ROME — The Nazi war criminal responsible for Italy’s most notorious mass murder is currently enjoying a two-week vacation at a lake resort in the north of the country -- and Italians are outraged.
Erik Priebke, 92, was the SS commander in Rome in the spring of 1944 when Italian resistance fighters set off a bomb that killed 33 German soldiers. In a swift reprisal, the Nazi command ordered the execution of 10 Italians for every dead German.
On March 24, 1944, at a natural quarry on the Appian Way known as the “Ardeatine Caves,” Priebke supervised the execution by firing squad of 335 men and boys. That massacre remains the most deeply felt and symbolic wound of Italy’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis in World War II.
Priebke escaped to Argentina after the war and lived quietly in the ski resort of Bariloche until he was tracked down by a U.S. television crew in 1994. He was arrested and extradited to Italy for trial, and in 1997 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, at the age of 85.
A year later, Priebke’s lawyers persuaded the courts to allow him to serve out his sentence under house arrest in a Rome apartment bought for him by anonymous supporters. The courts agreed on the basis of his advanced age, poor health and minimal flight risk.
Now, because of “good behavior” over the past seven years, the ruling magistrate has allowed Priebke to have a two-week vacation from house arrest. Since last Sunday he’s been the guest of Dietrich Bickler, a 65-year-sculptor who owns a villa on the Lago Maggiore, a lake resort in the Lombardy region.
News of this vacation took a few days to spread, but now the locals in the town of Cardana di Besozzo are very upset.
Giovanni Martina, a member of the local communist party that is fueling the protest expressed his outrage to La Repubblica newspaper.
“We are indignant. We can accept that they allowed him house arrest in Rome. But not a lakeside vacation! That’s an insult. This is a land that produced many martyrs for the war of liberation. Let’s not forget that.”
The head of the Italian Jewish community offered more measured criticism, although he noted that Priebke has never expressed remorse for the killings.
“If, perhaps, he had simply said, ‘I’m sorry for the many innocents who died in those years;' or if he had at least tried to justify himself by saying that he didn’t have the power to do anything to save them. Then things might have been different," Amos Luzzatto said.
"But not like this. That’s why this 'reward-vacation' comes across like just one more affront.”
At government expense
The war criminal’s vacation also comes at some expense to the Italian government.
With four police officers on 24-hour shifts to guard the “prisoner,” and now to protect him from possible irate citizens, the holiday at the lake is ultimately being paid for by the Italian taxpayer.
Priebke’s lawyer, Carlo Taormina, dismissed the uproar as “sterile polemics,” but even the local representative of the ultra-rightwing Northern League party was furious.
“I’m stunned by Priebke’s presence in our town," Margo Reguzzoni said. "It’s like a hallucination. I think he should be in prison, not here. He’s extremely unwanted here. He committed horrible crimes. We can’t forget what he’s done.”
Stephen Weeke is NBC's bureau chief in Rome.