Fatebenefratelli Hospital

Syndrome K: Ray Liotta Narrates Stephen Edwards’ Documentary About Three Doctors Whose Manufactured “Fatal Disease” Saved Jewish Lives

The best voice-over in film history is Ray Liotta’s 16-minute opening to Goodfellas. Understated, earnest, almost reassuring, it entices the viewer into a world of brute force, bloodshed and butchery. 

So it was a no-brainer that Liotta, who passed away earlier this year, would be the first choice as the narrator for Stephen Edwards’ Holocaust documentary about the derring-do of three Italian doctors who saved Jewish lives by hoodwinking the Nazis about a completely made-up highly infectious disease, “Syndrome K.”

Edwards knew Liotta personally through their daughters who attended the same school. He pitched the idea to the actor and “two weeks later he’s in my studio.”

Liotta, pro that he was, navigated with ease through tongue-twisting Italian names and places, finishing the job in three hours. “He walked in, and it’s not an easy gig: It’s Fatebenefratelli Hospital, Adriano Ossicini, Giovanni Borromeo, Vittorio Sacerdoti, all the Roman names, plus all the German names, all this vocabulary,” Edwards said. “And he was such a fun guy to work with, super-funny, top-level pro, profane, lots of F-bombs, we were just laughing, we were having a ball… we were just so sorry to lose the guy.” 

Syndrome K is set in late 1943. After the fall of Mussolini, Nazi troops rushed in to occupy Rome. On October 16, the mass deportation of Roman Jews to concentration camps began. Pope Pius XII—not only the spiritual head of the Catholic Church but also the temporal leader of Vatican City, a sovereign state within the Rome city limits—took no action, lodged no protest, remained silent.

In the shadow of the Vatican, however, Fatebenefratelli Hospital began admitting fleeing Jews as patients. Three doctors—Giovanni Borromeo, Adriano Ossicini and a Jewish doctor working undercover as a Catholic, Vittorio Sacerdoti—concocted an elaborate ruse: a virulent highly contagious and incurable disease, “Syndrome K” (the “K” serving as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Nazi General Army’s Chief for Italy, Kesselring, as well as the SS Colonel of Rome, Kapler). The three put together realistic lab charts, records, case histories and other important and official-looking evidence of this “very aggressive and neurologically degenerative” disease. “Patients” in the K ward were instructed to say nothing but cough loudly when Nazi inspectors arrived. The end result was that, as the doctors described it, SS agents ran in fear while the Nazi doctor summoned to verify the cases was “completely in terror.”

The hospital also served as a radio relay point for vital transmissions to the Allies. With SS officials regularly frequenting the halls and offices and making surprise searches there were a number of close calls, but neither the radio transmitters nor the fake patients were ever found out.

When the Allies arrived nine months later, 80% of the Jewish population of Rome had been saved, not only through the ingenuity and daring of the doctors at Fatebenefratelli, but also through the generosity and courage of the Catholic community of Rome who did not wait for the Pope’s approval to save their fellow human beings. All told 4,500 Roman Jews went into hiding when the Nazis arrived. They hid in convents, churches, monasteries and other Vatican properties, and nearly all of them survived.

Director Stephen Edwards was amazed that the story had never been told and attributes it to the very real possibility that those responsible kept it in an undertone from history as a precaution from any future reprisal.

The last surviving doctor of the three, Dr. Adriano Ossicini, bears witness in the movie, telling his story. “Life is beautiful if you live life with honesty and bravery. Those are fundamental values. Bravery always wins.”

And for Ray Liotta, who did not survive to see his final voice-over make it to the big screen, the opportunity to tell a true story where real-life bloodshed and butchery meet their match in kindness and bravery must have been a delicious closure from the fictionalized brutality he narrated so long ago.