This has been an interesting week for buffs of World War II era Italian history. I am one such buff. First, Erich Priebke — finally! — died at the age of 100. Priebke was one of the two guys who led the massacre at Fosse Ardeatina on 24 March 1944. You can read all about that here, but in brief the story goes like this. On March 23, a partisan group used a bomb hidden in a dust cart to blow up a bunch of Germans marching down Via Rasella near Piazza Barberini. Forty two soldiers eventually died. In retaliation, the Germans rounded up 335 men and boys, emptying the prisons of Jews (not many Jews were still around by that time as we shall see below) and people on death row and, eventually, including political prisoners and even pulling people off the street. They took the prisoners to the Ardeatine caves — old tufa quarries not far from the Via Appia Antica — and shot them five at a time. There are all sorts of grisly details you can read about at the link above, like the soldiers getting drunk off the liquid courage supplied by the officers and botching many of the kills; there is evidence that a number of prisoners were still alive after the shooting ended and the entrance to the caves had been dynamited shut.
Priebke managed to escape from Italy before he could be tried for his role in the massacre. Bishop Alois Hudal, the main organizer of the Vatican’s involvement in the ratlines, helped Priebke to escape to Argentina, where he lived quite openly for 50 years. In 1994, ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson tracked Priebke down in Bariloche and interviewed him about the events of 24 March. Priebke readily admitted his role in the massacre, showing no remorse and adding the usual, “Orders are orders.” Italy demanded his extradition and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest in Rome where, by all account, he led a fairly normal existence, even going out to shops and restaurants from time to time.
And then he died and nobody wanted his body. Priebke’s wish had been to be returned to Argentina and buried next to his wife. Argentina said no. The Vatican put a ban on holding the funeral at any Catholic church in Rome and his hometown in Germany also refused, fearing that it would become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. A splinter group of Catholic priests called the Society of Pius X offered to hold the funeral at their facility at Albano Laziale outside of Rome. The funeral was stopped by angry protests and the body whisked away to a military airport by Italian authorities. The latest is that Priebke will be buried in a secret location, hopefully bringing this whole sad business to a close.
October 16 fell right in the middle of all of this Priebke stuff, oddly enough. This was the day — 70 years ago this year — that the Jews were rounded up in Rome and sent to concentration camps. October 16 is also, by the way, World Food Day and my friend Joanne’s birthday (Hi Joey!). There would be other deportations, but this was by far the largest: 1022 people (including 200 children) were taken from their homes at daybreak and loaded onto trains bound for Birkenau and Dachau. Only 16 came back. I’ve written about this before and I don’t want to repeat myself but I did want to share a couple of thoughts. By the way, Priebke was involved in the round-up of Jews and also used to torture people at the SS headquarters on Via Tasso.
According to Susan Zuccotti’s fascinating book, The Italians and the Holocaust, about 85 percent of the 45 200 Jews in Italy during the German occupation survived the war, one of the highest survival rates in Europe. Given how buddy-buddy Il Duce and Der Fuhrer were for a while, this seems surprising. Or at least it surprised me. There are a number of possible explanations. Fascist Italy didn’t become officially anti-Semitic until 1938 and it wasn’t until the German occupation in 1943 that the Holocaust really began here. Round-ups had started much earlier in other European countries. And previously, there was no serious anti-Semitic traditions in the country. Jews were thoroughly assimilated, having lived in Italy since 70 AD. Another factor may have been the Italian character which, let’s face it, is not very interested in submitting to the will of others. Jewish Italians, like their non-Jewish fellow citizens, were resourceful and determined to survive. Many non-Jewish Italians were anti-German and willing to help their Jewish neighbours.
There is an exhibit on at the Vittoriano about the events of 16 October 1943. It’s really worth seeing. It puts a very human face on what happened all of those years ago. There are photos and stories about many of the people sent off that day, practically none of whom returned. The women and children were usually sent to the gas chambers immediately upon disembarking.
I found this sheet of paper — handed to every Jewish family — to be very chilling. It says:
I). Together with your family and the other Jews living in your house, you are being transferred.
2). You need to bring with you: a). food for at least 8 days; b). ration cards; c). identity cards; d). drinking glasses.
3). You can bring with you: a). a small suitcase with personal effects and linens; b). money and jewelry.
4). Lock the apartment with a key
5). Sick people — even gravely ill — cannot be left behind for any reason. There is an infirmary at the camp.
6). Twenty minutes after receiving this note, the family must be ready to depart.
The exhibit at the Vittoriano Complex is called 16 Ottobre 1943: La razzia degli ebrei di Roma. It runs until 30 November.