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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).