Trial of SS officer in Italy awakens painful memories

ROME — Former SS Capt. Erich Priebke goes before a Rome military court May 8 to face charges of involvement in Italy's worst Nazi atrocity, the massacre of 335 civilian men and boys in the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome.

As the trial date approaches — it opens on the 51st anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe — the case is opening old wounds and stirring new controversy as painful historical events come under scrutiny.

Older Romans have clear memories of the massacre; the Ardeatine Caves themselves have been turned into a national shrine to victims of fascism.

The Priebke trial is expected to be one of the last of its kind, given the advanced age of victims and perpetrators alike.

The Ardeatine Caves massacre was ordered by the Nazi command March 24, 1944, in retaliation for an attack by Italian partisans that killed 33 German soldiers the day before.

About 75 of the massacre victims were Jewish.

The 83-year-old Priebke, who was extradited to Italy from Argentina last year, has admitted to drawing up a list of victims, checking it off at the caves and personally shooting two people.

His defense is that he was just following orders and had no choice in the matter. He also told a preliminary hearing that the killings were a legitimate reprisal.

The Priebke trial is taking place at a time when revisionism and Holocaust denial are gaining ground in some places, and when the anti-fascist taboos that for decades formed the bedrock of Italy's postwar system are crumbling.

Many, therefore, hope that the trial can serve as what Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called "a real-time history lesson."

"This is an invaluable opportunity to shed light on the past," said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. "The last, probably."

Priebke's trial "will serve to let the younger generations know what happened," Zevi added. "And it is an opportunity that is even more precious in this moment when the winds of historical revisionism and even Holocaust denial are blowing."

But it will not be an easy lesson.

"The events which led up to the Ardeatine Caves massacre and which are to be replayed in great detail at Priebke's trial are sure to embarrass and/or shame a whole range of people," Cooper said.

Already, there have been several instances of right-wing skinhead groups putting up posters or making other gestures in support of Priebke. Newspapers have carried reports of threats and anonymous phone calls received by potential witnesses.

Jews made up less than a quarter of the Ardeatine Caves victims, but the attitude of Roman Jews toward the case has received particular attention in the media — to the concern of some observers.

"It was a collective Italian tragedy, not a [specifically] Jewish tragedy," Zevi said.

In mid-April, three weeks before the opening of the trial, a controversy erupted revealing the deep emotions involved in the case.

Rome's chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, suggested to a television interviewer that if convicted, Priebke should serve out his sentence under house arrest, rather than in jail.

"We await a sentence that carries out justice," Toaff, himself 82, said. "But we don't want to act pitilessly toward a man in his 80s.

"He doesn't deserve freedom, [but] house arrest would be better than prison."

Toaff's words sparked an unprecedented protest among members of Rome's 15,000-strong Jewish community.

About 30 Jews demonstrated outside Toaff's apartment, bearing placards reading "Toaff Doesn't Represent Me," "Toaff is Not the Jews of Rome" and "Priebke is a Butcher; He Doesn't Deserve Pardon."

"Rabbi Toaff expressed his personal opinion," Zevi said. "But we have to take care when making statements that could sound like an invitation to clemency or agreement with an acquittal."

The controversy made headlines in virtually all Italian newspapers, at least one of which dedicated an entire page to the affair.

Complicating the matter — and demonstrating how anti-fascist taboos have become watered down — one of Italy's most prominent commentators defended Priebke and chastised Roman Jews for their protest against Toaff.

The writer, 87-year-old Indro Montanelli, published a letter he wrote to Priebke stating that following orders did not make him a criminal.

"Certainly, you could have chosen not to follow orders, and thus in practice commit suicide," Montanelli wrote.

"This would have made a martyr of you. Instead, you carried out the order. But this does not make a criminal of you."

And in a patronizing front-page editorial in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, he told Roman Jews they were "losing, with the Priebke case, a splendid opportunity to give not just Italians, but the entire world" a lesson "in equilibrium, wisdom and above all, a spirit of justice that has nothing to do with vendettas on usual scapegoats."

But the "counterattack" against Italian Jews "who were not the majority of the victims, is not surprising," said Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"The attempt here is a blatant one to call on long-standing anti-Semitic stereotypes," that Jews want "vengeance, not justice."

"Unfortunately," Cooper added, "Rabbi Toaff's words open the floodgates for anti-Semites and anti-Semitic attitudes to use the Priebke trial to turn on the victims and the Jewish community."