News Analysis: Italy’s Jews Split over Twist in Priebke War Crimes Case

The case involving former Nazi SS Capt. Erich Priebke has taken more than a few dramatic twists and turns since he was discovered in South America more than a decade ago.

The latest act in the lengthy legal drama was played out over the weekend, when an appeals court in Rome, in a stunning revision of earlier verdicts, gave Priebke and another former Nazi officer life sentences for their involvement in Italy’s worst World War II massacre.

The verdict, though, left the Italian Jewish community divided. And media treatment of the affair raised concern in some quarters that the case was being regarded as a specifically “Jewish” issue.

Priebke and former SS Maj. Karl Hass received the sentences for taking part in the March 1944 massacre of 335 men and boys at the Ardeatine Caves near Rome.

Prosecutors said Priebke would continue to be held under house arrest, while Hass would remain free pending an expected appeal by the two to Italy’s highest court.

Priebke was quoted by Italian Television as saying he would also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The massacre was decreed by the Nazis as a reprisal for an Italian partisan attack that killed 33 German soldiers. While about 75 of the victims were Jews, the massacre was also clearly directed by the Nazi occupiers against the larger Roman community.

In the wake of Saturday’s verdict, and indeed throughout its coverage of the saga, the Italian media has focused largely on Jewish reaction to the case, fostering the impression that Jews were the only ones concerned with the trial’s outcome.

This impression has sparked anti-Semitic backlashes on a number of occasions.

In the latest instance, a Jewish woman who lost seven relatives in the massacre received anonymous telephone threats after she told a television interviewer that she was happy with the verdicts.

The sentence also opened a deep divide among Italian Jews themselves.

Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy, applauded the sentences, but indicated that she favored an act of clemency that would allow the 84-year-old Priebke to be freed from house arrest.

“For us, what counts is that an ethical and irrevocable principle has been affirmed: that there are no statutes of limitations for crimes against humanity.”

But, she added, “I don’t think that anyone would want an old man in his 80s to pass the rest of his days behind bars.

“At this point I could understand an act of clemency that would allow him to return to his family,” she said. “Priebke as a person doesn’t count anymore. What counts is this verdict, which has rendered justice and to which we must pay homage.”

Her view angered some Rome Jews, particularly a faction within the community that has taken on the role as a vocal defender of Jewish interests and whose members were prominent in earlier protests against Priebke.

“It is not Zevi’s role to express mercy, in the name of the Jews, for a Nazi criminal,” said Riccardo Pacifici, vice president of the Rome Jewish community.

Priebke had already been tried twice for his involvement in the massacre since he was discovered living in Argentina in 1984 and extradited to Rome 18 months later.

Military judges at the first trial in 1996 found Priebke guilty but set him free, citing a statute of limitations and other extenuating circumstances.

Friends and relatives of the victims, who heard the verdict read out while crowded into a corridor outside the courtroom, exploded into tears, curses and shouts of “Assassins!” and “Shame! Shame!”

Scores of protesters, many of them militant young Jews wearing kipot, prevented Priebke and the judges from leaving the courthouse for eight hours.

The public outcry led to Priebke’s rearrest.

The verdict was quashed, and Priebke was tried a second time last year, this time along with Hass, who is also in his 80s.

At the second trial, Priebke received a 15-year sentence. But this sentence was reduced to five years because of extenuating circumstances — and because of time already served, Priebke faced less than a year in jail.

At last year’s trial, Hass, who was a prosecution witness in Priebke’s first trial, was sentenced to 10 years and eight months for his role in the massacre, but was set free immediately due to extenuating circumstances.

Both men had appealed these verdicts in order to clear their names, but prosecutors also had appealed to get harsher sentences imposed.

Priebke reacted bitterly to Saturday’s verdict.

“The law is not equal for everyone,” Priebke told Italian Television.

During the proceedings against him, Priebke had admitted to killing two of the Ardeatine Caves victims and marking off the names of victims from a list. His defense was that he had just been carrying out orders.

The airmen who killed hundreds of thousands by dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and bombing Dresden also had “just been following orders,” he told Italian Television. “For all of this, no one served even a day in prison.”

Before the verdict was announced, Priebke read a 50-minute statement claiming he was being prosecuted as a symbol “of all the evils” of World War II.

“It doesn’t really matter who Erich Priebke is and what he has done,” he said in a statement to the court. “It only matters what he represents.

“Even Argentina, to which I gave 50 years of my life, has issued an expulsion order and doesn’t want me any more.

“Even Germany, where I was born, took away my passport and now wants to put me on trial for the things that it ordered me do 50 years ago,” he said.

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