ROME (AP) — Italy on Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the roundup and deportation of Jews from Rome's ghetto amid deep anger over the late Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke and his Holocaust-denying final statement.
Priebke died Friday in Rome, where he was serving a life term for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside the capital. It was one of the worst atrocities of Germany's World War II occupation of Italy.
His death at age 100 has unleashed a torrent of emotion, because he left behind a document in which he not only defended his actions but denied that Jews were gassed in Nazi death camps.
His stance enraged Rome's Jewish community, which gathered Wednesday in Rome's main synagogue to commemorate the Oct. 16, 1943, roundup of Jews bound for Auschwitz and to warn of the continued dangers posed by Holocaust deniers like Priebke.
The head of Italy's Jewish communities, Renzo Gattegna, referred to Priebke in his remarks but refused to pronounce his name "to not profane this sacred place."
He said the Nazis were assassins of innocents.
"Their followers are assassins of memory. They will never win," he declared.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee passed a bill criminalizing such Holocaust denial — passage that was given greater impulse because of the outcry over Priebke's final words. The head of Rome's Jewish community, Riccardo Pacifici, urged full passage of the bill in Parliament.
Pacifici said the uproar over Priebke had at least one positive outcome in that it showed the "beautiful face of Italy." Both civil and Catholic Church officials in Rome denied Priebke a church funeral and burial, fearing such an event could have turned into a pilgrimage for neo-Nazis.
Those fears were borne out on Tuesday, when plans by a fringe Catholic church to celebrate a funeral Mass for Priebke were called off amid clashes between Priebke's right-wing supporters and protesters in the city of Albano Laziale, south of Rome.
There remained the question of what to do with Priebke's remains, which reportedly were spirited out of the Albano church overnight and taken to a military air base. Rome's mayor and prefect announced that negotiations were underway with Germany to take them.
In Berlin, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer confirmed there had been "informal contacts" with Italian authorities. He said he wasn't aware of anything that would prevent a German citizen from being buried in Germany but that it was a matter for Priebke's family and the Italian authorities to work out.
Wednesday's anniversary commemorations began at 5:30 a.m. with the sounding of the shofar, a ram's horn trumpet, to commemorate the moment when Nazi forces rounded up more than 1,000 Jews from Rome's ghetto and nearby neighborhoods and sent them by train to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived.
Two of them are still alive, including Enzo Camerino, 84, who was 14 when he, his mother, father, brother, sister and uncle were taken from their home at Viale delle Milizie near the Vatican.
In an interview Wednesday, Camerino told The Associated Press what happened next — a story he told Pope Francis in person during a private audience earlier in the day: how the family was kept at Rome's military college for two days, then taken by train and brought to Auschwitz in a railway car chock full of women, children and the sick.
"In the first years after, I didn't talk about it with anyone," Camerino said over coffee with his daughter Julia, who is named for his late mother. "Then we started going back to the concentration camps and I started to talk about the past."
He rolled up his sleeve to reveal the individual prisoner number that was tattooed onto the forearms of Auschwitz inmates: 158509. He also immediately recalled the prisoner numbers of his father and uncle, who both died in the Nazi death camp.
Asked how the recent furor over Priebke has affected him, Camerino said he felt little emotion but acknowledged the unfairness of life.
"For me, he never should have lived to be 100," he told the AP.
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.
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