We Remember the Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves!

Dedicated to the Holocaust Education and Documentation Center in Miami, FL.

The Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, 24 March 1944
Research & Writing by Tom W. Glaser
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After Italy replaced Benito Mussolini as prime minister with Marshall Pietro Badoglio on 25 July 1943, Germany quietly prepared to occupy its former ally. It did so on 8 September 1943, the day General Dwight David Eisenhower announced the unilateral capitulation to the Allies. From that day forward, Italy was treated as any other Nazi occupied country, and responded the same way as the other occupied nations - with a combination of collaboration and resistance.

Marshall Pietro Badoglio

Benito Mussolini (Il Duce) with his bodyguard, Captain Birzer

King Victor Emmanuel ordered Mussolini imprisoned and he was spirited away to the Hotel Campo in the Gran Sasso Mountains. After the armistice was announced on 8 September 1943, Adolf Hitler ordered SS-Hauptsturmfurher Otto Skorzeny to rescue Il Duce. The photo above is of Mussolini's liberation on 12 September 1943 as he prepares to fly out in General Kurt Student's personal Feisler Storch, the German equivalent of the American Piper Cub.

Two standards Nazi practices normally operated together in the event of partisan activity - collective responsibility and massive retaliation. This was clearly shown in the destruction of Lidice for the assassination of the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich. While the penalty for the death of a German soldier to guerilla action sometimes ran as high as 100 random civilians, and Hitler initially called for 30, the Germans finally demanded only 10 civilians for execution for each of the 33 SS policemen killed by a partisan bomb in Rome?s Via Rasella on 23 March 1944. (Ironically, the "German" troops were from the recently annexed to the Reich province of South Tyrol - until 1943 a part of Italy.)





The round-up after the attack

Accordingly, SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Herbert Kappler, the head of the Gestapo on Rome, ordered 335 Italian civilians to be executed. On October 16, 1943, known as "Black Saturday," he had ordered the roundup of the Roman Jews. (See that section for more information.) After the war an Italian military court sentenced him to life in prison. He escaped in 1977 but died seven months later. Kappler and Pietro Caruso, the Roman chief of police, were responsible for choosing the victims. (Caruso was executed by the Italians in September, 1944.)

SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) Erik Priebke commanded the executions, assisted by SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Karl Hass. (After the war, Priebke fled to Argentina and was extradited to Italy in 1996, after being exposed by American television. After a first Italian court martial refused to convict him because he was "only following orders" and that the statute of limitations had expired, a second court martial sentenced him to fifteen years in prison, but the sentence was reduced by ten years based on a long-standing amnesty enacted by the Italian government. In actuality, he only served six months. Hass lived in Switzerland before his 1996 trial. Germany requested his extradition. Before the trial he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt by jumping off his second-story hotel balcony. Although he was convicted, his sentence of 10 years and eight months was suspended and he did not serve any jail time.

Priebke in custody in Rome, 1996

Hass after his leap in Rome, 1996

Pietro Caruso hearing his death sentence, along with other Fascists, September, 1944

The execution of Pietro Caruso, September, 1944

Herbert Kappler in Allied custody, 22 November 1946

The 335 prisoners were taken from local prisons, although Hitler had originally wanted the residents of the street to be the victims. As the action was that of the GAP (Gruppi Azione Patriotica), 258 political prisoners were taken, along with 77 Jews who had recently been taken in raids. The Jews were mostly non-political prisoners and were in family groups, as opposed to the Catholics who were chosen. Ironically, about 35 of those Italian Catholics had previously been the objects of the intervention of Pope Pius XII. While this was obviously not a specifically Jewish massacre, 77 out of 335 is a far higher percentage than Jews in the Italian population, which was about 1/10th of 1%. Here they made up more than 20%.

Of those 77, 26 were victims of "The Black Panther," a notorious Nazi informant and collaborator. Her real name was Celeste Di Porto, an eighteen-year-old Jewish girl who was reported to be so beautiful that her parents nicknamed her Stella, or Star. Even though she had lost several relatives in the October roundups, she was directly responsible for the deaths of 50 Jews. The way she denounced them to the Nazis was to greet them effusively in the street. The Gestapo agents who followed her around then picked them up. Indeed, twenty-six-year-old Lazzaro Anticoli, a Roman Jewish prizefighter, hastily wrote a note before he was led to his execution. He had been arrested just that morning, and in that note he wrote, "If I never see my family again, it is the fault of that sellout Celeste Di Porto. Avenge me." Lazzaro's name had been added to the list at the last minute, replacing Celeste Di Porto's brother. (After the war she repented her acts, converted to Catholicism, and was sentenced to twelve years in prison, but only served seven.)

Celeste Di Porto, "La Pantera Nera"

The Caves at Ardea are not really caves but man-made. They are part of the old Christian catacomb structures along the Apian Way in this community just outside Rome.

Entrance to the Ardeatine Caves

The victims lined up to enter the Ardeatine Caves

By noon on the 24th, the trucks arrived at the caves. The men, who ranged from the youngest, 15-year-old Michele Di Veroli, to the oldest, seventy-four-year-old Mose Di Consiglio (both Jews), were led inside in groups of five. They were forced to kneel down and were shot in the back of the neck. Priebke and Hass both admitted to personally shooting at least two of the victims. Towards the end, the victims had to kneel on the growing piles of corpses, which were then hastily buried at the site. Later Italian disinternments revealed the extent of the horror, with some bodies still in the position of execution, hands bound behind their backs.

Following the medical examinations, the bodies were re-interred with honor and the caves have become a national monument to the horrors of the Nazi occupation.

Source of some of the photographs is the archive of The Ghetto Fighters' House Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum, Israel


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