• Film

Docs: “Syndrome K” and How Fake Disease Saved Lives

When can a disease be life-saving? The answer to that riddle forms the spine of the documentary Syndrome K, narrated by the late Ray Liotta and available across digital platforms on August 16.

Directed by Stephen Edwards, the movie tells the fascinating story of a fictitious highly contagious illness concocted by three Roman Catholic doctors during World War II. Their mission? To hide Jews from occupying German soldiers in a Vatican-affiliated hospital.

Under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, Italian Jews (among other classifications) had been subject to restrictions on public life via race laws. Stories of the horrors of the Holocaust had made their way into Italy but, for many, the threat seemed abstract.

However, when the Nazis invaded Rome in October of 1943, they immediately began targeting the Roman Jews. Over 1,000 people from the city’s Jewish Ghetto were deported to Auschwitz on October 16. The existential jeopardy became terrifyingly real.


As Pope Pious XII attempted to thread a too-fine needle between a doctrine of political neutrality as the leader of Vatican City and the moral calling of his religious designation, three doctors — Adriano Ossicini, Giovanni Borromeo, and Vittorio Sacredoti — hatched a scheme by sending many Jews seeking refuge to Fate-Bene-Fratelli Hospital, a Vatican-affiliated facility on Tiber Island run by Catholic friars.

The plan involved disguising these men, women, and children as patients infected with a highly contagious disease they dubbed “Syndrome K”. The Nazis became instantly fearful of falling victim to that sickness.


Generating reams of paperwork and other official documents, the doctors quarantined the “infected” Jews to protect them.

As Nazi suspicions mounted, the doctors were forced to devise new ways to help maintain this ruse until Allied forces, under General Mark Clark, began the harrowing fight to liberate Rome.

Syndrome K brings this incredible story to life in a multi-dimensional way. Director Edwards (who also contributes to the movie’s score) works with Greg Hunter (who oversees dramatic recreations, in addition to serving as editor) to highlight the personal dangers the doctors faced. This, as well as an embrace of tonal disparity, helps give Syndrome K a strong sense of emotional currency and immediacy — a live-wire tale rather than some staid, dusty, dutifully conveyed artifact of history.

In one amusing passage, confirming that trolling isn’t an invention of the 21st-century internet, the name of the phony disease is revealed to have been a way to tweak the surnames of German commander Albert Kesselring and Schutzstaffel ranking officer Herbert Kappler, two of the most odious Nazi functionaries in Italy.

Liotta’s overarching narration is interwoven with thoughts and recollections of survivors like Gabriele Sonnino and Lea Dinola, plus older footage from Ossicini and Borromeo’s son Pietro. Lending further context and historical perspective is Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s director of international academic programs.

If there’s a demerit, it comes in the form of the curious decision to dub, rather than subtitle, the Italian interviewees.

The subject matter immediately summons to mind Steven Spielberg’s Golden Globe-winning Schindler’s List. So, it’s no surprise that a live-action version of this extraordinary story is scripted and currently out to various directors in Hollywood. It seems only a matter of time before it receives an overdue narrative treatment.

Until then, Syndrome K serves as a stirring reminder of the unique capacity for commingled empathy and ingenuity.

In the end, the titular fictitious disease saved more than 4,500 Roman Jews. Ossicini’s succinctly sage words, repeated at the film’s end, provide a lesson more could stand to hear and absorb: “Bravery always wins.”