Holocaust – massacre at Rome

Forgive and forget is generally a  beautiful rule to live by, but not when it  comes to going easy on convicted war  criminals. During the past few weeks,  Jews and Italians were up in arms when  the Nazi Erich Priebke tried, as usual,  to escape responsibility for his old  war crimes. As usual, he had plenty of  supporters preaching that it is time to let  bygones be bygones and ignore crimes  of the distant past – so long as the victims  of these crimes are other people and not  themselves. The argument goes that it  is “uncivilized” to punish an old man,  perhaps the oldest jailed Nazi in the  world, for crimes that he committed over  sixty years ago.

As for Priebke himself, after turning  the matter over in his mind for sixty-three  years, he still can’t understand  what all the fuss is about. What was  so terrible about participating in Italy’s  greatest massacre of Jews during World  War II? Indeed, it is this conviction of  innocence that landed him behind bars  after living for five decades as a respected  Argentinean citizen under his real name.  He was confident that everyone shared  his views. 

Priebke almost got away with murder  as most of his crimes are unverifiable in  court.

Born in Germany in 5673/1913,  Priebke was twenty years old when  he joined the SS in 5693/1933, raising  himself from the humdrum life of hotel  management to the exciting goal of  helping Germany trample over Europe.  Thanks to his expertise in various  languages, he spent a few years traveling  around Europe in company with Hitler,  Goering and Mussolini as a liaison  officer and translator. One of his fondest  memories is accompanying Mussolini to  meet Hitler in the summer of 5701/1941  when it seemed that German soldiers  would soon march into Moscow.

Later he was sent to Rome to act  as liaison with the Italian police and  the Vatican. To him and many other  Germans, being an ardent Nazi and  devout Catholic at one and the same  time was no contradiction.

“We are deeply religious,” he once  said of himself and his wife. “In [5702]  1942 we were granted a private audience  with Pope Pius XII.”

The good times came to an end in  July 5703/1943. Sick and tired of the  war, the Italians locked Mussolini up  in a mountaintop hotel and made peace  with the Allies. Tragically, this was a  death knell for about 7,000 of Italy’s  tiny community of 48,000 Jews who  constituted only about a thousandth of  the general populace. The Italians did  not share the Nazis’ rabid anti-Semitism  and had not mounted any extermination  campaigns until now; Jews were even  fleeing into Italy from the rest of Europe  to find a place of refuge. Then, however,  the infuriated Nazis, who had seized  Northern Italy all the way from the Alps  down to Rome, proceeded to incarcerate  Jews in concentration camps and ship  some of them off to Auschwitz.

In September, the Rome Gestapo  chief, Herbert Kappler, was ordered  to deport Rome’s 7,000 Jews. As he  recounted in the Eichman trial, “I  remember particularly a telegram signed  by Himmler in which the need was  stressed to solve the Jewish question also  in the city of Rome.” Kappler sniffed out  2,100 Jews and sent them to their deaths.  Although Priebke was Kappler’s deputy  at the time, no witnesses or documents  definitively proved his complicity in this  crime.

In addition, Priebke almost certainly  helped torture prisoners in the Gestapo  headquarters near the German embassy.  Once again, lack of witnesses or  paperwork meant that he would have  gone free despite his crimes. By this  time, months of criminal activity under  Nazi auspices gave him confidence that  every atrocity was permitted so long as it  had his superiors’ imprimatur. This was  his downfall.

On the 23rd of March, 5704/1944 a  group of Communist partisans threw a  bomb at a column of German soldiers  in Rome killing 33 of them; Hitler  promptly sent orders that “for every  German soldier, ten Italians had to die.”  It was Priebke’s job to find 330 victims.  As he told interrogators after the war, he  combed the Gestapo records and came  up short: “The whole of that night we  searched the records and could not find  sufficient persons to make up the number  required.”

To fill up the quota the Germans  seized 73 Jews, ranging in age from 14  to 75 years old, making this what would  be the largest single massacre of Jews  in Italy during the war. Finding that the  quota was still short, the Nazis seized  50 regular prisoners from Rome’s jails.  Priebke then accompanied the group  to the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome.

These were actually not caves at all  but ancient burial caves, or catacombs,  carved out of rock by early Christians.  Apparently bored by ticking victims’  names off his list the whole day long,

Priebke livened things up a little by  executing two victims himself.  Discovering that they had rounded  up five prisoners too many in their  vicious manhunt, the cruel executioners  decided that the extras may as well share  the others’ fate. The caves have since  been turned into a national monument to  German brutality. 

After the war, Priebke found himself  penned in a British prisoner camp at  Rimini together with 220,000 German  soldiers. On New Years night when the  guards were inebriated, he and four other  prisoners cut their way through the wire  and escaped. The Vatican generously  supplied him with a fake identification  document which helped him get a Red  Cross passport the same day.

The chief purveyor of these items  was Bishop Alois Hudal, a Vatican Nazi  sympathizer who helped many war  criminals escape after the war, boasting  afterwards, “I thank G-d that he opened  my eyes and granted me the unmerited  grace of being able to visit and comfort  many victims in their prisons and  concentration camps in the postwar  period and to snatch not a few of them  from the hands of their torturers, aiding  their escape to happier countries with  false identity papers. I felt duty bound  after 1945 to devote my whole charitable  work mainly to former National Socialists and Fascists, especially the so-called  ‘war criminals.’” (From his book  Roman Diary)  Hudal was part of the well oiled  “Organization Der Ehemaligen SSAngehörigen”  (Organization of Former  SS Members), better known after its  initials, ODESSA, that helped thousands  of Nazis flee from Europe to South  America. Interestingly, the organization  arranged Argentinean landing permits  for Priebke and Josef Mengele on exactly  the same day. Their file numbers are  consecutive – 211712/48 and 211713/48.

In Argentina, Priebke picked up the  threads of his pre-Nazi life, working in  hotels and restaurants until opening his  own delicatessen.

In 5719/1949, the pro-Nazi  Argentinean president, Juan Peron,  granted a general amnesty to anyone  who had arrived in Argentina illegally,  and Priebke changed his fake name, Otto  Pape, back to his real name. As he told  Italian newsmen in 5756/1996, “I always  lived under my real name without hiding  it from anyone. If they wished to arrest  me they could have done so all along.”

For the next half century Priebke  lived prosperously in the beautiful ski  resort of Bariloche, never denying his  part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre.  After all, no one there seemed to care.  As he described it, “Nobody since I’ve  been here has ever said a word about  politics. It’s completely taboo and that’s  how our people behave.”

This idyllic state of affairs continued  until 5754/1994 when a group of  American newsmen suddenly accosted  Priebke in the street. They had arrived  in Argentina to interview another war  criminal, Reinhold Kops, and to get rid  of them Kops had told them to go after  Priebke instead.

As usual, Priebke saw no reason  to deny anything. “That kind of thing  happened you know,” he told the  Americans. “At that time an order was  an order, young man, you see?”

This time Priebke had grossly  miscalculated. His blatant confession  was viewed all over the US, and  hundreds of thousands of Americans  were less forgiving than the complacent  Argentineans. His foolish revelation  stirred up an international ruckus that  ended up with Priebke’s deportation to  Italy where he went through a series of  spectacular ups and downs.

One court freed him on the grounds  that his case had expired, sparking off  a seven hour demonstration outside the  courthouse. Other judges ruled that the  statute of limitations does not apply to  crimes against humanity. Yet another trial  let him off the hook on the basis of the  well worn excuse that he was following  orders even though this sort of rationale  had been roundly rejected during the  Nuremberg and Eichman trials. A third  trial sentenced Priebke to fifteen years  in prison cut down to about two or three  years for various technical reasons.

At this juncture, Priebke made  a second giant mistake. Foolishly  considering even this tiny slap on his  wrist as a travesty of justice, Priebke  appealed. This rebounded against him  when an appeals court sentenced him to  life in March 5758/1998.

Priebke’s latest tactic to escape  justice was this June 12th when he  attempted to work out of home, utilizing  a loophole which permits prisoners to  hold jobs after a few years of house  arrest. Although this mouse hole has  been temporarily blocked, there is little  doubt that this latest attempt is by no  means the last break for freedom of a  wily criminal who regards himself as  totally innocent and even claims to have  never hated Jews.

As he argued in the course of his  trials, “I was never an anti-Semite! I  grew up in Berlin where I had Jewish  friends and my wife’s best friend was  Jewish.”

To the bitter end, Priebke considers  himself the victim of a global judicial  system gone awry ever since the “false  trials,” as he calls them, of Nuremberg  and Tokyo.

(Main source: Goni, Uki. The Real  Odessa. London: Granta Publications,  2002.)

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