70 Years Later, Memory of Nazi Massacre Still Divides Some Italians – and Unites Others

The victims of the Ardeatine Caves murders included partisans, Jews, and a Sardinian folk star named Gavino De Lunas

The killing took hours. In groups of five, Italians seized by SS officers were lined up and shot, at close range, in the Ardeatine Caves, a disused pozzolana quarry on the southeastern outskirts of Rome—335 in total. The massacre was a reprisal for a partisan attack in central Rome on March 23, 1944, that left 33 German policemen dead. The very next day, the Nazi command in the occupied city ordered that 10 Italians be killed for every German.

The men and boys they brought to the Ardeatine Caves represented a cross-section of Italian society. There were military officers, clerks, butchers, professors, lawyers, peasants, shopkeepers, carpenters, street peddlers, students, drivers, artists—and even a Catholic priest. The oldest was in his 70s; the youngest, still a teenager. Overeager officers supplied five more than ordered, but killed them anyway, to keep the massacre secret.

Some were taken from prisons, where they had been jailed for resistance activity, but many others were simply rounded up from the street to make the numbers and carted off to the caves. About 75 of those killed were Jews, some already jailed for various reasons, but others were innocents taken right off the streets; by the twisted logic of the Nazis, they were seen as fair game, since they were marked for death anyway.

Bodies piled up on bodies, with each group forced to kneel with their hands tied behind their backs in front of the last quintet to be shot. When it was over, the Nazis set off explosives to seal the caves. The bodies were exhumed after the war, identified, and reinterred within a monument complex at the site of the killing, now the most notorious atrocity the Nazis committed in Italy.

The victims are often described as martyrs, and the anniversary of their death is marked each year by solemn commemorations. But today, 70 years later, the episode still divides Italians, some of whom regard the partisans who attacked the German police as anti-Fascist heroes, and others who place blame on them for triggering the retaliatory murders at the Caves. It is, as the scholar Alessandro Portelli has described it, “an intensely remembered and dramatically mis-remembered event.”

Passions flared last October, when Erich Priebke, the former SS captain who helped organize the killings and personally shot dead at least two victims, died in Rome. Priebke, who had been discovered living in Argentina and was deported to Italy in 1995, was serving a life sentence under house arrest for his role in the killings. He was 100 years old and utterly unrepentant and unapologetic. In a birthday video interview given a few months before his death, he declared himself still faithful to Nazi ideology, blamed Jews themselves for the Holocaust, and denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers, saying the West had “invented” this narrative as propaganda in order to whitewash their own World War II crimes.

The Vatican issued an unprecedented ban on holding a funeral service for him in Rome, and Argentina and Germany refused to take his body for burial, fearing his tomb could become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis. The ultra-traditionalist Catholic splinter group the Society of St. Pius X eventually organized a funeral outside Rome—but the event provoked angry clashes between pro-Priebke Nazi sympathizers and hundreds of protesters shouting “murderer” and “executioner,” which eventually forced its suspension. Priebke’s body was held in limbo for days at a military air base and then, according to news reports, was buried anonymously in a disused cemetery at an unidentified Italian prison.

In December, I visited a woman named Barbara Cole, who lives part-time near the small town of Todi, in central Italy. Over lunch, she told stories about her family and especially about her grandfather, a colorful Sardinian folk hero whose life history she has been piecing together from family documents and other sources.

Cole’s father was a British airman who met her mother, a local beauty queen, while he was stationed in Sardinia after World War II. Cole herself was raised in England and has only begun exploring her Sardinian heritage in recent years.

Her mother’s father, she told me, had been a well-known Sardinian poet and folk singer named Gavino Luna, who had gone by the stage name Gavino De Lunas. Though little-known outside Sardinia, he was famous on the island, especially in his hometown of Padria. Gavino cut records, played guitar, was photographed wearing traditional Sardinian folk costume—complete with tasseled hat—and published his lyrics in print.

As a day job, he worked for the Italian postal service, based in post offices in Cagliari, L’Aquila, and Rome. He was wounded fighting for Italy in World War I, and during World War II he worked in Rome for the underground anti-Fascist resistance. In early 1944, Gavino was employed at the main post office in Rome, but he also secretly helped carry out acts of sabotage—such as cutting phone lines and laying explosives. “He had great passion and hated that the Germans were taking over his country,” Cole told me.

He was arrested on Feb. 26, 1944, when German police raided the apartment he shared with two friends who also worked in the resistance, and according to Cole he was betrayed by one of his Sardinian compatriots. One friend was shot dead, and the other escaped. Gavino was taken to the notorious prison at the SS headquarters in Via Tasso, where he was tortured. Less than a month later, he was among those herded into the Ardeatine Caves. He was 48 years old at the time and one of nine Sardinians killed in the Caves. On lists of victims, he is identified as a post office employee, not as a musician.

The coroner’s report, issued months after the massacre when the bodies were exhumed—and reprinted in a biography of Gavino published in Sardinia in 2005—describes him as “Corpse 59.” It says he was found lying on his right side with his hands tied behind his back. He was wearing black leather shoes with rubber soles and had false upper teeth. His pants were held up by two handkerchiefs tied together. He had black, smooth hair that was worn “rather long.” Cause of death was a bullet that had passed through his skull, from an entry wound at the nape of his neck.

“We learned very early on, as soon as we could understand, that he died in the Caves,” Cole told me, but until fairly recently she had known little else about him except for the fact that he was a singer. “He wasn’t around much, and my mother never really knew him,” Cole told me. “We had his records and would sometimes listen to them; my grandmother would listen to his music and cry.” The family story—impossible to verify—is that he had actually suffocated to death in the Caves under the weight of other dead bodies of those shot after him.

Cole gave me access to boxes of files and documents about Gavino that she inherited from her aunt, who died in 2007. I spent several hours sifting through yellowing papers, reports, news clippings, letters, certificates, photographs, and other material. One of the documents was a typewritten eyewitness account of Gavino’s arrest, written by the friend who managed to escape the Nazis. Another was an official notice of his death released by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications; another certificate identified him as a “partisan combatant fallen in the struggle for liberation.” There were also copies of recording contracts, poems, and a CD made from his songs.

Gavino De Lunas’ body still lies with the other victims under a granite slab in the memorial cemetery that is part of the Ardeatine Caves monument. But, Cole told me, one of her goals is to have it disinterred and bring it for reburial in Padria; she has bought a plot in the local cemetery and plans to start building a family tomb this summer. For this, she has the backing of the town, which since 2000 has honored Gavino with an annual poetry contest and festival. “They are very keen,” Cole told me, “to keep his memory alive.”

By Ruth Ellen Gruber