By Nicole Winfield / Associated Press
ROME – Italy on Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the roundup and deportation of Jews from Rome’s ghetto amid turmoil over the late Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke and his Holocaust-denying final statement.
Priebke died Friday in Rome, where he was serving a life term for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside the capital. It was one of the worst atrocities of Germany’s World War II occupation of Italy.
His death unleashed a torrent of emotion because he left behind a testament in which he not only defended his actions but denied that Jews were gassed in Nazi concentration camps.
His testament has enraged Rome’s Jewish community, which gathered Wednesday in Rome’s main synagogue to commemorate the Oct. 16, 1943, roundup of Jews and warn of the continued dangers posed by Holocaust deniers like Priebke.
The head of Italy’s Jewish communities, Renzo Gattegna, referred to Priebke in his remarks but refused, amid applause, to pronounce his name “to not profane this sacred place.”
He said the Nazis were assassins of innocents.
“Their followers are assassins of memory. They will never win,” he declared.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee passed a bill criminalizing such Holocaust denial — passage that was given greater impulse because of the outcry over Priebke’s final testament.
The head of Rome’s Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, said the uproar over Priebke has shown the “beautiful face of Italy,” given the solidarity by both civil and Catholic Church officials to deny him a church funeral.
The anniversary came during the continued debate about what to do with Priebke’s remains. Plans by a fringe Catholic church to celebrate a funeral Mass for him were called off Tuesday amid clashes between Priebke’s right-wing supporters and protesters.
Rome’s mayor and prefect announced that negotiations were underway with Germany to take in the remains, which reportedly were spirited out of the church compound overnight and taken to a military air base.
Wednesday’s commemorations began at 5:30 a.m. with the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn trumpet, to commemorate the moment when Nazi forces began rounding up more than 1,000 Jews from Rome’s ghetto and nearby neighborhoods.
The Jews spent two days in a military college before being deported by train to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived.