Massacre in Rome – 1944
By Frank J. Korn
It was March, 1944…and the winter having spent itself, Rome’s trees and shrubs were dressing for spring. Members of the Resistance were eager for a major attack on the hated Nazi occupation forces when an idea had recently come forth. The Nazis were in the habit of parading through the center of the city each day at 2 p.m. as a vivid reminder to the populace of just who was in control. Normally, the parade route was down the Via Flamminia through the city to Nazi Headquarters at Via Tasso. The column of troopers numbered 156, marching three abreast to the beat of a drum.
The route of the parade had been scouted for weeks in the minutest detail by some of the partisans. They now knew just how many steps were required from one designated point to another, how many seconds it would take walking in normal fashion to get from the scene of the planned attack to the various proposed escape routes.
Via Rasella was selected because of its tranquility and lack of pedestrian traffic, particularly during the siesta hours. This street is lined with shops – barbers, tailors, artists et al – and paved with cobblestones. At No. 156 there is the Palazzo Tittoni, the elegant town house of Roman Senator Tittoni who had died in 1931. The house was still inhabited by his widow.
Volunteers were needed, thirteen in all, for this daring mission. The two lead roles went to Rosario Bentivegna, 21, a pre-med student and Carla Capponi, his fiancée. A powerful bomb had been readied by the group’s explosives expert with a fuse of sixty seconds duration attached. A grey blue sanitation worker’s uniform had been secured and a garbage can pushcart was stolen from the city yards near the Coliseum.
On the appointed day, Thursday, March 23, at one o’clock, Rosario pushed the cart onto the Via Claudia. The other 12 were already at or on their way to their stations near the Via Rasella. Carla – who some weeks earlier had daringly and single handedly blown up a truck and 2,500 gallons of gasoline at a Nazi depot was headed for the top of the appointed street equipped with a pistol in her purse and a man’s raincoat over one arm. At one point during the nerve-tingling wait she attracted the attention of Nazi detectives who wanted to know if she had her papers with her and why she was carrying a man’s raincoat on a balmy, cloudless day. Only the arrival of an old friend of her mother’s saved her from further investigation. She had all she could do not to betray herself.
Rosario pushed the cart around the ruined stadium – straining because of the excessive weight of the cart’s cargo. Years later when asked in an interview what his thoughts had been on the way, he related that while flirting with death, only one recurrent thought played on his mind and that was: “Rome is truly beautiful and I may never see her again.” He continued the strenuous climb until he eased his cart down Via Rasella to Tittoni’s. Along the way he had several close calls of being exposed. Many times the temptation to call off the whole thing and run was near overwhelming. But a more agonizing pressure was to come; for arriving there at ten minutes of two he had without realizing it, not ten minutes to wait but nearly an hour and a half, for inexplicably the punctual Nazis were late that day. Nervously he swept the street around him again and again. Carla paced anxiously at the top of the slope. The other 11 fidgeted while fighting panic. At about 3:10 a comrade brushed past the cart and mumbled: “If they don’t show in 10 minutes it’s all off.” This was the worst prospect of all, with the mere thought of criss-crossing the city again with the incriminating material enough to give anyone a stroke.
Suddenly in the distance could be heard a muffled drum and chanting of many male voices. Here they come! Now they were before the deserted Spanish Steps with the weeping Trinita Dei Monti looking down at Rome’s latest humiliation.
Louder grew the drums and the boots on the pavement and the singing voices and the beating of Rosario’s and Carla’s hearts – hearts which beat as one in love. Carla braced herself in the doorway of No. 158 Quattro Fontanne. With the front ranks already at Via Boccacio, Rosario received the signal to light the fuse. Trembling he touched his pipe to the stem, checked to hear if it had ignited and abandoned the hissing device – drowned out by the clangor of the doomed men – and walked – not too briskly lest he arouse interest – to the corner and to the safety of Carla’s arms and the raincoat she helped him to don. The two walked away from the impending catastrophe arm in arm like the lovers they really were.
Now when several lines had passed Palazzo Tittoni, the fuse had spent itself and triggered the bomb which went off with such incredible fury that it shook the surrounding area as bodies and parts of same flew through the air, facades of buildings cracked, cornices and window panes dislodged themselves and rained down upon the bomb’s victims – 33 dead, countless others maimed beyond recovery, mains burst and water mingled with blood in a gruesome cascade down over the cobblestones into Via Del Traforo whose tunnel had provided an escape route for some of the partisans.
At the bottom of Rasella other partisans tossed in some grenades. The rear ranks of the parade turned and opened fire at the windows of buildings behind them. Walk down the Via Rasella today and you will see that the pock marks caused by Nazi machine guns have never been filled in. This partisan act – which to our own day is viewed with mixed emotions by the Roman populace (“Stupid!” some call it. “Heroic!” others feel), was to precipitate a slaughter the likes of which even the worst days of pagan Rome never knew.
High German officials – General Kurt Malzer, the alcoholic “King of Rome,” very high – arrived on the scene in moments, while Col. Eugene Dollman, head of the SS in Rome, Col. Herbert Kappler, Malzer’s aide-de-camp and the head of the German Embassy, Consul E. F. Mollhausen, all tried calmly to get a handle on the whole incident. Malzer, in a drunken stupor as usual, became hysterical and ordered the entire block blown sky high along with its inhabitants. He was bundled off to his lair to sleep it off and to get him out of Kappler’s hair who saw himself as the most competent Nazi officer to deal with the matter. Kappler loved Rome as a second home and fancied himself a scholar of art, a connoisseur of wine, a bon vivant with the Italian signorine.
All the residents of the street were taken from their homes – the old, the young, the infirm – and forced to stand hands over heads for hours of terrifying, menacing and often physical interrogation. The attack of the Resistenza was judged to be such a serious act as to merit the attention and assessment of the Fuhrer himself. Reached at his headquarters in East Prussia, Hitler ordered 10 Romans killed for every Nazi fatality. This was less drastic than Heinrich Himmler’s order from Berlin to deport the entire male adult population of Rome to concentration camps in the north. Kappler reluctantly yielded to Hitler’s edict which specifically called for the reprisal to be completed within 24 hours.
Kappler decided to use all political prisoners sentenced to death; when informed that they numbered less than 100 he resolved to use all political prisoners. Failing even then by far to meet the awful quota, he called for an indiscriminate roundup of Roman males, with concentration on the long suffering Jewish ghetto. Some families suffered multiple losses. One Jewish family, the De Consiglios, lost five males: the grandfather, two sons and two grandsons.
An execution site had to be selected. While the aim was to teach the Romans a dramatic and traumatic lesson in the swiftness and ferocity of justice, a massacre of innocent people before the very eyes of the Romans might precipitate a revolt that even the Nazi war machine in the city could not handle. Kappler was informed of a labyrinth of caves, the Fosse Ardeatine caves just outside the city walls and he declared it ideal. The innocents were tied back to back in clusters of three and trucked to the site. They were led into the caves and each was murdered by one pistol shot through the back of the head. The task took many hours but the Butcher’s deadline was met. Witnessing the carnage from behind some pines at the Catacombs of San Callisto across the street where he served as a guide, was Father Bruno Brunori.
Nazi authorities warned the priest to stop intruding and he quickly complied – not from cowardice but because he was hiding hundreds of political enemies of the regime in the subterranean cemeteries of the martyrs. On March 25, mines were detonated to seal off the entrances to the caves. They remained sealed until the Americans liberated Rome.
A massive exhumation and identification of the bodies was soon undertaken. A few years later they were entombed on the site in one great mausoleum, under one massive tombstone. This, perhaps Europe’s most impressive war cemetery, was opened in 1949 to the public. It is particularly touching to see the families of the victims still coming to pray, to think and to decorate the graves with flowers.
Each of the tombs has a photo of the victim with an inscription of his name, age and occupation. One is marked simply: “Ignoto” (unknown). At the entrance to the indoor cemetery is a huge monument by the sculptor F. Coccia in 1950 of three men, one a mere boy, tied together with a look of bone-chilling fright on their faces.
Today, all is serene at Fosse Ardeatine. In the caves themselves are memorial chapels – one Jewish the other Catholic. In back of the cemetery there is a museum with grim reminders of the war and of that spring day 70 years ago.
It is altogether fitting, I think, that the martyrs of the Ardeatine Caves sleep eternally in the immediate area of the catacombs, the area made holy by the bodies of Christian martyrs of another mindless savagery, of another day. Requiescant in Pace.
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Frank J. Korn is the author of eight books on Rome.