Tag Archives: World War II

The Fosse Ardeatine, Rome

The Fosse Ardeatine

Courtyard of the Fosse Ardeatine, Rome

As a matter of principle, we try to write travel blogs that focus on the positive and upbeat. However, every once in a while during your travels, you come across something so compelling, it forces you to examine it and write about it, even if is tragic. Such is the case regarding our visit to the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome.

While there are certainly those who want to change facts to suit their narrative, those who do
not learn from history are not only destined to repeat it, they are fools. The thought crosses my mind as we enter the heavy, intricate, iron gate into the Fosse Ardeatine National Monument and Mausoleum. Few tourists even know that it is there, but for Italians, it is a national memorial.

Located across from the back entrance of the Catacombs of Callisto, off the Appia Antica, these limestone caves are the site of unspeakable horror. This is where Nazi troops carried out the mass execution of 335 Italians, before blowing up the entrance to hide their crimes. It was Rome’s worst atrocity of World War II.

Entrance gate and Statue at the Fosse Ardeatine

Gate to the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial Mausoleum

The Facts

The tragedy started on the 25th anniversary of the founding of Fascism by Benito Mussolini (March 23, 1944). That morning, a heavily armed column of the Police Regiment Bozen (from South Tyrol) marched back to their barracks near Via Rasella (across from the Palazzo Barberini). As they reached the midpoint of the road, Partisans (members of the Patriotic Action Group (GAP)) detonated a bomb hidden in a garbage cart, killing 42 police officers and a number of civilian bystanders. After the attack, the Partisans disappeared into the crowd.

German reaction was swift. Initially, Hitler wanted to destroy Rome completely as punishment. Instead, he was persuaded by his officers on the ground (SS Lt Col Herbert Kappler, Commander of the security police, and Lt. Gen Kurt Malzer, Commander of the Wehrmacht) to round up 10 Italian civilians for every German casualty. The plan to execute 330 men was approved by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South.

The next day (March 24, 1944), SS Captains Erick Priebke and Karl Hass selected a number of victims from prisoners who had already been sentenced to death and who were being held at Gestapo Headquarters on Via Tasso. When there were not enough men to fill the required quota, the two officers selected prisoners who had been imprisoned in Rome’s Regina Coeli jail for political activity. Fifty-seven Jewish prisoners were amongst this group. Finally, civilians were arbitrarily rounded up from the streets of Rome. Amongst these were a 70-year old man and a 15-year old boy who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine sending your son out to buy a loaf of bread and never seeing him again or knowing what had happened to him!

The victims, whose hands were tied behind their backs, were driven to the Fosse Ardeatine, a series of caves in an abandoned quarry near the Via Appia Antica, unloaded from trucks and marched to the back of the caves. German soldiers were instructed to shoot each in the head at close range, five at a time, as they knelt on the ground. In the process, the Nazis realized that they actually had 335 hostages, five more than required. The officers decided that they couldn’t free the extra five for security reasons. They also were executed.

Statue in front of the Fosse Ardeatine

Statue of Bound Hostages, Fosse Ardeatine

When it was over, the Nazis dynamited the entrance to the cave to hide their crime. A farmer in the area witnessed what had happened, but it took until the Allies liberated Rome in June 1945 before the bodies could be exhumed and identified.

THE MEMORIAL

As you enter the gate of the Fosse Ardeatine, you walk past a statue depicting two victims, bound together, before they were murdered. It casts a long shadow across the courtyard in the beautiful, blue-sky morning. The immaculately-kept, tree-shaded,  garden is very quiet. Only the sounds of the chirping birds disturb the silence.

Ahead of you, the main entrance of the cave leads you down a tunnel to the back where the massacre took place. As you walk further into the dimly lit cavern, the cold air makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. It is as if the ghosts of the victims are still lingering in this place of indescribable evil, terror, and grief.

It is difficult to remain for very long; even after over 70 years, the feelings are too overwhelming. As you exit to the right, a pathway takes you to an enormous cavern-like room, under a massive concrete slab, where the tombs of the victims are lined up in rows, many with photos attached. Single flowers are strewn on the top, bouquets fill the space at the bottom. The names are listed on a wall. Nearby, a small museum contains some photos and artwork, as well as information about the victims.

THE PERPETRATORS

With such an egregious crime against humanity (not to speak of the other crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in Italy), you would think that the officers responsible would be punished after the end of the War. Although most of them were tried, some in Nuremberg, sadly, this was far from the case.

Melzer served a few years in prison; Kesselring was sentenced to death but was then pardoned; Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment but was smuggled out of Italy by his wife. Pribke spent five months in prison before escaping to Argentina where he lived until he was exposed in an interview with Sam Donaldson of ABC News; he was extradited to Italy in 1995 where he received a life sentence that he served under house arrest until his death a few years ago.

A concrete slab over the tombs of the victims, Fosse Ardeatine

Row of tombs, Fosse Ardeatine

AND NOW?

It is an intensely emotional visit. In addition to the sadness, you feel incredible anger at the inhumanity of humans towards each other. You wonder how it was possible for the evils of Fascism and Nazism to swallow Europe unchecked while good people sat and watched and said, “it will be ok in the end, we shouldn’t get involved. Just wait. It will pass.”

And yet…. History repeats itself over and over. When will we finally learn to say “Never again” and mean it? What are the lessons from this tragedy at the Fosse Ardeatine that should make us all take pause, in 2017, and reflect on what is happening around us? Finally, will a few good men and women stand up and say “NO!” We will not let this happen again? Will you? The future of our children and grandchildren depends on it.

IF YOU GO

The National Memorial of the Ardeatine Caves is at Via Ardeatina 174.

The site is open every day, except major holidays, Monday to Friday 0815-1515, 16:30 Saturday and Sunday. Bus 218 towards Zanetta stops near the site but a taxi is faster.

There is an English language information sheet available in the guard house near the entrance; however, the descriptions in the Museum are all in Italian so an interpreter helps.

If you would like to learn more about the events at the Fosse Ardeatine, visit www.primolevicenter.org/printed-matter/the-fosse-ardeatine. Primo Michele Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust Survivor (1919-1987).

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Facade of bunker entrance

Stalin’s Wartime Bunker under the Streets of Moscow

The entrance to Stalin's Underground Bunker, Moscow

The entrance to Stalin’s Underground Bunker, Moscow

Saint Basil’s Cathedral . . . the Kremlin . . . onion-domed churches . . . much has been written about the iconic sites of Moscow. However, there are many other historical sites worth visiting such as Stalin’s Wartime Bunker beneath the streets of Moscow. Buried deep under 13 feet of concrete in a nondescript area of the city, Stalin’s alternative command bunker is a Branch of the Central Museum of the Armed Forces and, during World War II, was part of the Russian defensive system.

Entrance way to the Sessions Room, Stalin's Bunker, Moscow

Entrance way to the Sessions Room, Stalin’s Bunker, Moscow

Concerned that the German forces would advance all the way to Moscow, Stalin decided that an alternative command center should be built in the eastern part of the city, near three airbases, that would permit him to manage the war effort as well as move to Samara, should this become necessary.

Under cover of construction of an enormous 120,000-seat sports stadium, the underground structure was built. It included a second subway line that enabled Stalin to travel the 10 miles from his Kremlin office, driving along the tracks. Stalin is said to have visited the command  center only twice, in 1940 and 1942. Ironically, once the bunker was completed, work on the stadium ceased, leaving it half finished.

At the bottom of the ramp, tanks sit on either side of a small door that leads underground beneath the stadium. A long marbled corridor leads you deep into the heart of the complex. Mannequins dressed in various uniforms of the armed forces stand interspersed amongst the columns.

 

Stalin's desk in the bunker, Moscow

Stalin’s desk in the bunker, Moscow

At the center is a large rotunda known as the Session Hall of the Supreme Commander. Tables encircle the room that has an ingenious acoustic system. Stand in the middle of the rotunda and whisper and your voice carries across the room. Stalin apparently liked to speak softly, and this system ensured that his colleagues would be able to hear him. It also meant that he could hear their sottovoce conversations — there were no secrets here. A large map of the war provided up-to-date information on military actions. The bunker which had space to house 2,000 people as well as 150 tanks, contains over 24 rooms, although we were only allowed to see two in addition to the Session Hall.

A small set of steps on the left as you enter lead to Stalin’s office, containing replicas of the original furnishings: a red sofa along one side of the wall, an armchair, a bookcase, and a desk. On the desk are three black Bakelite telephones, presumably used by Stalin to issue orders to his commanders, and a small green-shaded lamp. There is also an ashtray holding a pipe. Behind the desk is another map with arrows indicating the German advance and other arrows indicating how they were being pushed back. On another wall, there is a photo of Stalin playing billiards in the Kremlin with General Zhukov. In one corner of the room, stands a “war game” table, a gift from the Government of Poland, with battalions of tanks and soldiers placed around it.

Copy of Order of Victory in Stalin's Bunker, Moscow

Copy of Order of Victory in Stalin’s Bunker, Moscow

Across the Session Hall from the Office is the Dining Room. The Georgian style decorations reflect Stalin’s background. Display cases line the walls, filled with relevant military memorabilia such as uniforms, binoculars, etc. In one case a copy of the “Order of Victory” gleams under the floodlights. It was the highest military decoration in the  Soviet Union, made of platinum and decorated with rubies. In addition to Russian generals who received it,  a number of foreign military leaders including Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery were awarded the decoration.

If you are interested in the history of World War II, as with Churchill’s War Rooms in London, a visit to Stalin’s bunker provides a fascinating alternative place to visit.

IF YOU GO
The bunker is located near Izmailovo Park at 80 Str Sovietskaya 105122, Moscow; (tel +7499-166-5596.) You can only visit with a tour group so ask your concierge to contact a company that organizes trips to the complex. The entry fee is quite steep ($130 when we visited). It is open year round from Wednesday to Sunday, 1000 to 1700. Photography permits are required and may be purchased on site.

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The National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

Mention the word D-Day and you evoke images of the Beaches of Normandy and white marble crosses marching across the landscape in silent, precise rows, marking the sacrifice of those who lost their lives on the sands on France. You wouldn’t normally equate a town in the lush Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with the largest air, sea and land operation in history. However, more than any other town in America, Bedford suffered the greatest losses amongst the servicemen who perished on 6 June 1944. It was to honor this sacrifice by the people of Bedford that Congress established the National D-Day Memorial her, as a National Monument.

General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord

General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord

Like so many towns and cities across America, Bedford  (population 3,500 in 1944) provided a company of soldiers (Company A) to the 29th Infantry Division when the National Guard was activated in 1941. Nineteen of the “Bedford Boys” died on D-Day, proportionally the highest per capita loss of life for any one town.

The memorial is actually the brainchild of Robert “Bob” Slaughter, a native of Roanoke, Virginia who was in the third wave of troops to hit Omaha beach on 6 June and experienced it firsthand. It is his perseverance and determination that have made this Memorial a reality.

After checking in at the Bedford Area Welcome Center (where tickets to the site are sold), you drive up a meandering road to the top of the hill. The Memorial is laid out in such a way as to chronologically illustrate the planning and execution of the Operation, codenamed “Overlord.” Even though you can enter the site at any one of several locations, drive around to the north of the Memorial where the bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits at the end of the path. From here you can walk the site, following the sequence of events as they unfolded.

The Richard S. Reynolds garden is a beautiful formal English garden which establishes England as the starting point for the Operation. At the farthest end sits a white rotunda with a statue of General Dwight D Eisenhower (the Supreme Commander), facing towards Normandy. Over his head a mosaic copied from the Operations Center at Southwich House, Portsmouth, where much of the battle planning took place, lays out the map of the operation. Busts of Eisenhower’s senior subordinates, including Field Marshall Montgomery, General Omar Bradley and others, line the sides of the formal garden (constructed in the shape of the uniform patch of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force), their steely gazes looking into the distance.

Symbolically landing on the beaches

Symbolically landing on the beaches

As you walk up the stairway to Elmon T. Gray Plaza, a grey concrete space opens up before you, symbolizing the waves of the ocean. Four stripes lead to the center of the beach tableau. The five areas created by these stripes symbolize the five D-Day landing beaches. The day we visit it is grey and rainy, the wet concrete accentuating the bleakness of the realistic tableau and its meaning. The center of the plaza is a curved reflecting pool representing the English Channel and the landing beaches. A tableau opens before you. The Sculpture of a Higgins landing craft is unloading soldiers who slog through the water carrying their gear and rifles over their heads; fountains continuously shoot noisy bursts of water that sound like staccato machine gun fir exploding around the men.

The statues of the soldiers are in various stances. One is trudging through the water between obstacles (symbolizing those erected by the Germans to scuttle the landing craft); another is helping his wounded comrade up the beach while a third lies lifeless on the sand. All around Gray Plaza are Bronze Tablets decorated with the flags of the nations participating in Operation Overlord, together with the names of those who lost their lives. The Western Wall lists US servicemen while the eastern wall focuses on the names of servicemen of other nationalities.

Scaling the wall

Scaling the wall

Above the landing tableau,  sculptures of soldiers scale the casement and bunkers that were on the beaches, their faces etched in pain as they struggle to keep hold of the rope. Symbolically, they reach for the triumphal Art Deco arch above them, embossed with the word “Overlord.” The Arch (in Estes Plaza) reminds you of those seen in Europe. It is 44′ 6″ high, symbolic of the date of the operation, 1944, June. On the top of the Arch are the  markings that identified Allied Aircraft. The names of the five beaches used in the invasion are inscribed on the granite surrounding the Arch.

Along the southern flak of Estes Plaza fly the flags of the 12 countries that took part in operation Overlord. Beneath them, peeking out of a grassy bed, lined with flags left by visitors, is a sculpture of a soldier advancing with his weapon at the ready entitled, “Valor, Fidelity and Sacrifice.” Some feet away, in the Edward R. Stettinius Jr Parade, stands a replica of “Le Monument Aux Morts,” created by sculptor Edmond de Laheurdie in 1921 as a memory to the 44 men from Trévières, France who died in World War I. The sculpture, Victory, holding a sword, was damaged during the operation. When it was recast for the D-Day memorial, the damage was symbolically preserved.

Le Monument Aux Morts

Le Monument Aux Morts

Speaking after the war, General Omar Bradley said, “I have returned many times (to Normandy) to honor the valiant men who dies — every man who set foot on Omaha Beach was a hero.” The poignancy and emotion of the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia are a sobering lesson about war and sacrifice.

IF YOU GO
The D-Day Memorial is located at 3 Overlord Circle, Bedford, VA (Tel 540-58603329, www.dday.org). It is open daily 1000 to 1700 but check the website to be sure. The Memorial pool is drained of water and maintained during the winter so the best time to visit is March through November.