Saturday, April 1, 2017

Le Fosse Ardeatine

Today's photos:

1. The monument at the entrance to the Fosse Ardeatine.

2. Via Rasella where the partisan attack took place.

3. Regina Coeli prison seen from the Janiculum hill.

4. The entrance to the caves..

5. The mausoleum where the bodies are buried.

6. The grave of the Catholic priest, don Pappagallo.

7. This marker recalls one of the martyrs from Trastevere.

8. President Sergio Mattarella at the site on March 24, 2017.

In the early afternoon hours of March 23, 1944, in a Rome brutally occupied by German military forces, a column of 160 German soldiers, while marching on Via Rasella (photo 2) in the center of Rome, was attacked by sixteen Italian resistance fighters. The attack, in the form of a bomb planted in a cart along the side of the street, resulted in thirty-two dead and thirty-eight wounded among the Germans.

All sixteen of the Italian partisans who had carried out the assault escaped unharmed. The attack was reported to Hitler who immediately ordered a terrifying reprisal: ten Italians were to be executed for every German killed, and the executions (320 total) were to be carried out within twenty-four hours.

The occupying German troops, under the command of SS Colonel Herbert Kappler, immediately began to round up Italians in order to carry out Hitler's orders within the twenty-four hour deadline. They first chose 270 prisoners from the infamous SS jail on Via Tasso near the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, and from the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere neighborhood (photo 3). Yet another fifty were taken from the Trastevere prison by the Roman police who were collaborating with the Germans. This brought the number to the "required" 320: ten Italians for each of the thirty-two Germans killed.

A curiosity

When it was learned that one of the wounded German soldiers had died, Kappler updated his list with another ten hostages, and for some unexplained reason added five more. This brought to 335 the total number of Italians to be executed. It is important to note that none of these 335 people had in any way been involved in the partisan attack the previous day. They didn't even know that the attack had taken place.

The 335 prisoners were secretly taken to the Fosse Ardeatine (photo 4) a series of caves on the southern outskirts of Rome near the Via Appia Antica, almost directly across the street from the Catacombs of San Callisto. Here they were systematically shot one at a time in the back of the neck; the bodies were piled up in the caves where they had been shot. Then the caves were dynamited in an attempt to conceal the bodies.

The following day the German command made public the news of the partisan attack and the executions, but they did not make available a list of the executed, or reveal where the killings had taken place or what had become of the bodies.

The horrifying nature of this reprisal came to light within three months after it happened. Several children, while playing in the caves, discovered one of the bodies and immediately informed the priests at the nearby Catacombs of San Callisto. The bodies were recovered and a memorial was built on the spot of the executions, including a vast burial vault containing the remains of all the dead (photo 5).

The victims were all male ranging in age from fourteen to seventy-five, representing many walks of life, including military, farmers, artists, office workers, teachers, students, laborers, professionals, a diplomat and a Catholic priest (photo 6). Seventy-three of the victims were Jews. In many of the neighborhoods in Rome today you can see plaques on the walls of buildings with the name or names of people from those neighborhoods who were among the martyrs. One such marker in the Trastevere neighborhood (photo 7) translates as follows:

On the 24th of March, 1944, Enrico Ferola died at the Fosse Ardeatine for an ideal of justice and freedom. The Action party, mindful, set up this memorial.

A curiosity

A cruel irony of this horrifying carnage which makes the episode even sadder and more tragic, is the fact that the city of Rome was liberated by the allies on June 4, 1944, just over two months after the slaughter. Had the liberation occurred two months earlier, neither the partisan attack nor the brutal reprisal would have ever taken place. Incidents like this are part of the bitter irony of history, the poignant "what ifs" of history.

On the site today you will find the mausoleum which contains the tombs of all the victims. Each of the graves of an identified victim is marked with the person's name, age and profession; some include a photograph of the victim. The tomb of the few who have not been identified are marked simply Ignoto (unknown).

Every year on March 14 there is a memorial ceremony at the site, attended by religious and government authorities. At the exact spot where the executions took place inside the caves is a poignant inscription, the translation of which is:

Here we were slaughtered as victims of a horrible sacrifice. From our sacrifice may a better fatherland arise, and a lasting peace among nations.

Photo 9 shows the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, standing next to the inscription.

In Chapter 10 of my book Rome: Sights and Insights, you can read related stories about this tragic episode, including the SS prison on Via Tasso, and two famous Italian movies, one of which tells the story of the Fosse Ardeatine; the other one tells the dramatic story of another heart-breaking incident which occurred in Rome at about the same time.


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