ROME — Just months ago, the name of Erich Priebke lay in peace at the bottom of the world's memory hole. The former SS captain who has admitted his role in one of the worst atrocities in Nazi-occupied Italy was lost in the ether of the past.
"Nobody ever mentioned him," said Elvira Paladini, the curator of a small museum in Rome's old Gestapo headquarters, a dreary stone building where relics of the massacre, including the personal effects of the victims, repose touchingly in glass cases: a monogram from a fine, hand-tailored shirt, a rope used to bind a pair of wrists, a father's last letter to his son, urging him to always come home before curfew.
Now, Rome's Historical Museum of the Liberation teems with visitors and their questions, and a sense of expectancy is abroad that after five decades, the Priebke case will be tried at last.
If Priebke's trial begins today as scheduled in Rome, the 83-year-old may well be the last German ever prosecuted for Nazi-era war crimes.
A central, enduring lesson of the case, observers say, is the ease with which middle-ranking Nazis were able to elude apprehension after the war.
"We don't want to persecute him, but history is about the truth, and we want the whole truth to come out," said Paladini, whose husband, a wartime intelligence agent for the Allies, escaped death but had his ribs broken during torture sessions in an upstairs cell at the headquarters long ago.
Priebke, who slipped out of Europe in 1948 and resurfaced in Argentina only two years ago, is charged as a prime accomplice to the March 24, 1944, machine-gunning of 335 Italian civilians in retaliation for a Resistance bombing in Rome the day before that left 33 German soldiers dead. Hitler demanded 10 dead Italians for each dead German--and within 24 hours. Priebke is accused of shooting two and, significantly, of keeping the list of those to be killed.
No attempt was made to find the partisans who had tossed the bomb. The victims--most of whom were dragged out of prison cells, where they were awaiting sentencing on other Resistance-related charges--were roped together in small groups and herded into a quarry known as the Ardeatine Caves, south of Rome.
"As soon as the first 10 men went on their knees, the machine guns mowed them down," said Eric Weiss, a former British staff sergeant who, at the end of World War II, interrogated participating German soldiers and drew up a detailed account. "They toppled over and fell into a kind of trench, and then the next batch was marched in.
"To heighten their agony, they could see before them, down below, the bodies of those on whom they would fall seconds later. This went on and on, the whole night. The air was filled with the screaming of those who were on the verge of insanity when entering their tomb, and those who lay already on the heap of bodies but were only mortally wounded and not yet dead."
Weiss, retired and living in Portland, Ore., gave his notes to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles last year after an Argentine court ruled that Priebke could be extradited to stand trial in Italy.
The Ardeatine Caves atrocity may seem minor when compared with the Nazi record in, say, Poland, where millions died; as mass murders go, it is not even the biggest in wartime Italy. (That grim distinction goes to a German punitive operation around the village of Marzabotto, where as many as 1,800 men, women and children were killed.)
Nor were the quarry slayings necessarily of a piece with the Nazi plan of extinguishing European Jewry: Although about 75 of the victims were Jewish, almost all the rest were Roman Catholics. (Some of the victims remain unidentified.)
Nonetheless, the massacre is of huge emotional importance in Italy, where presidents each year still lay a wreath at the site, and where uncomfortable questions still are asked about the role of the Holy See in accommodating fascism.
And Paladini isn't the only observer hoping the trial will be a reminder to a world whose attention has moved on.
"The importance is not the fate of this 83-year-old man," said Tullia Zevi, an Italian Jewish community leader in Rome. "The importance of this is that we can interrogate the defendant, ask certain witnesses to appear and broaden the scope of the trial. It is our duty to document things as they were. This is important today, when the trend [in the apportioning of war guilt] is toward revisionism."
At the end of World War II, Priebke found himself in a British prisoner-of-war camp on the Adriatic coast. But he escaped with four other inmates and headed for the northern town of Vipiteno.
There, he lived unemployed for about a year. Asked who supported him, his lawyer, Velio di Rezze, credits "friends" the SS captain had made in wartime Rome, when he served as a liaison officer between the Vatican and the occupying German forces.