ROME – Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Jewish community of Rome, forcefully
praised protests on Wednesday surrounding the funeral plans of a Nazi war
criminal who died in the city five days earlier.
The presidents’ words
caused a shift in focus during ceremonies meant to commemorate the 70th
anniversary of the deportation of more than a thousand Jews from the Italian
The day’s activities were meant to be marked by a brief
appearance by one of the two remaining survivors of the tragic roundup, a visit
to Rome’s main synagogue from Italy’s head of state and a special prayer to mark
the occasion from Pope Francis. But all that was over shadowed by the continuing
controversy over the burial of Erich Priebke, the Nazi war criminal who died in
Rome Friday, aged 100.
Rome’s Great Synagogue was packed for solemn
commemoration ceremonies attended by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Rome
Mayor Ignazio Marino, Israeli Ambassador Naor Gilon, the leadership of local
Jewish communities and Enzo Camerino, aged 85, and one of only two remaining
survivors from the mass deportation on October 16, 1943.
speaker spoke of Priebke, though none said his name. The former SS captain was
convicted of war crimes in 1998 for his part in the killings of 335 Italians –
including at least 70 Jews – in 1944. He had been held under house arrest in
Rome for the last 15 years and after he died Friday churches in the city refused
to host his funeral. Government officials in Rome also refused to hold his
funeral as did Priebke’s adopted home of Argentina and the town of his birth,
Henninsdorf, in Germany.
Late Tuesday, a breakaway Catholic group, the
Catholic Society of St. Pius, best known as SSPX, said it would conduct his
funeral in Albano Laziale, a town just outside of Rome. But the plans were
dashed after protesters, who blocked the path to the small church picked for the
funeral, kicked and rocked the car carrying Priebke’s remains until it reversed
course. Priebke’s body now lies in a military airport near Rome and will stay
there until an alternative plan can be worked out.
In the synagogue,
Riccardo Pacifici sparked strong applause from the crowd by praising the
protesters and Albano Laziale’s mayor, who took steps to block the
“For this,” Pacifici said, “we can be proud to be
Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish
Communities, rued the fact that Priebke managed to cast a shadow over the
anniversary even in death: “I do not wish to even utter his name, so as not to
profane this sacred day,” he said.
The ceremony was to mark the
anniversary of the deportation of 1,023 Roman Jews in a single day. Of that
number, only 16 returned to Rome after the war and of them only two are still
alive: Camerino and Lello Di Segni, now 87. They were teenagers when the
deportation took place and both are now frail.
Only Camerino appeared at
the ceremony and he did not speak. But his silent appearance was one of the
highlights, and the commemoration’s highprofile guests all greeted him
afterwards with great warmth.
Accounts say that it was raining early on
October 16, 1943 when the Nazi soldiers – freshly in charge of Rome after Benito
Mussolini’s Fascist regime was toppled less than three months earlier – began
bursting into homes and dragging off Jewish residents of the city.
small bronze markers cemented into the pavement in the streets outside identify
those homes, and the date remains the most important local anniversary of the
calendar of Roman Jews. Indeed, a street outside Rome’s main synagogue is named
“Largo 16 Ottobre 1943” to mark the date that Marino, Rome’s mayor, said the
city’s residents “should vow to never forget.”