ROME — The head of Rome's Jewish community praised Italian protesters who blocked the funeral of a convicted Nazi war criminal as Italy marked on Wednesday the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Jews from the Rome ghetto.
Erich Priebke's final resting place is now unclear after the protesters forced a suspension of his funeral on Tuesday in the Italian town of Albano Laziale. His body is lying at a military airport near Rome pending a decision from the authorities.
The former German SS officer died aged 100 last week in Rome, where he had been serving a life sentence under house arrest for his role in the killing of 335 civilians in 1944 in caves near the capital, one of Italy's worst wartime massacres.
At a ceremony in Rome's main synagogue, the head of Rome's Jewish community drew loud applause as he lauded the citizens and mayor of Albano Laziale for resisting Priebke's funeral.
“For this we feel proud to be Romans,” President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, said at the event to mark the anniversary of the Nazis' rounding up of 1,000 Jews from Rome's centuries-old ghetto and their deportation to Auschwitz. Only 16 of them survived.
“I do not even want to say his [Priebke's] name, not to profane this sacred place,” said the head of Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna.
“He never repented of his crimes and repeated the most incredible arguments denying the Holocaust.”
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who attended the ceremony wearing the traditional Jewish cap, the kippah, said the event showed “great solidarity... between Catholics, Muslims, Jews, believers and non-believers”.
Priebke's body was moved to the military airport after anti-fascist protesters clashed with neo-Nazis on Tuesday in Albano Laziale outside the Italian headquarters of the Catholic Society of St Pius (SSPX), which had organized the funeral.
On Wednesday the SSPX, a fringe right-wing group which has strained ties with the Vatican, defended its decision to agree to hold the funeral for Priebke, saying a baptized Christian has the right to a proper burial “no matter what his sins”.
“We hereby reiterate our rejection of all forms of anti-Semitism and racial hatred,” the Italian branch of SSPX said.
The arch-traditionalist SSPX has been criticized for the extreme views of some of its members, including its former Bishop Richard Williamson, who embarrassed the Vatican by publicly denying the Holocaust.
Argentina, where Priebke lived after the war, has refused to accept the return of his body to be buried beside his wife.
Rome's mayor Ignazio Marino said his burial in the capital would be an “insult” and said he may seek help from the German government to find a solution.
Priebke's hometown in Germany has resisted a grave there, fearing it could become a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site.
A German foreign ministry spokesman told a regular news briefing on Wednesday he knew of no laws preventing a German citizen who had died abroad being buried in Germany, adding such matters were usually for the family of the deceased to sort out.
“It is in our interests that this case does not become something it shouldn't, namely an argument about the life of this man,” he added. “It would be nice if Mr. Priebke's remains could be laid to rest somewhere without it being used by anyone for political ends.”
Priebke was in charge of SS troops in March 1944 who executed civilians in the Ardeatine Caves in retaliation for the killings of 33 German soldiers by a partisan group.
Priebke was deported from Argentina to Italy after he was interviewed on U.S. television and admitted his role in the massacre, which he said had been conducted against “terrorists”.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Italy in 1998.