Syndrome K Is Yet Another Inspiring Story About the Holocaust

“Bravery always wins,” Adriano Ossicini, an Italian antifascist and politician, says in the documentary Syndrome K. It’s an inspiring slogan. It’s also a good summary of the message of the film, and of most popular narratives about the Holocaust.

I understand the impetus to try to take away something positive and valuable from one of the bleakest periods in human history. But I mistrust the unwearying enthusiasm with which we seem to want to frame the Holocaust as a story of victory.

Rome Offers Sanctuary

Like the hit film Schindler’s List, and the hit young adult novel Number Our Stars, Syndrome K is about gentiles who stood against the Nazis and chose to protect their Jewish neighbors. Under Mussolini, Italian Jews faced discrimination but not deportation and extermination. That changed after 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies and Hitler invaded the country.

The Nazis ordered a round-up of Jews in the fall of 1943. Many Jewish people sought and were granted sanctuary in Rome’s many monasteries, convents, and churches. They also were granted admission to the Catholic Fatebenefratelli Hospital on an island in the Tiber River.

In the hospital, Catholic doctor Giovanni Borremo admitted Jews as if they were sick. One Jewish refugee, when asked for paperwork reasons to invent an illness, responded that he had “Kesselring syndrome.” Albert Kesserling was the Nazi general in command of German forces in Italy.

Syndrome K Cover 8 scaled
Image Courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media.

Borremo and the other doctors in the hospital picked up the name and began to mark down all Jewish refugees as suffering from “Syndrome K”. They made up symptoms similar to tuberculosis. Syndrome K was (supposedly) deadly and very contagious.

When Nazis investigated the hospital searching for Jews and for radio equipment and subversive literature, the doctors warned them of the dangers of entering the Syndrome K ward. The Nazi soldiers didn’t want to get ill, and didn’t open the doors. This stratagem managed to keep some 20 to 100 refugees safe for months, until the Allies liberated Rome in June 1955.

Inspiring Drama

The documentary includes the usual witnesses and experts as talking heads. But Director Stephen Edwards does his best to add more tension and excitement. The late Ray Liotta provides the narration, and Edwards stages a number of dramatic reenactments. There are brief scenes of Nazis torturing resistors, of Nazis ominously investigating the hospital, of Nazis driving through the streets.

Edwards also uses animation and archival clips and images. Some of these are from Italy and some are very much not. The famous photograph of the boy with hands raised in the Warsaw Ghetto makes an appearance, without any note to let you know that it has little to do with the Italian history being discussed.

The filmmakers want to create a compelling narrative and pull you into the story. That’s understandable. But it’s still off-putting to see them trying to spruce up and Hollywoodize such a somber and painful story.

This isn’t an entertaining narrative, and it’s not really meant to be. Why then drop some central-casting heavies in the middle of it? And if the goal is to help educate people about the past, how do you justify the misleading use of materials? Again, this topic is one where it seems like historical care is more important than visual pizzazz.

No One Won the Holocaust

As Syndrome K discusses, Pope Pius I refused to make a public statement in support of Jewish people. His neutrality towards the Nazi regime has been a blot on the Church’s legacy. In contrast, Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming of the US Holocaust Museum appears in the film to note that some 80% of Roman Jews survived thanks to the support of the Italian people. That’s a remarkable number. Catholic Italians behaved, by and large, more honorably and courageously than the leader of their faith.

But while every person saved is valuable, so is every person who died. If 80% of Roman Jews were saved that still means 20% died. In total, around 10,000 Jewish people were captured in Italy and sent to concentration camps. In comparison to other places during the Holocaust, that is not that bad. In any other context, it is horrific.

Italy and the story of Syndrome K demonstrate just how much people can do when they rally against fascism. In the face of a determined authoritarian regime wielding military power, you can still save many people with a combination of bravery and intelligence. That’s a message that’s worth hearing.

It’s also a message that we get told so often that we sometimes miss other, bleaker ones. Italian Jews had many allies, many places of refuge, and many people committed to their cause. The Allies, the mightiest military force on earth, were actively fighting to save them and break the Nazi hold over their country for the entire term of their occupation. And yet terrifying numbers of Jewish people still died under the Nazis. For them, bravery didn’t win.

Syndrome K wants to tell an uplifting, pulse-pounding story about a triumph for humanity, for Italy, for Catholicism, for Jews. But the Holocaust wasn’t a triumph for anyone. The fascists took over, and large numbers of people died. It’s important to remember that people can make a difference. But I think it’s also important to remember, as we struggle with fascism again, that sometimes you lose, and that those losses are not repairable.

Rating: 5/10 SPECS

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.