hospital--as they eventually did--Borromeo could present intake records showing that the Jews in his care were all dangerously ill.

If Nazis asked about Jewish patients allegedly hiding in the hospital Borromeo could present intake records showing that the Jews in his care were all dangerously ill.

Borromeo left no English-language record of his reasoning, but his K disease strategy took brilliant advantage of Nazi propaganda, which alleged that Jews in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere carried more diseases than other populations. That vicious stereotype, combined with memories of Germany’s crippling experience with typhus during World War I, had primed Nazis soldiers to be more fearful of sick civilians than Allied troops.

Borromeo’s imagination and courage saved dozens of families in Rome. But he wasn’t the only European doctor who used his medical knowledge to save Jewish families from Nazi persecution. Eugene Lazowski, a doctor in Poland, managed to save as many as 8,000 Jews by creating a fake typhus epidemic.

Up Next

Writing History
The Pandemic Time Capsule: Make Your Story a Part of History
pandemic time capsule
Writing History
The Pandemic Time Capsule: Make Your Story a Part of History
The novel coronavirus has changed life as we know it. Submit your story to a pandemic time capsule to help mark history.

The novel coronavirus has changed life as we know it. Submit your story to a pandemic time capsule to help mark history.

Catalysts
This Urban Farm in Dallas Grows Financial and Social Opportunities for Residents
This Urban Farm in Dallas Grows Financial and Social Opportunities for Residents
Catalysts
This Urban Farm in Dallas Grows Financial and Social Opportunities for Residents
A once impoverished and isolated neighborhood in South Dallas is now flourishing thanks to Bonton Farms.

A once impoverished and isolated neighborhood in South Dallas is now flourishing thanks to Bonton Farms.

Catalysts
Can Friendship Keep At-Risk Youth Off the Streets?
UTEC an organization that is helping young people overcome poverty, gang involvement, and unemployment.
Catalysts
Can Friendship Keep At-Risk Youth Off the Streets?
Carlos felt addicted to the thrill of crime at a young age. Today, he yields a different, positive influence on the streets with UTEC.
By Linda Wang

Carlos felt addicted to the thrill of crime at a young age. Today, he yields a different, positive influence on the streets with UTEC.

Art That Heals
This Artist Heals Wounds of Violence With Tattoos
This Artist Heals Wounds of Violence With Tattoos
Art That Heals
This Artist Heals Wounds of Violence With Tattoos
Brian Finn tattoos over scars from self-harm, violence, or human trafficking for free or at a discounted rate in order to help people heal.

Brian Finn tattoos over scars from self-harm, violence, or human trafficking for free or at a discounted rate in order to help people heal.

Catalysts
OGU: Original Gangsters United Ending Gang Violence
Can Former Bloods and Crips Unite to Break the Cycle of Violence?
Watch Now
Catalysts
OGU: Original Gangsters United Ending Gang Violence
For the children of Dallas, these ex gang leaders may be their only chance.
Watch Now

What do you get when former Bloods and Crips gang leaders come together? Original Gangsters United, a pathway to ending gang opposition, promoting peace, and saving younger generations from senseless violence. Antong Lucky is a former Bloods gang leader in Dallas, Texas. Like most children, Antong never aspired to be a part of a gang or to end up in prison. But sadly, many communities affected by peer pressure and gang violence leave kids with no choice. When Antong left prison, he began working to bring opposing Dallas gang leaders together to put an end to gang violence. And it worked.

Thinking Differently
How to Change the World
How to Change the World
Watch Now
Thinking Differently
How to Change the World
Olivia Leland, founder and CEO of Co-Impact, on how we should approach solving the world’s most complex problems.
Watch Now

Do you want to change the world? Olivia Leland, founder and CEO of Co-Impact, shares 3 lessons learned from organizations, philanthropists, and social change leaders that move the world forward. When we think about changing the world, we make a few mistakes over and over again. We think it’s a matter of voting, or giving to charity, or starting a business - but historically, many of the world’s biggest changes have come...

Series Trailer
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Watch Now
Series Trailer
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Join us as we go inside the criminal justice reform movement for an up close look at the people trying to fix our broken system.
Watch Now

There has never been this much energy and momentum behind criminal justice reform as there is today. In nearly every aspect, there is excitement and renewed optimism about delivering real reforms to help those who have suffered from a broken system for far too long. Freethink’s Criminal Justice Reform Week is focused on highlighting the most innovative reformers and ideas that are making real progress in reforming our...

Relentless
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
Watch Now
Relentless
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
How one relentless, unconventional principal rallied an underdog school.
Watch Now

Hamish Brewer, the unconventional principal of Fred Lynn Middle School, went viral and won praise for his work turning the school around. But can he rally the school to the next huge milestone - regaining accreditation? Since moving from New Zealand to the United States, tattooed, skateboarding principal Hamish Brewer has helped inspire teachers and students at lower-income schools to smash people’s expectations. After his...