The via Appia is well known for its catacombs, or underground burial chambers, where the first Christian martyrs were buried. St Sebastian’s catacomb is one of the most famous and maybe one of the most visited. However, just around the corner from it, is another place with an equally tragic story of martyrdom during World War II: the Fosse Ardeatine. There, the German occupation troops carried out a mass execution on 24 March 1944 as a reprisal for a partisan attack conducted the previous day in central Rome. It is now a National Monument and Memorial Cemetery for the 335 victims killed that day. I was on my own the day I visited it, and was struck by the heavy silence weighing on the place: the burdening silence of criminal death.
The partisan attack was directed at the Third Battalion of the SS Regiment Bozen marching through via Rasella, near the via Quattro Fontane in the centre of town. The soldiers walked the same route at the same time every day, so they were a relatively good target. They were mostly from the German-speaking province of South Tyrol in North-east Italy, a region deeply divided at the time between the people who wanted to keep their Germanic identity and those who wanted to belong to Italy. The partisans, disguised as street cleaners had planned to light up a TNT bomb hidden into a rubbish cart, just as the SS column walked past. They succeeded in the attack and in the blast, twenty-eight soldiers were killed, while the partisans managed to escape unscathed. As a reprisal, the German Armed Forces Commandant in Rome recommended the killing of ten Italians for each SS soldier killed. This was endorsed by Hitler, who ordered that the execution be carried out within 24 hours. The SS officers in Rome drew a systematic list of the victims needed with the intention of executing Italian prisoners already on death row. However, they soon realised that their number was too low. They had less than 200 names on the list.
One of the German officers suggested to make up the number with the 57 Jews held up in jail, and by noon on the 24th of March, they had a list of 271 victims, each with their crime listed next to their name, except for the Jews whose offense was just listed as “Jew”. In the meantime, more SS soldiers injured in the blast had died, bringing the death toll from the partisan attack to 32. So the SS commanders were looking for a list of 320 victims. The Italian chief of the fascist police, Pietro Caruso, more than willing to collaborate with the occupying forces, offered some Italians from his jails.
Eventually, a total of 335 victims, including civilians, prisoners of war and previously captured partisans, were taken and executed. They were shot from behind at close range inside the tunnels of a disused quarry on the via Ardeatina. While it happened, they realised they had too many victims, but they killed them anyway by fear of the news being spread. The officers were ordered to lead the doomed prisoners into the cave with their hands tied behind and have them kneel down so the soldiers could place the bullet directly into their brain, to use only one bullet per victim. Some members of the firing squad had never killed before, so the officers made sure they were completely drunk when carrying out their orders. Cases of cognac were delivered on site.
After the massacre, which took most of the day, the bodies of the victims were piled up and the cave sealed with explosives to hide the atrocity. The bodies were eventually found, exhumed and given a proper burial after the city was liberated by the Allies on 4 June 1944.