One day after admirers of Erich Priebke bid him a fond farewell in Argentina, members of the Italian Jewish community and victims organizations said that they would file suits against extradited former SS captain.
“We are not asking for a vendetta, but for justice,” said Rome Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff.
After 18 months of legal wrangling, Priebke was extradited to Italy to stand trial for his involvement in the 1944 massacre of 335 Romans – including 75 Jews, several Roman Catholic priests and three teen-agers – at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome.
The massacre, which was ordered in reprisal for the killing by partisans of 33 German soldiers, is regarded as the worst war crime committed on Italian soil.
Priebke, 82, was accompanied by a group of Italian Interpol agents and medical personnel when he departed Argentina on Monday for an 18-hour flight to a military airport outside Rome.
Heavy security lined the route Tuesday as the former Nazi was whisked away from the airport in a police van to the Forte Boccea military prison.
A preliminary hearing before a military tribunal is set for Dec. 7, when it will be decided whether enough evidence exists to send Priebke to trial.
The trial itself is expected to begin in the spring.
“This is probably going to be the last of the war crimes trials,” stemming from World War II, Shimon Samuels, European director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in an interview.
The Italian jet that brought Priebke to Rome – from his home in the Andean resort of Bariloche – took off from Argentina on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
Twelve high-ranking Nazis of 21 who appeared before the military tribunal were sentenced to death in those trials.
Priebke faces life imprisonment if convicted for the part he played in the wartime massacre in Italy.
Priebke was to have been tried after the war, but he escaped from a British-run prison camp in northeast Italy in 1946, and in 1948, made his way to Argentina.
In August 1946, he admitted to taking part in the massacre, as he did when interviewed by an American news team in Bariloche last year. It was the ABC “Primetime Live” team that discovered the former Nazi living under his own name as a respected citizen of Bariloche.
The scene surrounding Priebke’s departure from Argentina was in sharp contrast to his official arrival.
On the day of his departure from Argentina, a local Spanish-language community magazine, Bariloche Today, ran a cover story calling Priebke “our good neighbor and outstanding citizen” and said the Andean town – which resembles a German Alpine village – “hoped to have him back soon.”
Two Argentine police sergeants who accompanied Priebke to the Bariloche airport hugged and kissed the former Nazi officer before handing him over to the Italian authorities.
A day later, the two sergeants were relieved of duty.
In Italy, Priebke’s eventual trial is expected to open up old wounds and lead to new debates during a period of intense political change.
One of the country’s leading political parties, the National Alliance, has its roots in a neo-fascist party that was the postwar political heir of wartime Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
“Any of these trials – whether legal trials or an open discussion – has to be good if it gives a better understanding of what went on before,” said political scientist James Walston, a professor at Rome’s American University and secretary of the Rome-based Europe-Israel Association.
“Priebke is a small fish, but the fact of what happened is extremely important,” he said, “particularly in Italy, when a party that was in power in the last government [the National Alliance] and may get into the government again has a direct heritage of what went on then.”