Italian President Giorgio Napolitano meets survivors of the deportation from Rome's Jewish ghetto.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano meets survivors of the deportation from Rome's Jewish ghetto. Photo by AP
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Italy marked the 70th anniversary of the round-up and deportation of Jews from Rome's ghetto on Wednesday, amid turmoil over the burial of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke and his Holocaust-denying final statement.

Priebke died on Friday in Rome, where he was serving a life sentence for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves, outside the capital. It was one of the worst atrocities during Germany's World War II occupation of Italy.

His funeral was called off on Wednesday, after demonstrators blocked the entrance to the church and mobbed the hearse carrying his body. An ultra-conservative sect, notorious for having Holocaust deniers among its members, offered to hold the funeral after the Catholic Church had denied Priebke a church funeral.

Priebke's death unleashed a torrent of emotion, not least because he left behind a testament in which he not only defended his actions, but denied that Jews were gassed in Nazi extermination camps.

His testament enraged Rome's Jewish community, which gathered Wednesday in Rome's main synagogue to commemorate the October 16, 1943, round-up of Jews and warn of the continued dangers posed by Holocaust deniers like Priebke.

Renzo Gattegna, head of Italy's Jewish communities, referred to Priebke in his remarks but refused, amid applause, to pronounce his name to avoid "profaning this sacred place." He described the Nazis as assassins of innocents.

"Their followers are assassins of memory. They will never win," Gattegna declared.

A committee of the Italian Senate passed a bill criminalizing Holocaust denial on Tuesday — legislation that had added impact in light of the outcry over Priebke's final testament.

The head of Rome's Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, said the uproar over Priebke and the solidarity by both civil and Catholic Church officials in denying him a funeral. had shown the "beautiful face of Italy."

Rome's mayor and prefect announced that negotiations were underway with Germany to take the remains, which reportedly were spirited out of the church compound overnight and taken to a military air base.

Wednesday's commemorations began early in the morning with the sounding of the shofar 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.