How Roman Doctors Saved Jews During the Holocaust

How Roman Doctors Saved Jews During the Holocaust

Like Roman doctors rescued Jews during the Holocaust

Steven Edwards and Adriano Ossicini. 2018 Photo: JTA-“Syndrome K”-Freestyle Digital Media   How Roman doctors saved Jews during the Holocaust

Documentary thriller «Syndrome K» opened an unknown page of the Second World War

While saving Jews during World War II, three Italian doctors invented a fake disease called “Syndrome K”. The “infected patients” were placed in separate rooms of the main Catholic hospital in Rome, where the Nazis did not dare to enter for fear of becoming infected.

This real story, similar to the plot of a Hollywood action movie, formed the basis of the new documentary “Syndrome K » (Syndrome K). It's made available in the US and other countries these days on digital and VOD platforms, having previously made a successful festival tour.

“Syndrome K” is the brainchild of American director and composer Stephen Edwards, who involved highly professional colleagues playwright Gregory Ballard, director Greg Hunter and others in its realization.

The film tells how, entering Rome In the fall of 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, the German Nazis began to deport Jews from the city ghetto to Auschwitz (Auschwitz) and other death camps. The deportation was led by the head of the Gestapo in Rome, Herbert Kappler. In his “honour” a fictitious disease was named with the letter K.

Three full-time doctors of the main Catholic hospital in Rome, Fatebenefratelli, located on the western side of the Tiber island, came up with a daring and dangerous rescue scheme. These are Vittorio Sacerdoti, Giovanni Borromeo and Adriano Ossicini. Sakerdoti was a Jew, which he hid, the other two are Catholics.

How Roman doctors saved Jews during the Holocaust

Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome. Photo: JTA-“Syndrome K”-Freestyle Digital Media

Having allocated separate wards to the “infected” and declaring strict quarantine, the doctors explained to the Nazis that the previously unknown disease was very dangerous and easily transmitted by airborne droplets. The doctors decided to take this risky step without informing the administration of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII, whose position on the Nazis is considered by many historians to be conciliatory, and he himself is sometimes called “Hitler's Pope”.

Frightened SS men did not even dare to cross the threshold of the wards with patients with “syndrome K”. So the Jewish “patients” held out in safety until June 1944, when the Americans liberated Rome. According to the data given by Stephen Edwards in the film, 80 percent. Italian Jews survived the Holocaust. The exact number of Jews rescued in the Fatebenefratelli hospital is unknown, but according to various sources, there could be dozens or even hundreds.

Stephen Edwards is a famous film composer. He has received recognition as a co-composer of music for the films Nomadland, Dallas Buyer's Club and many others. The first documentary he made as a director, Requiem for My Mother, is dedicated to his mother, Rosalie Edwards, in whose memory he wrote the piece of music.

Syndrome Narrator K” was performed by actor Ray Liotta, who recently died at the age of 67 in the Dominican Republic, where he was filming.

Director and composer Steven Edwards answered the questions of the correspondent of the Voice of America Russian service on the Zoom service.

Oleg Sulkin: An absolutely fantastic story! How did it happen that only after so many years did it get its incarnation in the cinema?

Stephen Edwards:I had exactly the same reaction. I found out about this story by accident while browsing Facebook. And I began to flip through the lists of films on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other streaming services. I was amazed and excited that not a single film on this subject was made. I love Rome, I have, along with the American, Italian citizenship. I have not found anything filmed on this subject. And it seemed to pierce me: this grandiose story will be my future film. “Syndrome K” could be the only terrible disease in history that actually saved lives – simply by the very fact that it did not exist in nature.

OS:There is a funny clip on your site – you are rehearsing the soundtrack of this film with a large orchestra and, to the laughter of the orchestra, you admit that the director ordered you the music, that is, you yourself.

S.E.: Well, yes, if I didn't like the music as a director, he could have fired me as a composer. We laughed a lot about this.

O.S.: The first thing you did was to inquire about these three doctors?

SE: Yes. The chances of catching them alive were, of course, extremely small. So much time has passed! Two doctors, Giovanni Borromeo and Vittorio Sacradoti, were no longer alive. But we found Dr. Adriano Ossicini, which is already fantastic. He was 98 at the time! And, imagine – at that age he retained a sound mind and an excellent memory. After that, I contacted an Italian journalist, Ariela Piatelli (she is an Italian Jew), and asked me to interview him. Dr. Ossicini spoke only Italian. There was not a minute to lose, and the producer and I bought tickets for the next plane to Rome. Still, a very respectable age. Yes, and the children of his already deceased colleagues were about 80 years old or more, like the children of the saved Jews, the “patients” of the Catholic hospital. I found two brothers who were hospital patients as children, and Pietro Borromeo, the son of Giovanni Borromeo. Ossichini and Pietro Borromeo died within a year of our meeting.

How Roman doctors saved Jews in years of the Holocaust

In the ward of the hospital. Photo: JTA-“Syndrome K”-Freestyle Digital Media

О.С.: We see an old chronicle in the film, we hear the memories of the participants of those events. Can you describe the work process?

S.E.:The most similar thing is as if I were writing a doctoral dissertation in history. After all, the events are 75 years or more away from us. Very few photographs and newsreels from the war have survived. The Italians filmed very little, fearing Nazi reprisals. We found important material in the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation, which contains approximately 55,000 video testimonies of former Holocaust survivors (the foundation materials are stored at the University of Southern California). There we found a video of an interview with Dr. Vittorio Sacradoti, one of this heroic trio of doctors. Without this interview, we would hardly have been able to make the film. This is a unique, extremely valuable material. Other than this entry, there is no visual evidence of this story. Sakradoti died around 2000, he had no family, he was not married, probably left no children. We do not know where he is buried. In this recording, when Sakradoti, having completed his memoirs, gets up from the sofa and unfastens the microphone from his lapel, the next witness takes his place. And do you know who it is? This woman is his cousin, whom he then, in the 43rd, saved the life of. You can't imagine that.

OS: Did you follow the script, building the sequence of events? After all, something new must have arisen in the course of work and collection of material.

S.E.: Yes, things were changing quickly, and our screenwriter Gregory Ballard made adjustments to the script accordingly. He wrote the voice-over, which was read by our narrator Ray Liotta. I worked in many archives, including “Luce”, “Pathe”, German archives, where I searched for photographs, documents, chronicles. Then we did retro dramatizations done by Greg Hunter. We also used clips from several old films, including Roberto Rossellini's famous film “Rome – Open City”. And then it was necessary to compress all this heterogeneous material in 1 hour and 20 minutes. Actually, the story was built by the story itself, and we followed it, step by step. German Nazis occupy Rome. The Americans land in the south and move from Sicily to Salerno. On October 16, 1943, Herbert Kappler sends over a thousand Jews from the Roman ghetto to Auschwitz. Many Jews try to take refuge in the Fatebenefratelli hospital, which is located nearby, opposite the ghetto, on the other side of the Tiber. OS: Your narrator, Ray Liotta, recently died. His departure, of course, gave everything a sad shade. What was it like working with Ray?

SE: It's a pity that he left us. I remember the first time I sent him an e-mail, where I wrote: hi Ray, we somehow crossed paths a couple of times, and my daughter Bella knows your daughter Carsen. They went to school together. We're making a film about the rescue of Jews in Rome during the war, we want to get you as a narrator. Ray then told me that he had read the email in Toronto during some screening and asked Karsen, who was sitting next to me, if she knew a certain Bella. She was delighted, well, of course, I know, Bella is a cool girl, dad, be sure to agree! So we sit with Greg (Ballard) and Greg (Hunter) waiting for Ray and watching the first 30 minutes of GoodFellas with his voiceover. Ray's narration I consider to be one of the best in the world. And then there was Ray. Terribly charming, pronouncing difficult Italian and German names brilliantly, well, and swearing from time to time, so that we rolled with laughter. Super professional! We recorded his voice-over in just three hours. He, like a guiding star, guides us through the film.

O.S.: What was the main thing for you in this story?

SE: The incredible courage of these three doctors. They knew they were risking their lives. And not only their own – the lives of their families, medical staff and Jewish “patients”. There is a famous story about how the Nazis shot ten Italian mothers on the Tiber for stealing flour for their starving children. Cases of Nazi brutality in Italy and throughout Europe are numerous and well documented.

O.S.: What's more amazing is that out of the many people involved in this grand deception, fortunately, not a single informant, traitor was found.

SE: We have not found a single document, not a single direct or indirect evidence in this regard. It is known that death was threatened for harboring Jews. The Germans encouraged informers and cash prizes. But the doctors and staff of the hospital showed the best human qualities.

O.S.: How important is it today to remember the Holocaust?

S. E.: When we first started filming our film, an article came out that the new generation actually knew nothing about the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of six million Jews. It literally pushed me. I'm sure the fake virus story is going to grab attention. It is from such special cases as ours or as the story of the industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved more than a thousand Polish Jews, that the panorama of the Holocaust is formed, in which there were also such individual manifestations of heroism and nobility. If our film makes anyone learn more about the Holocaust, I consider my mission accomplished.

OS:How has working on such incredible material affected you as a person?

SE: This work was a turning point in my life. Sign of fate? Yes, probably. There is something deeply symbolic and even ironic in the fact that I made a film about a fake epidemic in the midst of a real pandemic. In April 2018, when we interviewed eyewitnesses, I had no idea what was waiting for us. We finished filming and the covid-19 pandemic hit. I began to think: what is the chance of making a film about a fake virus in the midst of a real virus? This is fate, providence. And the most effective pitch in Hollywood history: The Three Doctors invented a fake illness to fool the SS. What could be simpler and more entertaining!

How Roman doctors saved Jews during the Holocaust

Members of the family rescued by Dr. Borromeo. Photo: JTA-“Syndrome K”-Freestyle Digital Media

О.С.: You acted in this project both as a director and as a composer. Is it harder than doing one thing? And be your own judge?

SE: Absolutely! Greg Hunter helped me a lot. He was by my side all the time, including when we were making music. And I asked him to tell me honestly if he didn't like something. Like: there is too much here, but here it is too slow, and in another place it is too intense. And don't pity me, don't be shy. Greg himself is a musician, and he had no problems verbalizing claims, for which I am eternally grateful to him. I always need someone from the outside who will honestly tell me their opinion to my face.

OS: I read somewhere that a feature film is being prepared about “ Syndrome K.

SE: Yes, work has begun on a playable version of this story. The producers have already found a director for the project, he is Italian, but so far I cannot name him or give details.