ROME – What to do with the body of a Nazi war criminal no one wants?
Rome’s mayor, police chief and the pope’s right-hand man have all refused to grant former SS captain Erich Priebke a church funeral in the city where he participated in one of the worst massacres in German-occupied Italy. Now there’s the added question of where to bury him, since Rome, his adopted homeland of Argentina, and his hometown in Germany won’t take him.
Priebke spent nearly 50 years as a fugitive before being extradited to Italy from Argentina in 1995 to stand trial for the 1944 massacre at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome, in which 335 civilians were killed. He died Friday at age 100 in the Rome home of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini, where he had been serving his life term under house arrest.
His death has raised a torrent of emotions over how best to lay to rest someone who perpetrated war crimes and denied the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews. It has tested the church’s capacity for mercy and forgiveness and its need to prevent public scandal. There is a seemingly intractable conflict between respect for the dead and that owed to the millions of victims of the Holocaust.
Rome’s archdiocese said Monday it had told Giachini to have the funeral at home “in strict privacy” and that Pope Francis’ vicar for Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, had prohibited any Rome church from celebrating it.
But Giachini refused, pressing instead for a private church Mass. The archdiocese responded by reminding all Roman priests that they must abide by Vallini’s decision.
Separately, Rome’s police chief and the government prefect for the capital announced they would prohibit “any form of solemn or public celebration” for Priebke because of public security concerns. Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino said the city would accept neither a church funeral nor a burial for him.
It was a rebuke by both church and state that was greatly appreciated by Rome’s Jewish community, which has long resented having Priebke living in its midst, particularly after he was granted small freedoms from his house arrest like going to church.
“Any demonstration of honor – civil or religious – would be an intolerable affront to the memory of those who fell in the fight for freedom of Nazism and fascism,” said the head of Italy’s Jewish communities, Renzo Gattegna.
During his trial, Priebke admitted shooting two people and rounding up victims in retaliation for an attack by resistance fighters that killed 33 members of a Nazi military police unit. He insisted he was only following orders.
In his final interview released upon his death, he denied the Nazis gassed Jews during the Holocaust and accused the West of inventing such crimes to cover up atrocities committed by the Allies during World War II.
Rabbi Riccardo Pacifici, chief rabbi of Rome’s Jewish community, suggested Priebke be cremated and his ashes dispersed in the air “like those of our grandparents,” the ANSA news agency reported. “He would be cremated while dead, unlike the millions of children who went into the ovens and for whom Priebke never had pity.”
In a telephone interview, Priebke’s lawyer said he never intended to make a political or public event out of the funeral, but said that as a practicing Catholic, Priebke deserved a Catholic funeral and burial.
“It’s a question of a right to religious liberty,” he said.
But not even Priebke’s adopted homeland of Argentina, where he lived in the mountain resort of Bariloche, would take him: Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said his remains wouldn’t be allowed in Argentine territory.
Giachini suggested Priebke might be buried in his native land, noting that he “really loved Germany.”
In Berlin, Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said a German citizen could be buried in Germany but that no request had been made by any family members about Priebke.
Priebke was born in Hennigsdorf, a small town north of Berlin. The town administration pointed Monday to local rules that give only residents a right to burial in its cemetery, German news agency dpa reported. Exceptions are possible in cases where people have family graves there, but the Priebke family doesn’t have any.
Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin and Mike Warren from Buenos Aires.
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