Doctors take an oath to save lives. Sometimes that means making some hard decisions. For a group of doctors at a Catholic hospital in Rome in 1943, those decisions were very hard. It could have cost them their lives. Instead they infected a number of local Jews with a disease. That may sound inhumane, but it was really a way of saving their lives. Syndrome K, a new documentary from Stephen Edwards.
When Germans occupied Rome in 1943, they began the roundup of local Jews to send to extermination camps. This film tells the story of three doctors at Catholic-run Fatebenefratelli Hospital that invented a disease that was very contagious, very dangerous, and very fictional. When Germans came to inspect the hospital, the fear of contracting the disease kept them out of the Syndrome K ward.
The brief documentary gives some brief historical context for the events, but relies mostly on interviews with two of the doctors and the son of one of the doctors who took part in this extraordinary rescue, as well as some of those who survived because of Syndrome K.
The film also brings in some of the context of the Catholic Church in Rome. Vatican City is the smallest independent country in the world. During the war it maintained neutrality, in large part out of fear. Pius XII is the center of great controversies over whether he did enough to try to prevent the Holocaust or if he was involved in trying to save Jews. Certainly, the monasteries and convents of Rome were a refuge for many hidden Jews. Could it have been so without Vatican support. The film includes a identification card signed by Giovanni Battista Montini, who was one of the pope’s closest advisors. (The film doesn’t mention that he later became Pope Paul VI.)
The doctors at Fatebenefratelli took seriously their oaths to save lives. If they had been found out (and they did more than just save Jews) they and their families could have been killed. Instead they chose to do act on behalf of their neighbors. That, of course, is a key teaching of the church.
Syndrome K is available to rent on digital platforms.