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.

Explore More Stories

Global Health
The Next Pandemic Is Out There. Is the Private Sector Ready?
Event 201 works with private sector for global pandemic preparedness.
Global Health
The Next Pandemic Is Out There. Is the Private Sector Ready?
Johns Hopkins' simulated, international catastrophe is helping business, government, and public health leaders improve global pandemic preparedness.

Johns Hopkins' simulated, international catastrophe is helping business, government, and public health leaders improve global pandemic preparedness.

Future of Food
Clean Meat: A New Protein is Making its Way onto the Chef's Table
Clean Meat: A New Protein is Making its Way onto the Chef's Table
Future of Food
Clean Meat: A New Protein is Making its Way onto the Chef's Table
Clean meat is becoming a more widely known, and much loved food category. But do you expect to see it on your gourmet plate any time soon? These chefs think yes.

Clean meat is becoming a more widely known, and much loved food category. But do you expect to see it on your gourmet plate any time soon? These chefs think yes.

#fixingjustice - Re-entry
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
#fixingjustice - Re-entry
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
CBT is a promising way to reduce violence, so why has it been so hard to scale?

CBT is a promising way to reduce violence, so why has it been so hard to scale?

Criminal Justice Week
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Watch Now
Criminal Justice Week
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...

Helping Prisoners Overcome Trauma with Dance
Helping Prisoners Overcome Trauma with Dance
Watch Now
Helping Prisoners Overcome Trauma with Dance
Women in prison are regaining a sense of freedom — through dance.
Watch Now

Dance to Be Free is a program helping female prisoners overcome trauma with dance. While the inmates at the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Corrections are physically incarcerated, the freedom that comes through dance helps them open up, enjoy themselves, and regain self-confidence. Founder Lucy Wallace began teaching dance in prison in order to help inmates, who often had unaddressed PTSD from physical or emotional...

Crossing the Divide
Why Does Officer Tommy Norman Have a Million Instagram Followers?
Why Does Officer Tommy Norman Have a Million Instagram Followers?
Crossing the Divide
Why Does Officer Tommy Norman Have a Million Instagram Followers?
Officer Tommy Norman's work has drawn national attention recently, but his approach to policing is nothing new.
By Michael O'Shea

Officer Tommy Norman's work has drawn national attention recently, but his approach to policing is nothing new.

Culture
What We Need Right Now Is a Little Bit of Hans Rosling
What We Need Right Now Is a Little Bit of Hans Rosling
Culture
What We Need Right Now Is a Little Bit of Hans Rosling
The Swedish public health researcher says that, contrary to most of what you hear, the world is actually moving in...
By Mike Riggs

The Swedish public health researcher says that, contrary to most of what you hear, the world is actually moving in the right direction.

Culture
This Week in Ideas: Reasons to Feel Good About Humanity
This Week in Ideas: Reasons to Feel Good About Humanity
Culture
This Week in Ideas: Reasons to Feel Good About Humanity
A paralyzed woman runs a half marathon in an exoskeleton, Sri Lanka defeats malaria, incomes are rising. Here's...
By Mike Riggs

A paralyzed woman runs a half marathon in an exoskeleton, Sri Lanka defeats malaria, incomes are rising. Here's some good news since most of what we hear is just the bad.